Chapter One: Freak Street
“Enforced publicity has in our eyes restored the character of complete innocence in all these things.”
— Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front
When you’re homeless and sick, you’re still homeless. There’s no bed to recuperate in. We were in the Dungeon, beneath Freak Street. It was 15 degrees Fahrenheit inside and out, but at least we were out of the wind.
To get into this place you had to open a bay door that rolled up like a garage door. There were two short flights of stairs to the basement. The floor was the bed. It was concrete and cold. I laid one blanket on the floor and covered up with another. My backpack was my pillow. If I had a guitar, the guitar would be my pillow. This night, it was the backpack.
There was a drain down there that worked. It was my bathroom. You could piss in it. If you had to shit, you had to travel. If it was after five in the morning, you could hike to the terminal roughly half a mile away. Before five, you’d have to make it to Circle K, which is over a mile away. Or go outside, which seemed unacceptable to me. But sometimes it’s unavoidable.
Ryan and Kristen were the ones who first brought me to Freak Street. They must have found a better spot, maybe a warmer floor. They didn’t come here anymore. The Dungeon had become my winter house. Some nights I had to share the space with junkies who’d go down there to shoot up. If they kept to themselves it didn’t bother me much. I’d been on the needle for years. Clean now, but no better than them. I’m a junkie too, just in remission.
I developed a respiratory problem in September. Now it was December and it had only gotten worse. I was having trouble breathing indoors, and I wasn’t breathing very well outdoors, either. I’d gotten the flu shot, but apparently it hadn’t helped.
This particular night, I was sick as hell, burning up with fever and nauseous, with severe abdominal cramps. I felt like a bag of shit on a stoop that somebody lit on fire and ran from, forgetting to ring the bell — no one would be stomping out the flames.
I was probably drunk, but not very. My condition wouldn’t allow it. I had to drink or I’d be even sicker, but I couldn’t keep much in me, just enough to prevent detoxing. Every time I dozed off, a sharp stomach cramp awoke me. I knew I was groaning, but I couldn’t help it. I wondered if the groaning bothered anyone. No one bitched. They all knew how sick I was. Even Trake was worried about me, and he doesn’t worry about much.
We’d retired for the night earlier than usual, due to intense wind chill. Amanda and CJ were in a little cubby hole. Mark and I were in the main area of the basement with Mr. Charlie between us, his warmth and snuggles comforting both of us. That dog was plain good company.
I got up to pee and heard the wind howl outside, rattling the bay door. I felt grateful to have the Dungeon. I stood over the drain and started to drain myself. Glancing toward the cubby hole, I saw Amanda straddling CJ and having quite a ride. The thought of these two being that horny, even in this icy dungeon, amused me.
“Well, that’s pretty hot,” I observed.
Amanda giggled, so I started laughing, which sent me into a coughing fit, and then it hit me and I lost control of my bowels.
I screamed for Trake.
“What?” Mark warbled, startled. “What’s going on?”
“I shit my pants.”
Mark didn’t say another word. He jumped up and started getting my boots off me, my socks too, and my pants, both pairs, and my thermal underwear. I didn’t have any regular underwear and now I was bare. Then he grabbed a plastic shopping bag and started wiping me as best he could.
Here I was in my winter house, barefoot on the cold concrete, naked from the waist down in front of my friends in the middle of the night, having to be wiped by an old man in places I would have been embarrassed to be seen by my mother. Even Charlie should have been disgusted with me. I was.
But Charlie wasn’t. Nobody was but me. Amanda and CJ dug around in their stuff and found socks. They also gave me a pair of pants. I couldn’t get them buttoned up — CJ is skinny and I’m fat — but I got them on, at least enough to cover the illegal parts.
What would I have done if I was alone?
I don’t know. I suppose I would have had to wear my wet, shit-soaked clothes outside. I certainly couldn’t stay down there. You have to be out of these places before the crack of dawn if you want to go back to these places in the cold of night. If you go outside in 15 degrees Fahrenheit and high winds and you’re wet — it doesn’t matter with what — you will die. I’m not saying you’ll die of embarrassment. You will die.
Chapter Two: Last Call
“Today we would pass through the scenes of our youth like passengers.”
— Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front
A familiar van pulled over in front of me, a gray minivan with yellow emergency lights and two small American flags mounted on the hood above the headlights. It was Roger, the guy who worked for the Maine Homeless Veterans Alliance. They did outreach in the streets, mostly at night. Roger drove around giving out socks and gloves and blankets, articles someone sleeping outside might need. I’m not a veteran, but we were fairly familiar with one another. He’d seen me on the streets enough.
I was sitting on the cold granite wall of Buoy Park, in front of the Casco Bay Lines ferry terminal. I was CTO’d from the terminal and the park, plus about half of Commercial Street, but too tired of it all to care. It was December 23rd, my mother’s birthday, and I wanted to wish her well.
“Kenny,” Roger said, “why so glum?”
“I’m not glum, so much, not really. It’s my mom’s birthday and I have no way to call her.”
“Why don’t you use my phone?” he volunteered.
