Chapter Five: She Had to Go
“We might exist there, but should we really live there?”
— Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front
We were chilling in the Cut just after the Christmas holiday. It was pretty warm for Maine. The gulls were more active than we were. There were at least four guitar players in the alley, and two guitars, but not one person playing. We were just sitting there talking about nothing of significance, aside from my likely move to the Southwest. Nobody wanted me to go, but nobody expected me to stay. I had been offered a place where it was warm and dry. Roger, from Maine Homeless Veterans Alliance, had brought me the news.
“Your sister wants you to come home.”
“Arizona,” Roger replied, matter-of-factly.
“I’ve never been to Arizona,” I said. “She’s been out there almost two decades, but I’ve never seen the place.”
“Well, maybe it’s time.”
My sister had invited me to visit through the years, and I’d considered it before, but I had never considered it a place to call home. I just wanted to see the Southwest, not become a bandito. I was a pirate.
Trake, the only one moving, marched back and forth in front of the rest of the Crew like a soldier guarding a small group of POWs: Foxy, Jeremy, Handsome Bob, the Griz. Then into the Cut strolled Latino Mery. She had been helping Roger with his Maine Veterans Alliance work.
The first time I ever met Latino Mery she was sitting on a bench at the Resource Center looking like she just didn’t belong there. She was far too pretty, too exotic. She had clear, healthy skin and healthy, radiant hair. She was wearing a sundress, which appeared to be brand new, and pretty white flip-flops with little flowers on them, and she had the cutest little feet and toes. When she smiled with her perfect, porcelain-white pearls I had to take a closer look. They were definitely her original teeth. She was an oddity on the Block, glittering like a jewel in the murky ghetto swamp of the courtyard.
Someone else noticed her, too. He was one of the real smooth talkers of the Little City. Before even introducing himself, he simply asked her to marry him. What a line. I wish I was that witty. She gave him that sardonic smile beautiful girls with class sometimes employ when they don’t want to reduce themselves to the level of the loser by just coming out with, “Go fuck yourself.” The smile said it for her. Then she looked at me.
“What a jerk,” she said. “I probably get like five of them proposing to me every time I come back here.”
“I might’ve proposed to you myself,” I said, “if I had anything to offer.”
She smiled hesitantly, uncomfortably. I tried to lessen her discomfort with another joke: “If I were to propose, I’d have to propose I moved into your place.”
She didn’t find me funny. They say when you laugh, the whole world laughs with you. That’s only if they get the joke. She didn’t.
That was during my first week on the Block, and seemed like a long time ago.
“I figured I’d find you here,” she said.
“Hey,” I replied.
“I need you to come with me.”
I would have gone with her anywhere, without question. I was curious, though.
“Oh no,” said Foxy. “You came to take him to Arizona. He’s leaving us.” He was visibly upset. Was that a tear in his eye? It was. He was actually welling up.
“No, I just need him for a couple hours,” she promised.
“What’s up?” I asked, curiouser.
“You’ll see,” she teased. “Just come with me.”
When we walked around the corner to Commercial Street there were cameras, microphones, a TV news van, a whole television news crew. They asked me for an interview. Now I knew why Roger asked me to sign that release. I was a human interest all of a sudden: a real-life Homeless Man, caught red-handed showing feelings of an almost human nature, a Homeless Man who loves his Mother. And Roger (not Waters, or Penrose) was milking the cow.
I agreed to the interview. I wanted to mention all the various agencies that helped us daily. “It’s amazing,” I said, to receive assistance from so many people: Preble Street, and Milestone — especially the Home Team — and Amistad, and Opportunity Alliance. I was trying to get across that it takes a village to raise a human back to feeling human after swimming like a gutterfish for so long, when I spied, from the corner of my eye, a young, pretty woman walking toward me, while I was still on camera.
I was puzzled and couldn’t imagine who this was. I was aware they were selling a story, the more sentimentally spectacular, the better. I looked more closely, attempting to place the face. I realized it was my own daughter, my “elder” child, my Rachel.
“Oh, my God!” I shouted, grabbing hold of my greatest treasure. It was a one-armed embrace, because everything I owned was in my other hand. I was instinctively protective, but I hugged her. And they got the footage necessary to make the horrors of the world seem worth watching at 6 and 11. After all, the world’s not all bad. Even animals don’t usually eat their young. This homeless Beast loved his Mother and his daughter! And its sister loved the Great Beast enough to welcome it back into the fold. I was going to Arizona. And all because Roger had helped me.
