Sunday, October 24, 2004
DIARY OF A RAG AND BONE MAN
(The continuing saga of a homeless man and his dog.)
No. 9. Vincent Takes Ill And I Get A Little Work
Dear Mr. Mowgli: Well, it’s been awhile since I put anything in here. And now the election is almost upon us and I hardly know where to begin. First off, I lost my diary for awhile there, but then I got it back. And then, Vincent took sick and almost died. I didn’t know what was wrong with him. He just sank down and wouldn’t eat anything for a whole week. Then, I noticed he was picking up his right front foot when he walked. I was starting to worry.
So, I took him to the vet. His name is Thiu Pampano. He’s Vietnamese, about forty years old. I hadn’t seen Dr. Pampano in a long time, so my being homeless was news to him. Vincent was new to him, too. I used to have a German shepherd named Mike. That was before I lost my home and everything, but my wife took him when we divorced. Dr. Pampano said he was awful sorry to hear about my troubles. He offered me money, which I declined. He told me he had taken up acupuncture and was having some pretty good luck using it on animals.
After examining Vincent’s leg, he said he believed it was paralyzed. I said how could his leg be paralyzed? Dr. Pampano said he thought it was psychological. He asked me if I thought Vincent was worried about anything. I said I didn’t know. He wanted to know where Vincent came from. I told him he was a foundling from the freight yards. “Ah,” said Dr. Pampano, “maybe Vincent is jittery from being around freight trains.”
“Maybe so,” I said.
“Well, it doesn’t matter,” he shrugged.
Dr. Pampano got Vincent to lie down on his side, then he bent over him, stroking him gently on the head, and talked quietly in his ear. Vincent soon closed his eyes and just went right under. It was amazing. Dr. Pampano applied needles to Vincent’s leg for the paralysis, and his lungs, to clear out the congestion. Then, he put on some soothing flute music played by Navajo Indians, and let Vincent sleep for awhile. About an hour later, he removed the needles and woke the dog up. Vincent got up and immediately started walking around on all four legs. He was wagging his tail and he acted hungry for the first time in days. Dr. Pampano put a scoop of dry dog food in a plastic bowl. Vincent commenced to drool. The doctor set the food on the floor, and Vincent lapped it right up.
“I think your dog is better, now, Jack.”
I couldn’t believe it. It was like a miracle or something. All I had on me was five dollars, but I offered it to Dr. Pampano. He just waved his hand and said, “No charge. It was an experiment.”
So now I’m a confirmed believer in acupuncture.
* * * *
Vincent and I spent the whole summer in Red Dunkel’s tent in the woods by the freight yard. Red’s a Vietnam veteran. For about a year, now, he’s been having stomach problems. I think the Boone’s Farm finally caught up with him. So about a month ago, he hopped a freight for Phoenix, headed for the V.A. Hospital, there, thinking maybe they could help him out. I hope he made it all right.
I told him to write me a letter and send it to “General Delivery,” but so far, I haven’t found any letters from him. I think he has a sister living in Phoenix, so maybe he’s moved in with her and got squared away. If so, it’ll be one less homeless veteran. I heard that something like forty-percent of Vietnam veterans are homeless. Forty goddamn percent! Imagine that.
Ran into Phil Brumley the other day, another homeless vet--from the Gulf War days, younger than Red, of course. Phil was just coming out of the library. He spends a lot of time in there surfing the net—says it’s the only way you can find out what’s happening anymore. The newspapers don’t tell you anything, he says. He was spitting mad when he came out of there, almost knocked me over. I asked him what was wrong, and he said that Congress had just voted to cut veterans’ funding by nearly 25 billion dollars over the next ten years.
This was the day after they passed a resolution to “Support Our Troops.” Phil shook his head. “I can’t believe they’d do such a thing,” he said.
He took a handkerchief out of his trousers and wiped his face. Phil’s a huge man, shaped like a bear, and he had broken out in a sweat. Looking at him, I thought he must have been pretty impressive when he was in top condition, decked out in crisp new fatigues with a big ol’ automatic rifle slung over his shoulder. Now, he has nightmares and can’t sleep at night. He’s got a big paunch, his hands tremble all the time, and his voice quavers when he talks, like Johnny Cash.
I told him about Red going off to Phoenix to get checked out. Phil shook his head again. “Well,” he said, “I wouldn’t hold out much hope for ol’ Red. Unless he’s already in the system, the Vet’s hospital is gonna start charging $250 to give treatment. A lot of ‘em are closing their doors. The Bush people have ordered ‘em to stop publicizing the kinds of assistance they offer, so a lot of vets won’t even know what’s available to ‘em, now. And on top of that, a lot of vets are losing their disability pensions.”
Phil growled a little, and actually showed his teeth. But a tear leaked from his eye. “Those fuckers!” he said. “Those motherfuckers! I hate those god damn fuckers!” His anger just spewed out of him, and his voice quivered even more, like a child who’s been punished for something he didn’t do.
“I gotta go, Jack,” he said, trying not to look at me. “See you later.” And off he went, stalking across the clean mowed lawn, head down, staring at the ground as he walked. He just looked like a big old boy.
* * * * *
Later that day, I went down to the Labor Pool and picked up some work cleaning a big vacant lot near down town. It was a construction company that hired me for the job, along with two other guys—Blankenship Construction. They had their representative down at the Labor Pool, a man named Tom Thistlewaite. Middle-aged, overweight. The weather was hot and his sweat smelled of beer. He had on a rumpled suit, tie loose at the neck and his white shirt was actually wet. He had a little flag pin in his lapel. Just looking at him at first, I was pretty sure he was going to be a hard-ass. But he was actually rather soft-spoken and seemingly polite. I figured he was saving his true colors for when we got out on the job. Just doesn’t want to scare us off, I thought. He talked to us a minute, describing the job a little, then told us to come back early in the morning and he would drive us to the job site.