“Are you sure? I don’t have her number. I’d have to call my daughter to get it.” I didn’t want to be a burden. I knew Roger had other people to help, people who probably had far greater problems than mine at that moment.
“I insist,” he said. “A man’s mother is very important. Call her.”
So I phoned my Rachel, my “elder child.” She was excited to hear from me. It had been awhile. I didn’t want to cut the conversation short, but I had to explain why I was calling. She gave me her grandmother’s number.
“Hello.” It was my mother’s voice.
I figured she’d be surprised to hear from me, perhaps more so than Rachel. I lived within a few miles of my mother for 40 years or more, but we were never close. For most of her life, Rachel and I have been separated by hundreds of miles, yet in many ways I’ve never felt closer to another person, except maybe my dad. The space that divides is more than distance.
“Oh, thanks,” she replied, drawing out the words with an exaggerated slur intended to convey surprise. But it was phony, the way a parent pretends to be more pleased with a child than she really is. There was a time, when I was younger, I would have found her remark condescending. I’ve since come to accept this as my mother’s way of expressing affection. I guess I’ll always be Baby to her.
Anyway, what should have made her all that pleased? Her middle-aged, homeless, alcoholic, heroin-dealing junkie deadbeat dad of a son, from whom she hadn’t heard since last December 23rd, telephoned to say happy birthday and had to borrow a phone to make the call.
“Is it cold in Maine?”
“Yeah, Ma,” I chuckled, a little phony myself. “It’s Maine. It’s cold here on my birthday.” I was born in July.
Back when I was wealthier, her first question was always, “Have you eaten anyplace nice lately?” By now she knew I’d been eating at the soup kitchen or in jail for years, so the perennial second question (“How’s the weather?”) had been bumped up to first, followed by what had always been the third: “You wanna talk to your father?”
That was the whole birthday conversation, but it was done — my conscience was balanced, my sense of duty fulfilled.
My father was a different story. He’d been through three strokes, a non-malignant brain tumor and related surgery, and was experiencing dementia from Alzheimer’s. But he was never in poor spirit, never phony or condescending, never distant, always jovial. He addressed my health. He asked about my relationships with both my kids and their mothers. He even mentioned Toni by name, which surprised me. He asked about my writing, and if I was playing in any bands. He expressed concern for my legal problems and wished me the best there.
My father told me he was well. He was learning how to do things differently, to retrain his body post-stroke. He said he wasn’t able to write very easily anymore. My father had the finest handwriting I’ve ever seen. It looked like the work of a calligrapher every time he signed his paycheck. Not anymore.
My father was dear to my mother and me, the heavy strand in the cord that bound the three of us. I didn’t know it then — nobody ever does — but that was the last time I would ever speak to my father.
Chapter Three: All I Want for Christmas
“We are burnt up by hard facts; like tradesmen we understand distinctions, and like butchers, necessities.”
— Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front
It wasn’t snow. It wasn’t rain. It was more like globs of slushy water falling from the firmament, a miserable wintery mix, and Trake and I were tromping around in it. It was Christmas Eve and I had a half gallon of gin and some money. As bad as it was, it could have been worse. I wasn’t in jail.
We decided to go to Gilbert’s to get some chowda and warm up. We ran into Benny outside and he invited us to his place. I didn’t want to go, but Mark is like a goldfish, rediscovering the little plastic castle every time he encounters it. Whenever we went to Benny’s it ended in madness and chaos. Why would this night be any different? Didn’t Mark know things could get worse?
He drew me aside and put his finger on his trake so he could speak. “Come on, Kenny.” He had his serious look on, a look partly caused by the dilemma at hand, but mostly by the frustration of being vocally impaired. “What do we have to lose? We have booze, smokes, money if we have to get out of there.”
So he did see this idea could be the catalyst of catastrophe! But I couldn’t say no. Mark closed the deal with sheer want. We did have all the basics we needed, and an escape plan. It was shitty out. It was Christmas Eve. My last night to hear Christmas music for another year. And Benny had a stereo. It dated back to the days when we all had stereos, but it worked.
I’m one of those people: I love Christmas and Christmas music. I can’t help myself. I’d been in jail the past couple holiday seasons. The last time I’d heard any holiday music was in jail, a place you almost never hear music if you don’t have someone putting money on your books. I’d been sitting in my cell, reading, when suddenly there was an explosion of sound, an a capella chorus of “Joy to the World” with complete harmonies, with soprano, with women, and not female correctional officers, either — angels. That had been years ago.
“OK,” I said. “But I’m still getting chowda.”
I went in and ordered a couple pints. When I came out there was a cab waiting. I’d thought we would take a bus, so I was pretty pleased. Maybe this could turn out alright. ’Tis the season, fa la-la la-la.
When we got to Benny’s, the first thing I noticed was the broken window. Then I saw the broken stereo. I was devastated.
“Tell me you have internet, or a radio, or something,” I pleaded. Ben had a radio alarm clock. It dated back to the days when we all had radio alarm clocks, but it worked. Mark and I were practically cavemen, so this prehistoric sound machine suited us just fine.