When the story aired it had been spliced to appear as if, when asked how I felt about “the MHVA making all this possible,” I’d replied, “It’s amazing.”
That was all she wrote. My grand acceptance speech had been edited to two words and placed where it worked best for their angle. This story wasn’t about helping people. It wasn’t about a father-daughter reunion. It was about news. It was about marketing. It was about money.
The MHVA had footed the bill to entice Rachel to drive from Bangor to Portland for this fabulous family reunion. They paid for the gas and gave her twenty dollars to take me to lunch. We went to McDonald’s, and I paid. I had a collection of gift cards for the place from busking and spanging. The only McDonald’s in Portland are at the edge of the West End and outer Forest Ave., both miles from the Old Port. I pretty much only left the Port if they took me to jail. I would use a card every time I got released (the jail is near the West End one), but that happened about every two weeks, and I got about two cards every week.
So I figured I might as well spend the cards so Rachel could keep the twenty. As we sat at a pastel-colored table, we did some catching up. After a bit, Rachel decided to pop the question.
“Dad,” she began, in her own curious tone, “don’t you think they’re using you?”
I could have said they were using her. “Of course they are,” I answered. “The way I see it, is that I’ve been used for a lot of things – my money, my drugs, my body, my home when I had one – but if they want to use me and it helps homeless veterans somehow, who cares? That’s a good thing. And we get to spend the day together.”
After lunch I took her on the homeless tour of the Little City. I took her to the Resource Center, the Point, the ferry terminal and, of course, the Cut. I even took her to Molly’s, where she met the girls working in the store. They all knew me by name and were absolutely thrilled to make my daughter’s acquaintance. I also introduced her to a group of old fishermen having coffee together in the place as “the toughest guys in Portland,” and they all growled like pirates to confirm it. (These guys were twenty or thirty years older than me and in far better condition. They really were the tough guys in town, those old captains.)
And she met Mark Stephen Thompson, a.k.a. Trake. We found him in the Cut, where the three of us watched the night divide the day. I predicted my wharf cat’s arrival within five minutes of when he (or she?) rolled through, having even described the exact path its steps would follow. I pointed to the places where the Big Dipper, Orion, the Pleiades, and the moon would be if it hadn’t been overcast, and when the clouds broke, they were all there. This was my calendar and my clock in those days: The Heavens.
Rachel had a long drive to get home and couldn’t stay late. She had to go. When she left, she left me the twenty. Another man might have been angry, or another man might have been hurt. I felt awkward. But I should have been spanging hours before, so I took the bill.
Chapter Six: Home Again, Homeless Again
“After this affair the sticky, close atmosphere works more than ever on our nerves.”
— Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front
After my human-interest story aired, certain people began to cruise the Little City to see if they could find me. A few of them did. One such person was another former roommate of mine named Jen. She and her two teenage daughters, Hannah and Haylee, rolled up on me unexpectedly in the Cut. They were there to take me home. This seemed like going home more than going to Arizona did, so I went.
Hannah wanted to buy a new glass piece before we left the city, so I brought them to Freak Street. I figured since I squatted downstairs I should bring some business upstairs if I could. She got a nice percolating bong (I have no idea what that means), and Haylee (shhh — she was underage) picked out a Hey Kitty bowl. It felt weird seeing the kids shop for pot paraphernalia, but not as weird as being right above the Dungeon.
I hadn’t been indoors in a very long time, other than jail, and to be quite frank, was nearly feral. The first night I was there, my kids came down from Bangor to visit. The next morning Rachel addressed me.
“Dad, I’m worried about your breathing. I think you may have sleep apnea. Your respiration repeatedly stopped through the night and…” She paused, apparently searching for a way to express something uncomfortable. “Dad… in the middle of the night you just… launched a lungi right across the room. I tried to find it to clean it up, but…”
She sort of trailed off and I was glad, because that was awful humiliating.
I stayed with Jen and the kids for almost five weeks; basically, the month of January. It was a real sweet setup at first. I slept on the couch, maybe fifteen feet from the bathroom. I had Wi-Fi and an iPad to surf the ’net. She fed me, bought me a pack of cigarettes every day, and a half gallon of gin every other day. She and my buddy James even bought me a guitar. It was the first one I’d owned since before I got out of jail and discovered all my belongings were gone forever.
But the girls began to argue and I could understand why. I was there all the time, just drinking and playing guitar. I wasn’t doing anything to bother them, but I wasn’t doing anything at all, which probably did bother them. Personally, I couldn’t handle that sort of family structure anyway, even as loose as it was. So rather than weigh down either them or my conscience, I decided to go back to the street. They dropped me off in Monument Square and I haven’t seen Jen or the girls since.
