Friday, October 17, 2003

Diary Of A Rag And Bone Man

“Am I reduced to poverty?
Am I reduced to penury?
Then let me sift through the leavings
And see what I can see.”

Presenting excerpts from the diary of my friend, Jack Rafter, if, indeed, “diary” is the proper name for something that consists of daily scrawls on coffee shop napkins or scraps of paper retrieved from sidewalks, gutters, and waste bins.

But first, a little background on Jack, beginning with how we met. It happened like this:

I was sitting in my favorite deli one afternoon when this man came shuffling up the walk, wearing a ragged canvas coat that hung past his knees. He was pulling a battered red wagon filled with an assortment of found objects, smashed cans, discarded clothing and a fairly decent looking toaster.

Coming behind the man and the Radio Flyer was an equally ragged dog, tied to the wagon on a four-foot clothesline. I don’t know breeds of dogs, so I couldn’t tell you what this one was, even if I had to narrow it down to three or four out of God-knows-how-many were mixed up in him, but he had floppy ears and curly brown to rust-colored hair with large patches of black, including a patch over one eye that put me in mind of a pirate’s dog.

The man pulled his wagon and dog caravan near the window, close to where I was sitting, enjoying my Ruben sandwich, while going over the help-wanted ads. When the wagon stopped, the dog sat down with an almost cheerful expression on his face. Clearly, he knew this was a deli; I surmised it must be one of their routine stops. The dog turned his smile up at me, and proceeded to lick the glass. From my side, I had a perfect view of the dog’s pink tongue slathering the window with a thick film of drool.

Then, I looked up and saw the dog’s owner’s eyes—the color of my grandmother’s blue china plates—looking back at me. There was something sad, but friendly, there. He smiled and shrugged over his dog’s rather forward, but still probably innocent behavior. I guardedly smiled back, sensing—correctly, as it turned out—that his next move would be to put the squeeze on me.

The man gave his dog a pat on the head, turned and walked inside. I took another bite of my Ruben and buried my nose in the paper, hoping to make myself look as off-limits as possible. But he was already headed in my direction, as if following a homing device.

Approaching my little ace by the window, he gave a slight bow. “Sorry about Vincent,” he said. “My dog,” he gestured with his chin at the critter outside. Vincent was still busily lapping the glass. “Sometimes he forgets himself. See, he really likes this place. He licks things that he likes. It’s just his way.”

“It’s all right,” I said. “No harm done.”

“Do you happen to have a dime on you, Mister? I’m just short a dime for a cup of coffee in here. I’d be much obliged.”

All I had in my pocket was a quarter and some pennies. “Here, I said.”

“I’ll bring you the change,” he replied.

“That’s all right. Keep it.”

He went off and got his coffee. In a minute, he was back. “Mind if I join you, mister? They don’t like low-spenders taking up space in these places.”

“Sure,” I said.

He slid a chair over and sat opposite me. I noticed he had an old canvas bag slung over his shoulder on a rope. Once upon a time it was probably white. I supposed he kept his valuables in it, such as they might be. He smiled. Up close, his blue eyes stood out even more against his weathered and sunburned face. His sandy hair was longish and out-of-sorts, but other than his clothes, which were dirt stained and threadbare around the edges, he looked fairly clean. He may have been living on the streets, but apparently, he had access to soap and water. He glanced down at his dog. The dog returned his look with something like adoration.

“I found him wandering around the freight yards about six months ago,” he said. “Wouldn’t have anything to do with me at first, but then I gave him half a turkey leg, and we’ve been pals ever since. I named him Vincent, after the painter. I’m a big admirer of the arts.”

I nodded. Van Gogh, I thought. Another marginal citizen, manic-depressive, unemployable, who, but for the love of his brother, Theo, probably would have ended up on the streets.

The stranger offered his hand. “Name’s Jack Rafter,” he said.

“Grayson Harper,” I replied, shaking it.

“What you reading, there?” he said.

“The help-wanted ads,” I said.

“Ah, lookin’ for work, huh?” he smiled.

“Yep. It’s come to that.”

He sat for awhile watching me. I tried to concentrate on my business, there, but every time I looked up, there were his blue eyes, his smiling face, an expression much like his dog’s.

Suddenly, I became self-conscious about eating in front of him. “Would you like a sandwich?” I asked him.

“I’d love one,” he said, grinning.

“What kind would you like?”

“Ah, roast beef on rye, with a dill pickle on the side.”

I gave him the money. He returned a few minutes later with the sandwich. “Hey, you want to sit outside?” he asked.


“They got tables out there, you know. It’s a nice day.”

“Well, all right,” I said, not quite certain what I was getting myself into. Picking up my paper, I followed him outside. When we got to the table, Vincent, the dog got up, circled once, then laid down at Jack’s feet. Every so often his master would break off a piece of bread and toss it to the pigeons. Vincent didn’t seem to mind the birds at all, even letting them walk right up to him to snatch a crumb or two.

