Chapter One: The Avesta
“She is a lovely girl with a delicate nose, red lips, and slender legs, wonderfully clean and well cared for, she certainly bathes twice a day and never has any dirt under her nails.”
— Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front
I’d never seen Wheels drink before. He sure was drunk when I walked past the shelter. I’d never seen him in a wheelchair, either — or with his legs off. The cops had his legs, and they had him in a chair, hoisting him into the arrest wagon. He was going to jail and he was pissed. He was calling the cops all sorts of creative cuss words as they attempted to reason with him. They looked a little uncomfortable about the whole business, especially the young cop holding Ronnie’s legs. I never found out what the incident was all about, but he got CTO’d from the shelter for a year.
For awhile, Ronnie slept somewhere off the bike trail. He had his own bicycle and rode around with a huge backpack on. The situation was like a set-up for one of my busking jokes: On my way to Preble Street today, I saw a guy with no legs riding a bicycle…
I probably would have used that one, but I hadn’t been telling many jokes at the time. I had a guitar. I also had a spot a lot closer to the Block than Ronnie’s. While he couldn’t sleep at the shelter anymore, he could still eat at the soup kitchen. And he still needed to eat.
One day, Wheels asked if he could start crashing at my spot. I loved the idea. The company would be a welcome change, and it was too absurdly ironic for me to resist. My spot at the time was directly across the street from the offices of Avesta Housing, a major developer of “affordable” housing in the Little City. On my way to Preble Street today, I saw a guy with no legs sleeping across the street from Avesta. He got up and rode off on a bicycle wearing a giant backpack that must have weighed 60 pounds!
A set-up like that doesn’t even need a punchline. Absurdity at its finest.
When I first saw Kassandra, she was standing in front of the Resource Center by herself. She was pretty and I knew there had to be a boyfriend, or there would be one soon. Women like Kass last about a minute on Preble Street before they have a guy. She was slender and petite, with a soft smile and gentle eyes, and I have to admit I may have been gawking, for I was awestruck.
I watched her as she went around back to the soup kitchen, and I determined it was time for breakfast. I don’t know what I was thinking, or hoping for. Nothing, I suppose. I was homeless and 20 years older than she was. But I had to follow her. She was absolutely breathtaking. And, after all, Toni is 20 years younger than me, and we had a child together.
I sat across the table from her with my meal. We talked. I can’t remember what we talked about, but I remember she had a voice and demeanor as gentle as her eyes. Even in the grungy environment of the soup kitchen, Kass moved with grace, almost an elegance, like a flower floating in a sewer. I also recall that I’d just missed out on the fresh fruit being served that morning. She shared hers with me — generous, as well as gentle.
Then the boyfriend came along. His name was Devon, and it turned out he and I had met just a few days prior. He sold Jeremy and me some acid. We did trip, but it wasn’t LSD; more likely LSA (the kind made from morning glory seeds).
Devon and Kass asked me if I wanted to buy any pot, and they gave me a really good deal. For awhile I was getting pot off them every day. I looked forward to seeing them, if only for the opportunity to enjoy Kassandra’s company for a moment.
I began to wonder what they were into. I wondered if she was an addict. I knew from experience that you can’t support two heroin addictions selling pot. If you weren’t willing to steal or sell heroin, you had to sell something worth just as much, or more.
Then one day I saw Kass crying. Devon had left, gone back to wherever it was his parents lived. He had gone home, and she was now homeless, and alone. I wanted to take her up in my arms, to draw her into me. I wanted to save her. But I had nothing to offer.
Chapter Two: Circle of Life
“We are two men, two minute sparks of life; outside is the night and the circle of death.”
— Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front
We peeled off a couple layers and leaned back in the warm, late-morning sunshine. Casco Bay was calm. The fire boats, ferries and water taxis slowly bobbed beside their docks. It was just Mark and me in Buoy Park. All the other benches were empty. We didn’t even have Mr. Charlie with us this day, but he rarely disturbed the peace (unless he saw a squirrel).
It was approaching lunchtime and I was getting hungry. I mentioned that to Trake.
“You’re always hungry, Fatboy!” Trake goaded, poking me in the belly like I was the Pillsbury Doughboy.
“That’s probably not gonna help my hunger,” I said, crossing my arms under my ribs so he couldn’t jab me again, “poking me or picking on me.”
I really was famished, but I wouldn’t mention it twice. I could ride it out. Something would come along. It always did. I hadn’t been to the Resource Center for weeks, maybe months, but I hadn’t starved to death yet. And if it got to the point of actual starvation, I could always go to Preble Street. I just didn’t want to go there.