Charlotte had aged. It had been several years and I almost hadn’t recognized her. But there she was in Monument Square, standing right in front of me. That uncomfortable feeling I get hugging someone — there’s a handful of people who don’t illicit that sensation. I could list them; I have Google Docs and know how to make a list. So sure, why not?
- My daughter, Rachel
- Mark Stephen Thompson
That’s it. Every other person on the planet is going to kindle some smoldering insecurity my ego has been smothering but just can’t snuff. From my son would come a sense of shame; my other daughter, a sense of guilt. My mother would bring alienation; my sister, awkwardness. Toni would stir anxiety and apprehension. Then there’s people who spark only a sexual response; and a few, such as Toni, who deliver a blend of all the mixed emotions that can twist a personality or shape a soul.
But Charlotte is just good people, a spirit with whom I’ve felt a kindred bond. Time and distance have no bearing on these bonds. They are not bound by anything. They are limitless and free.
She wanted to buy me lunch, so we went to the liquor store — well, the Portland Public Market House. It’s actually a food court, but in the days of these stories it had a liquor store, too. The clerks seemed surprised when I walked right by and went upstairs with a normal person, without buying a bottle of gin.
We ate at a soup place. She asked what I’d been up to and I gestured to my gear — backpack, sleeping bag, guitar; all of my belongings. “Carrying the world on my shoulder, Cha. Well, my world, anyway.”
“You’re right on the street, huh?”
“Sleeping on bricks and stone,” I said. “How’s Kate? I haven’t seen either of you since before the wedding. You’re not divorced…”
“No, she’s awesome, man. I couldn’t be happier.”
“Man, that’s great to hear. It’s always good to feel like that whole relationship thing is possible. I ran into your friend.”
“The one from ‘The Six String Strangler.’ She was tending bar at Amigos.”
When I first met Charlotte, she was tending bar at Jimmy the Greek’s. We worked together. She was one of the Jimmy’s Originals, and a lot could be said for originality. She was an artist, and artists have the same innate ability to spot one another as members of other subcultures — Deadheads, skinheads, bums; one of the more funny examples being gaydar. You know who’s really hard to spot? Straights. Normal people. I keep looking and haven’t noticed any.
Charlotte used to tease me: “I would have figured you for Megadeth, maybe the Sex Pistols. I can see the Grateful Dead. But U2? Natalie Merchant? Indigo Girls? You’re like a lesbian trapped in a man’s body.” Charlotte was into Iggy Pop and The Velvet Underground. I’m more Ziggy Stardust. But all these worlds are still one Universe, and the Cosmos is diverse.
She’d visit the BBQ shack sometimes after her shift and I’d play guitar, if I could get the damn thing tuned. That’s the burden of the better ear: the more finely one must tune. And that’s one thing I envy about punk rockers: they don’t fucking care about tuning. But I’d just keep turning those pegs and popping harmonics, cross-referencing fifths and octaves, attempting to achieve ever finer, deeper precision, like an artificial intelligence obsessed with the perfect circle, figuring pi to a distant depth of decimals, spiraling infinitely inward, always approaching that impossible dream but never catching it.
“So what are you doing these days?” I asked. “Still making films?”
“I work for a video-editing company right here on Congress Street.”
“Oh, sweet. It’s always good to hear someone is doing something she was schooled for.”
“Yeah, it is pretty sweet.”
I have a few friends who have been successful as artists. To get paid for your art is how we measure that, I suppose. So it was good to hear she was working, even if she wasn’t being featured at Sundance that year.I was back on the Block about ten minutes when Chowdahead and George Merrill offered to smoke me up. We sat down on a stoop and just as I lit the pipe the guitar fell over. It wasn’t until I got back to the Resource Center and offered to let Chowdahead play the instrument that he pointed out how the neck had shattered in the fall. It was a break right at the headstock spreading out in about six directions. She was dead.
In the evening I ran into Joe Blaze. He was in a sober house when I left for Jen’s but had simply had enough of sobriety, I guess. We were both back on the streets. Joe is a big fan of my music and has an uncanny knack for remembering lyrics. I can play him an original song, even one I just wrote, and after a single listen he’ll know all the words.
