Chapter Four: Forever in a Moment
“It is distressing to watch their movements, to see them begging for something to eat.”
— Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front
I had never slept in a homeless shelter before, and I guess I still hadn’t, since what little sleep I got was outside its door. Now it was morning and they were kicking everybody out. They lock the doors of the overflow shelter at seven o’clock to set up tables and chairs, and it turns back into the Resource Center’s day room, which opens at eight. That’s also when the soup kitchen around back opens.
I was hungry and happy there was only an hour till breakfast. They feed you much earlier in jail. The food at Preble Street was much better than YCJ’s, though that’s not saying much. The grub at that jail is the worst food I’ve ever eaten. You’re always hungry and can never get enough of that garbage. At Preble Street you could eat as much as you could eat. And they put out a good spread: scrambled eggs, fried potatoes, toast, donuts, pastries, dry cereal, hot cereal, fruit salad, butter, syrup, orange juice, coffee, milk, sugar, salt and pepper, ketchup. The next day would be the same, sub eggs for pancakes. That was the pattern: eggs, pancakes, eggs, pancakes. I could hardly believe my eyes, and took some of everything — even the oatmeal, which I’d eaten six days a week for the past four months at York County.
When I sat down I finally saw someone I knew: Jenni. We’ve known each other since about 1987. We were no longer close, but back in the ’80s we did the Old Orchard Beach circuit together. We stayed at almost every hotel and motel in OOB. Had it been just her and Tchad — her boyfriend, my good friend — they might have been able to maintain a place, but I got us thrown out of everywhere. Now here we were, at Preble Street.
“Oh, my god, Wayne-O!”
That’s what she’s always called me. She tells the Crew she’ll never call me Kenny, and she thinks of Ken as my dad.
“Hey, Jen. What are you doing around here?” Some say there are no stupid questions, but what the hell did I think she was doing?
“Staying at the shelter,” she glumly replied.
“Oh,” I said. “Me too.”
I was disappointed. I wasn’t disappointed with her. I was disappointed for her. I was disappointed for us. What happened? How did it happen? When? We were young once, not too long ago. We had been teenage roommates.
“Well,” I said, “I guess we’re roommates again.”
She introduced me to her fiancé. His name was Jason. Coincidentally, the friends who drove me to Portland from Biddeford were also named Jen and Jason. Furthermore, this Jason I was eating breakfast with had gone to his high school prom with my new probation officer. Maine is a small town.
“How’s the kids, Rachel and Bowman?” she asked.
“I think they’re doing OK. I don’t think they’re very happy with their dad, but…” I paused, there was no need to complete the sentence — that but said enough. “How’s Helena?”
“She’s almost grown. And gorgeous!”
Jen showed me pictures to prove it, but this wasn’t Helena, not the little girl I had taken to the park with my kids. This was a fabulously beautiful young woman. My Rachel is even older than Helena. That’s when I realized: our kids were now the age we were then.
It was nice to see someone I knew, especially someone I love, but we weren’t going to become close again. We were trying to pin down a future, not recapture the past. The only way to do that is to stay focused on the present moment. All of Forever is captured in a moment.
Chapter Five: Ass Candy
“Ass Candy! Hey, Ass Candy! Can I get one cigarette?”
— Benjamin John Berry, on the Block
When I first met Benjamin John Berry, he was stone-cold sober. Clean cut and cleanly shaven, he looked as if he’d been discharged from the service in the 1970s and come straight to work. His salt-and-pepper hair sported a traditional trim, perfectly parted and set in place with a gel or tonic. A handsome Irishman with the scent of Aqua Velva and a South Boston accent, his posture made me think Navy, and his wiry tattooed frame reinforced that image. He maintained an energetic balance at all times, like a sailor aboard a ship at rough sea.
Benny had come to work at Jimmy the Greek’s, in Old Orchard Beach, and I was running the dinner shift, so he cooked for me. He was polite, well mannered, and serious about his job. Benny was also one of the best and fastest cooks I’d ever seen. Everything was on time, plated perfectly, and delicious.
In those days I literally lived at the restaurant, in a log cabin next door that shared a parking lot with a liquor store. Across the street there was a laundromat, and on the other side of the log house, a 7-Eleven. There was a Thai restaurant beside the laundromat and a BBQ shack on the ground floor of my cabin. My band practiced in my living room, and the front-house manager from Jimmy’s brought me my money in cash, with my rent, utilities and child support already subtracted. There were months when I didn’t leave that place. I also sold pot, and that was delivered, too.