“What about Vincent?” I said. “Isn’t he hungry, too?”

“Ah, don’t worry about him. We’ll find plenty for him out in the back. People in this country throw away tons of food, you know.”

I went back to my want-ads, but it was impossible. When I looked up, there was the smile again. A smile that seemed to say that he was on to something. After a moment, he said, “Helluva thing, isn’t it?”

“What is?” I said.

“Oh, just life, I guess.”

“Yes," I said, "it is.”

Then, he said, “You want to see something?”

“Sure,” I answered—a little nervously.

He reached in his canvas bag and pulled out a kind of—thing. Then, slid it across the table to me.

“What’s this?”

“Have a look,” he said.

It looked like an old cloth-bound book held together with rubber bands. The title on the faded red cover was Belleview—A Story of the South From 1860 to 1865. But the book itself was missing. Removing the rubber bands and opening the cover, I found in place of the book a stack of papers of various sizes and types, including numerous napkins from the deli. All the papers, front and back, were covered in writing. Pretty chaotic, except that every page was numbered, and they were all in good order.

“My diary,” Jack said. “I’m a writer, now.”

“Oh, you are, huh?”

“Yep, I been writing about our corrupt government. Lemme ask you something. You ever seen such a bunch of low-down, thieving hooligans in your whole life?”

“No, I guess not,” I said.

Then, he started in. It was like somebody had lifted the lid on an overfilled jar and the contents just gushed out on the table.

“This president of ours is the prince of liars. But I guess you know that.” He took another bite of his sandwich, and went right on. “But all his disciples are liars, too, every last rotten one of them. Never seen anything like it. They make Nixon look like an amateur. Next to them, Nixon looks positively quaint. But that’s because, when all was said and done, ol’ Dick was still capable of being shamed. He still had a conscience. You see, it actually mattered to ol' Mill House what people thought of him. He really couldn’t bear to be thought of as a liar or a crook or a no good oily rat. But these people—this Bush character, and this Rumsfeld, and Cheney and Ashcroft, well, they’re just conscienceless. Whatever moral compass they may have had—if they ever had any—is completely dead—a light burned out. Public opinion is nothing to them. And I don’t just mean the masses of people, millions and millions, but even the most honored, most revered, from the Pope to Nelson Mandella, to the leaders of most countries, to writers and thinkers and playwrights and poets, winners of Nobel Prizes and Pulitzers. Bush and his circle no more care what good, decent people think than a fly cares where it lays its eggs.

"Well, that’s my opinion. Only it’s not just an opinion, it’s a proven goddamn fact. Half the people Bush has put in positions of power, who are nothing but his father's cronies, are convicted felons, or should be. I tell you, there are people in prison who are more honest than these frauds, who are better qualified to run the country. I couldn’t keep quiet about it anymore, so I started writing it all down. I mean—everything that's happening, now, is so outlandish and unbelievable. And nobody says anything. Isn’t that weird? It’s like living in the Twilight Zone. Everything's fine, hunky-dory. Meanwhile, on any given day, there’s nineteen jillion people filling these Walmarts and all these Superstores and giant shopping malls. Like lemmings, they follow each other into these places--Abercrombie and Fitch, Victoria’s Secret, Banana Republic--and they follow each other out with huge bags full of stuff. Expensive stuff! Then they hop in their SUV’s, their Hummers and their Urban Assault Vehicles—‘cause I swear-to-god that’s what they’ll be driving next—and head for the nearest Starbucks, where they sit for hours with their lattes and their lap-tops and their little telephones straight out of Buck Rogers. The whole country is living in a make-believe world, a fantasy brought to life by Walt Disney, McDonald's and Chevron, which has an oil tanker named after Condoleeza Rice! They just yanked one guy out of office in California, and who did they install in his place, but a serial groper, a walking cartoon with six Hummers. What does this prove? It proves the country loves assholes. Worships them!

“So I started writing about it. I don’t know. I just had to get it down on paper, somehow, where I could look at it. I couldn’t be one of the millions of sheep just smiling away the hours, or staring vacantly at the TV--not that I have one, actually. But to look at all these smiling people, you wouldn’t know we just invaded a sovereign country against the wishes of the entire world, that our citizens and theirs are dying for no good reason, but simply on the whim of a nest of liars. The President just asked for another 87 billion for his war, an amount of money so vast, nobody can even grasp how much it is. Meanwhile, here at home, half the states are going broke, they’re slashing health care for children and old people. And literally thousands are being evicted from their homes every month.

"I just keep hearing the words of this song going around in my head, a fine old song by John Prine:

‘How the hell can a person
go to work in the morning
come home in the evening
and have nothin’ to say?’

“So. . .” he said, “I’ve been writing.”

He watched me. I was looking closely at his diary. Page after page of copious notes. . . .


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