It crossed my mind that Jeremy would have said a prayer. I considered it. I’d seen prayers work for us many times, sometimes for some pretty specific requests. I’m just not the praying sort. But I had faith the Cosmos would provide.
Sure enough, before too long, a woman approached us holding a stack of pizza boxes. I was really grateful, and tried to convey how much I appreciated the food by thanking her as sincerely as I could. There was a lot of pizza in those boxes, more than the two of us could possibly eat in a day.
“There you go, Fatboy,” Mark said, delivering another poke to my midsection — I’d let my guard down; it must have been the pizza. I dug right in. Mark wasn’t far behind, so my guess is he’d been as hungry as I was. He just didn’t want to admit it. That’s good for morale. No one wants to seem like the weak one, so it inspires strength.
It’s difficult to eat outdoors in the Port without drawing a crowd. The gulls began to gather. Mark loves seagulls. He thinks of them — and all animals, really — as pets. They’re his friends. He talks to them, even names them. And when Charlie wasn’t around, he was even more inclined to take an interest in the birds.
Mark tossed some crust their way. I threw the crust from the piece I’d just finished. The birds were aggressively snapping at each other, snatching up the bits of bread. We threw more, trying to reduce the level of violence. That created a frenzy. They were eating faster than we were. We started tearing up whole pieces of pizza and tossing them their way. After all, we had an entire stack.
Around the time supply was beginning to meet demand, two people approaching from the street entered my peripheral vision. It was an ordinance officer and a game warden. We hadn’t been watching for cops, because we had no reason to — we weren’t doing anything wrong. It was the same ordinance officer who’d told me I couldn’t ask for money outside the ferry terminal, and who later busted the Griz and me for drinking on India Street. I wondered if he was the only ordinance officer the city employed; I hadn’t encountered any others.
I quickly surveyed our surroundings. It would have been difficult to conceal anything that could have gotten us arrested at that point, but I might’ve had time to smoke a last cigarette before being incarcerated — again, if I’d thought I was doing something wrong.
The game warden began. “Are you aware that it’s illegal to feed the seagulls?”
Mark had a shocked look of disbelief on his face as he covered his trake and responded: “What? Are you kidding me?” I was stunned with disbelief myself.
“The bread’s not good for their digestive systems,” the warden continued. “They’re designed to eat fish. Foods like pizza will actually make them sick.”
I’m not a zoologist, so I can’t say if there’s any truth to her claim. I can say I’ve fed gulls an awful lot of stuff, and there are only three things I’ve discovered they won’t eat:
1. Citrus fruit (oranges, lemons, limes, grapefruit, etc.)
2. Peppers, hot or sweet
3. Beggin’ Strips (Charlie won’t touch them, either)
The ordinance officer undertook the only official task he seemed capable, or allowed, to perform, which was to run our names. (He better hurry up and get promoted, or technology will replace him, assuming it hasn’t already.) The dispatcher radioed back: “Negative ten-twenty-nine for warrants.” That meant we weren’t going to jail.
The game warden flipped open a pad and started writing. It wasn’t a shopping list. She wrote us each a ticket for a $118. The citation listed “feeding the gulls and leaving trash under the bench” as our infractions.
I pondered these offenses as they drove away. How could I be guilty of “leaving” garbage under the bench I was still sitting on? And what suddenly made boxes full of pizza “trash” — the fact we and the gulls were enjoying it?
Mark was not in a contemplative mood. He quickly and quietly scanned the citation, then furiously crumpled it into a ball. He stood up from the bench, reached underneath to retrieve the pile of boxes, and proceeded to empty them one by one, tossing the pies on the ground for the birds. Then he threw the boxes, and the crumpled ticket, into a trash can.
I neatly folded the citation and put it in my pocket. “You’re not gonna throw that away?” Mark asked, baffled.
“Are you kidding me?” I replied. “I’m hoping to have a fridge to mount this on someday.”
I never paid that ticket — neither of us did, and we’ll probably be arrested for that someday — but it’s not hanging on my fridge. The citation was just one more thing I couldn’t manage to keep on the streets.
We never stopped feeding the birds, either. And we never will.
It seems quite ordinary to normal people, but feeding the birds is one of the ways we connect with the Cosmos. I feed birds with a sense of wonder. It’s the concept of a food web made manifest. We get the biggest pieces and break the seagulls off a cut. When they move on, the pigeons move in for the scraps. After the pigeons are done, finches swoop in to get the leftover crumbs, then the insects get theirs and microbial organisms clean up the rest.
It’s the Circle of Life. This is not a crime against Nature. It is Nature.