Benny lived in a motel room about a quarter mile down Saco Ave. from the restaurant. He had sole custody of his son, Benny Jr., and when he worked he had different waitresses watch him. On Tuesdays, my day off, I’d watch him.
Ben repeatedly tells two Kenny Wayne stories. One is true, the other is not. In the true story, I knocked out his two front teeth on Christmas Eve, a sort of reversal of the old holiday song, and a tale for another time.
The other story he tells, which can’t possibly be true, is that I taught his son how to play guitar. Benny Jr. was about three years old back then, and you can’t learn to play guitar at that age. But I did play kids’ tunes for him, like “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,” and let him toy-around with my guitar.
Legends are important to Ben, and I don’t dispel the mythology.
He needs to talk about his son, so he doesn’t forget the memory he’s drinking away. Paternal failure is a phantom that haunts him.
But I know the truth. I lived it too.
We worked together for months. Benny stayed sober the entire time, only smoking pot. One Tuesday I was babysitting, and when he came to get Little Benny I offered him a beer. I think we drank a six-pack. But that was it. That was all it took. The hammer was cocked and a high-powered weapon was about to go off.
It didn’t take long for things to fall apart. Benny began drinking every day after work. Then, on a day off, he started drinking while he was waiting for Benny Jr.’s mother to pick up her son. She didn’t show. He came to the restaurant, barely able to walk and talk, kid in tow, and began asking random waitresses to watch Little Benny after their shifts. He knew he was too drunk to do it.
They all said they weren’t able to help, and he staggered out of the dining room into the parking lot, holding the toddler’s hand. Everyone was concerned for the child’s welfare, and one tender-hearted waitress decided there was no way she could go on with her plans for the evening.
Her shift ended, and Theresa went directly to the motel. When she knocked, Little Benny slid a chair across the room and climbed it to unlock the door. His father was out cold. She took the boy with her, leaving a note by the phone to explain.
When Ben woke up and his son was missing, he freaked out. He searched, and screamed, and cried, and the cops came, and the fire department, and the pool was drained, and it was a terrible mistake, an awful mess. And then the note was found. But it was too late. The damage was done and Little Benny was removed from the “home.”
Shortly thereafter — and this is a third Kenny Wayne story Ben tells, albeit less often, and there’s more truth to it than the Kenny and Benny School of Rock — Ben came to my place with a big biker wanting an ounce of pot. Ben said he’d “pay for it later.”
I don’t know if I was reading the situation wrong — assigning bad vibes due to my disappointment or anger about what happened with Little Benny — but I felt certain these two were not going to pay for anything “later.” I felt I was being muscled, robbed.
It didn’t end well for them, and Benny left with considerable injury. He came back the next day showing me his cuts and bruises, claiming he had “no beef” with me. And he tried to shake my hand.
“Ben, I have reached out my hand to you for the last time,” I said.
I suppose that sounded poetic to me back then. I had no idea how poetic it would seem later. Fate is always the fairer poet.
Chapter Six: Out With the Old, In With the Crew
“It has awakened in us the sense of comradeship, so that we escape the abyss of solitude — it has lent us the indifference of wild creatures, so that in spite of it all, we perceive the positive in every moment, and store it up as a reserve against the onslaught of nothingness.”
— Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front
Breakfast ended at nine-thirty. I headed directly to probation so I’d make it back in time for lunch. I continued my reading in the lobby while waiting to be seen. Beyond Good and Evil was winding down.
When I left probation I decided to check out the library. I went in and got a library card, which I thought was pretty cool, what with my not having an address and all. They were very friendly and helpful, and seemed encouraged by a homeless person who likes to read. The woman at the loan desk was also very impressed by the books I’d chosen. I picked out six vintage volumes, mostly on Hinduism and Buddhism, but I also grabbed C.S. Lewis’ The Case for Christianity. I’m not a Christian, but I’m not the Antichrist, either. Much of the Bible is very good philosophy, morally speaking. I maxed out my card and made it back for lunch at eleven-thirty.
The line for Preble Street’s soup kitchen wrapped around the building. I went to the end, and when the guy in front of me turned around, I recognized him. It was Ben.
It was a rather uncomfortable moment. Despite our circumstances, I’d been happy to see Jen. I didn’t know how I felt about this chance reunion from my beach days. The last time I’d seen Ben, he was pretty beat up, courtesy of yours truly. For some reason, Mark Twain sprang to mind: “It isn’t the parts of the Bible I don’t understand that bother me, it’s the parts I do understand.”