I was ready to deck the halls and have a holly jolly Christmas! I sat in the kitchenette and got my Yuletide groove on, staying in front of the stove, under the fan. That was Ben’s smoking area. Trake balled up on the fold-out sofa bed and went right to sleep.
Within an hour, Ben’s personality took a turn for the worse. He reached for the bottle again and I warned him, “You’re putting the gin down too fast, Benny.”
This was something I was familiar with. When it comes to gin, even the best drinkers often hit a brick wall if they don’t apply moderation. And Benny had become a wet brain. He couldn’t handle eight percent, nevermind 80 proof. I could see what was happening — or so I thought.
“Don’t you worry about me,” Ben said, and he pulled my beard — just grabbed right ahold of it and yanked.
“You motherfucker!” I yelled, punching him square in the chest.
He pulled my hat over my face. “You’re pissing me off, Benny!”
“Aww,” he said. He plopped down on my lap and kissed me. I threw him to the floor and turned back towards the stove, trying to keep my smoke under the fan. I leaned my arm on the stovetop and felt the searing scorch of a hot burner, accidentally turned on during the tussle. I screamed in pain.
“What a fucking pussy,” Ben mocked.
I was enraged. Benny had burned me and now he was attempting to emasculate me. He got behind me and tried to execute some sort of headlock hold. I was tired of playing around, so I just grabbed him by the ballsack and squeezed as hard as I could. He let me go pretty damn quick.
Then he went and said it. He called me Ass Candy.
“You really are a fucking idiot, Ben!” I shouted. “It’s not ‘ass candy,’ it’s candy ass. And everybody’s sick of you saying that all the time.”
“Easy, Ass Candy,” he goaded.
I stood straight up. By this time Trake was awake and watching us. I don’t know how much he witnessed, but I’m sure it was entertaining.
“Are you out of your fucking senses, Shit for Brains?” I said. “You would call me that again? Go ahead. Say it one more fucking time! I dare you!”
I lit him up with a quick combination of punches. Ben dropped like a dazed parakeet that flew into a window, falling back on the sofa bed semi-conscious and bleeding from every hole in his head. I later learned I’d knocked out his two front teeth. I wasn’t happy about any of it, but I wasn’t at all surprised. I had anticipated disaster.
“Get your shit together, Mark. We’re leaving!”
As we gathered our stuff and headed out the door, Mark stopped and turned back to face Ben, distress on his face again. He covered his trake: “You know what I want for Christmas?” Then he pointed skyward with his free hand. “One thing,” he said to Ben, waving the finger for emphasis: “for you to stop drinking.”
Chapter Four: A Bit of Holiday Cheer
“We are no longer untroubled — we are indifferent.”
— Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front
Santa Claus didn’t visit the Dungeon. I woke up on Christmas morning next to Trake, our heads nestled together. While the comradery was nice, my hat had fallen off during the night and Mark hadn’t been deloused, as I had. He had the gift that keeps on giving, and had very likely given it back to me.
I went to the ferry terminal, like any other morning. It was either there or the Cut and I still wasn’t feeling well. I wanted to be near the bathroom, just in case. I’d already been in the toilet half the morning. My ass was itching like mad, but I figured it was all in my head — having lice is mental torture.
I don’t know what time it was. I didn’t have any way to tell, or any need — no plans, no Christmas festivities to attend. The get-together at Benny’s was as close as I’d come to observing the holiday, and that was a memory I was doing my best to forget.
I heard footsteps echoing down the walkway, reverberating off the concrete. Our surroundings were mostly stone most of the time, stone or steel. I turned my head toward the sound and saw Roger approaching.
“Merry Christmas, Kenny!”
“Merry Christmas, Roger.”
“I brought you a present,” Roger said. He reached into a bag and retrieved a brand new pair of Carhartt overalls. They were just my size: big.
“Wow!” I was genuinely excited. This was a gift that would make my life better. The overalls could even be a lifesaver. It was only December 25th. There were still six weeks to go till the groundhog would tell us if there’ll be six more weeks of winter.
“Thanks, Roger. Really, man. These are great.”
He reached into his pocket. “There’s something else I want to show you,” he said.
It was his phone, the one he had loaned me to call my mom. He unlocked it and began tapping and scrolling, then held it down where I was sitting, on the cement floor, so we could both see the screen. It was a picture of me taken the night of my mother’s birthday in a Facebook post describing what he’d done.
“I probably should have asked you before I posted it,” Roger said, “but you’re very popular.” The post had gotten 43,000 views and over 1,000 comments in less than 30 hours.
Then he removed another item from the bag: a clipboard. Attached to the clipboard was a form, a waiver granting rights to use my image in the press. He wanted me to sign it. I signed. I was grateful to have spoken with my family, a bit of holiday cheer. I was also thankful for the overalls. I didn’t care about the exposure. Who did I have to impress? The only people I really cared about at the time all knew I was homeless. The ones I now felt closest to in the world were homeless with me. Hell, Trake and Jeremy were sitting right next to me at the terminal.
Besides, it was kind of a sweet story: Homeless Man Whose Mother’s Birthday Is the Day Before Christmas Eve Just Wanted to Phone Home. Shit, that writes itself.
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