Blaze was adamant: he was buying me a new guitar. So the next day we went to Guitar Grave and he picked up a Jasmine for a hundred dollars. She earned her money back that very day, and then some. Walking from Congress Street to Commercial I had two hundred-dollar hits. A new axe, two new songs, a good gimmick and a good buzz. A scenario for success:
“My good buddy Joe just bought me this guitar,” I’d announce.
Blaze would bow his head in humility and shrug. “I can’t have my good friend go without if I can help him.”
And I’d keep barking: “What a great instrument for a mere hundred dollars! I’ll play you a million-dollar song on a hundred-dollar guitar for one dollar! I wrote it myself.” Every line was directed at another passerby, my eyes attempting to catch theirs in hopes of drawing them in — all night, past closing time at the bars.
I finally met the “Sherpa” everyone referred to when they called the bench at the Point, in front of Old Port Tavern, “Sherpa’s Point.” Joe Blaze and I happened to be sitting at the Point when Amanda and CJ strolled up. She was all excited because Sherpa was back. I didn’t know the guy, and couldn’t possibly see how anyone could be excited about a person having to return to the street, especially if you like him. If I like people, I miss when they aren’t around anymore, but I’m always glad they’re gone. No one should have to live like we did.
“Sherpa!” she suddenly screamed.
It startled me. I looked up to see Amanda practically squeezing the life out of Rick. I hadn’t seen him since that Thanksgiving Day he walked off with Jackie.
“Rick?” I said. “Rick is Sherpa?”
It was pretty unlikely I’d be going to Arizona. The more I thought about it, the less I liked the idea. First of all, I didn’t like the thought of living off my sister. Secondly, I didn’t like the images I’d seen on TV of the “Tent City” run by Sheriff Joe in the desert — not with my record. And last but not least, I figured if I didn’t find a way to make it on my own soon, I never would. I’d always be living with my sister, or living off someone, somewhere; not symbiotically, but as a parasite.
Chapter Seven: Mr. Charlie
“Formerly I lived just the same way myself, but now I feel no contact here.”
— Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front
Charlie was one of the friendliest dogs I ever met. He was a really big chocolate lab, a beautiful dog in every possible way. The only things I ever saw him bark at were bigger dogs and squirrels: the former, because he was a big dog, an Alpha; the latter, because he loves squirrels. (Trake learned that the hard way when Charlie got away from him once.) I never saw him catch one, but the thrill of the chase was most likely his motivation. I think he might have loved one to death had he caught it. He was just that kind of canine. He was Amanda’s dog, but he was the crew’s mascot. Mr. Charlie was our friend. He walked with us, ate with us, and slept with us. I always tried to get next to him to sleep, because he was like a heater.
Mark and I were sitting at the Point with Mr. Charlie when three young, pretty women approached us and asked me to play for them. I have no idea what I played, but they gave me a couple of twenty dollar bills, and whatever else they gave to Mark. So I guess I did OK.
Then they asked us what we really needed. I said I needed about forty thousand dollars just to be broke, but was extremely grateful for the forty. One of the ladies wanted to know if Charlie needed food. We told her we had half a dozen cans of Alpo and a fifty-pound bag in the bushes by DiMillo’s. It turned out she worked at DiMillo’s. She told us if we went to the restaurant the night they served their twin-lobster dinner, she’d buy us each one. The night of the special came and we dutifully arrived, but I had Charlie with me. I used him as my excuse for not going in.
The truth is, I’d planned it that way. I’d feel terribly uncomfortable in any sort of social situation, especially dining in a place as nice as that. But Mark enjoyed it, and Charlie and I went and got a pastrami sandwich from Molly’s. Well, I had pastrami. Charlie had bacon. As a matter of fact, Charlie had The Bacon Connection: If we got there at closing, the girls always gave him the leftover stash in the deli. He didn’t even have to pay, the lucky dog!
People always worried about Charlie, which seems strange to me. Amanda and Charlie lost everything and ended up in the streets. They shouldn’t have to lose each other too. I suppose passersby assume the people fucked up their own lives; the pet shouldn’t have to suffer, just us. But the dog wasn’t suffering in any way. That dog was good for temperatures way colder than we can handle, and he ate better than we did. I carried multiple cans of Alpo in my backpack and we always had a stash. We had to mix it with his dry food or he wouldn’t eat it. I even had to tell people to stop feeding him pizza and French fries. A little people-food is OK, but a dog can’t live on bread alone, and pizza is mostly bread.
What I found strange wasn’t people’s concern for the dog — that makes sense to me. How can people have a complete lack of concern for other people?
“Has he had water?”
“Is your dog hungry?”
“Is the dog cold?”
No. But I am.