Ben reached out his hand to me. As I mechanically extended my own arm, I recalled another quote: my last words to him. It seemed such a snide, holier-than-thou remark all these years later. How had I been any better? Had I really felt like I was being robbed that day, or did I just kick his ass for Little Benny? And what now?
Ben was sober. Well, he wasn’t drunk this day at lunch, anyway. He hadn’t stopped drinking. But he still had no beef with me. He didn’t care about the past, not like that. What happened happened. That was then, this is now. Forever’s in a moment. All that good shit.
We ate together and talked. I honestly couldn’t tell you what about. The bottom line was, I needed a friend, and Benjamin John Berry was there for me.
After lunch we headed back to the courtyard of the Resource Center. Benny went inside while I sat on a bench alone. These are the migratory patterns of Preble Street. All day long, people sit out front on the benches in the courtyard, walk around the corner to eat, then back to the benches. At the end of the day, those who check in at the shelter travel a block down Oxford Street to do that, and a good portion of them are sent back to Preble to sleep at the overflow.
Benny didn’t sleep at the shelter. He slept outside. He had himself a doorway with an overhang right across the street from the soup kitchen. He’d been there so long — well before I got on the Block — that folks called it Benny’s House.
He came out of the day room with a present for me: a backpack, the first of many I’d lose. “I’m gonna introduce you to the Crew,” he said.
The Crew was the group of drunks who’d been gathered around the guy with the guitar, the one I saw when I arrived the day before. This was my element: drunks with a guitar. I wasn’t drinking, or even intending to drink, but I never swore off music. I just hadn’t played in a very long time.
“Hey,” Benny addressed them, “I want you all to meet a good friend of mine. He’s one of us, a real One-Percenter.”
“So you finally made it,” a familiar face said.
It was Jay Becker. He’d been in jail with me during most of the four months I’d just done. He came from Downeast, from Calais, Maine. I’d been to Calais. I have family there. That’s how we initially got to talking. He was familiar with my exit plan for Preble Street — he sure had to listen to it enough.
Jay was a good guy. He had dark hair and eyes and smiled brightly, revealing a full set of teeth. That’s rare on the Block. Most of ours had just disintegrated, destroyed by falls, brawls and general mistreatment. (There’s a Preble Street riddle that goes: “What do you call thirty-two women at Rickey’s [Tavern]?” Answer: “A full set of teeth.”)
This was the first time I ever saw Mark. He was sitting on a bench, but I don’t know how. He was a mess, completely shit-faced, not even conscious. His clothes were caked with who-knows-what. His hair, which is surprisingly full and absent of grey, was standing in all directions. He smelled like he’d just crawled out of a dumpster, possibly at the Shipyard brewery.
Jay tried to get him up to go to Milestone, the wet shelter on India Street, and actually got Mark in a cab, but he came back. (In those days, they had to call you a cab. Nowadays, Milestone comes to get you in the HOME Team van.) A caseworker then convinced Mark to go to the hospital, and Preble Street paid for another cab. But again, he came back.
It was apparent this man was someone special to this group of drunks, as well as to the Preble Street staff.
His name is Mark Stephen Thompson. He was called Dad, or Papa, by many. Others called him Trake, because of a tracheotomy. He had to cover the hole in his throat to speak, but whenever he did, people listened to the old sage, who seemed to us to have the wisdom of Solomon.
Mark was also called the Mayor of Preble Street — in jest, but also in recognition that the Block was its own entity, distinct from the city around it, with its own laws and customs. Officers patrolled in an attempt to police the area, and 80 percent of their arrests were made there, but they were the outsiders, the adversary. We were its people, its citizens. Free enterprise was all we knew or wanted to know of law. And not just trade, but existence itself was governed by a different code there. The Mayor had earned the respect, and right, to be an authority.
Mark is a veteran. He served in the jungle in Panama. After years hanging around in the streets with me and the rest of the Crew — drunk and dirty, dealing with the aftermath of being a vet, a broken-hearted divorcee and a cancer survivor — Veterans Housing Services came through with benefits and he was housed.
I see Mark Stephen Thompson in a very special light. We survived our own war together. We battled the elements of Nature, especially cold and hunger. And at the end of the night, when the Old Port was all shut up and everyone else was gone, he’d come rolling down Fore Street like a tumbling tumbleweed and the two of us would get to somewhere out of the wind and rest our broken-down bodies … until the liquor store reopened.
To me, Mark represented survival.