Next morning, it was still dark and cool when I struggled out of my bedroll. I didn’t have anything to eat but a piece of cornbread, so that was breakfast. Blackeyed peas left over from the night before, I put in a pan for Vincent, left him to mind the “house”, and set out walking for downtown. You’d think he’d try to follow me, but he didn’t. He’s good that way. All I have to do is say, “Stay here, Vincent. Guard the house.” And he does it, no questions asked. He’s a good kid. Sometimes, to be honest, I don’t know what I’d do without him.
I followed the tracks downtown and made it to the Labor Pool by six-thirty, the only lighted place in a row of grim, dark, closed up buildings. Even with its lights on, there’s nothing appealing or cheerful about it. Nothing but a way-station for burned out failures. Twenty or so disheveled looking men stood around inside and outside waiting to go off to various jobs. They smoked and jabbered and sipped coffee from little white Styrofoam cups.
I stepped inside, and found the Bunn coffeemaker just burning the dregs. I poured it off and made half a cup, then went outside and found my two associates squatting against the building, talking in low tones over their cups. We introduced ourselves. One was a black fella, called himself Delbert, about twenty years old, big and muscular, very handsome, almost looked out of place there. The other one was a white guy, Greg, tall and lean, with somewhat long, greasy sandy hair.
Greg wore a big gauze bandage on his forehead, still white and clean. I asked him what happened. He said he was standing on the street near the night shelter with some other guys last night, waiting for the doors to open, when some drunk walked up to him and accused him of stealing his picture.
“His what?” I said.
Greg smiled. “That’s exactly what I said. ‘What picture you talkin’ about, fella?’ And the fella says, ‘You know the one. It’s the picture of my wife. You stole my wife’s picture. Now, you give it over right now or I’m gonna box your ears.’ Well, I just laughed when he said that. I mean, he was at least a head shorter than me, and he was soused and bobbin’ all over the place, so I didn’t take him seriously. And so I says, ‘Well, I don’t have your picture, fella, and I don’t know you or your wife, so why don’t you just git your ass away from here and leave me the hell alone.’ And I kinda pushed him a little, I guess, ‘cause he was standin’ there breathin’ on me, and he stank like a shithouse in a barroom. Well, all of a sudden he hauls off and bops me one in the head, and damn if the little rat-fucker didn’t knock me flat to the ground. Shit, I didn’t know what hit me at first, it was so sudden, I was seein’ stars. I thought somethin’ musta fell outta the sky. Once I got my bearings and could see straight again, I noticed he had a big rock in his hand.”
“A rock?” said Delbert.
“Yep, a rock. Then, I felt somethin’ wet in my eye, and reached up to wipe my head and then I saw my hand was covered in blood. Well, I kinda went crazy, I guess, felt steam comin’ out my eyes, and I said, ‘Goddamn, you little bastard--!’ I think he knew I was gonna kill him if I could just get up, ‘cause right then, he let go that rock, and lit out. I got up to chase him, but I was so dizzy I just fell down again. Luckily, some guys lifted me up and carried me into the shelter. And then one of the shelter people gave me a lift over to the Mercy Hospital, and they stitched me up.”
“You got stitches?” I said.
“Yeah, four stitches! You believe that? And it took ‘em all night to get to me. I almost didn’t make it to the job this mornin’.”
“No shit?” Delbert said.
“No shit, man. I just came from there. Practically ran all the way, with my head like this. Jesus! I don’t know if I can last an hour out there, but I need to make some money.”
Delbert shook his head. “Man, that’s rough.”
Light was beginning to come into the sky and we could all see each other a little better. Just then, the boss pulled up to the curb in his big shiny blue pickup. This morning, he had on a sport coat, no tie, and a brand new straw cowboy hat. “You boys ready to go to work?” he said. We said yes and got up and started for the truck. He handed Greg a bag with a big red “M” on it and said, “What happened to your head?”
“Aw, just a little scrape,” Greg replied. “It’s nothin’.”
“You sure you can work with that?”
“Yes, sir, I can work. I’m fine, really. Never felt better.” Tom Thistlewaite jabbed his thumb toward the back and we hopped in.
On the way to the site, we had two Egg McMuffins apiece, bananas, and fresh coffee, not the labor pool dregs. It was enough to give us a whole new feeling about the day, and about the boss, too.
We drove to the eastern edge of downtown and stopped in front of a big lot on Baxter Street. The lot was hemmed in on three sides by big brown anonymous buildings. The three of us choked when we saw the lot. It was just a pure disaster, full of construction debris and garbage of every description. We climbed down from the back and Tom Thistlewaite got out. There was another truck parked in front of us. A young guy got out, walked around to the back and dropped the gate. It was full of tools—shovels, rakes, three pair of work gloves and three wheelbarrows.
We got all the stuff out and laid it on the sidewalk, then we stood there gawking at the lot. Now, I could see why Tom Thistlewaite was so soft-spoken. He didn’t need to scare us. The work was scary enough. There were piles of dirt and rocks, concrete rubble and rebar, black asphalt, torn tarpaper, roofing and sheetrock, broken bricks, broken glass, broken lumber, paint cans, and just the kind of generic trash you might see in any urban open lot, blown there by the wind or thrown or dumped in the middle of the night by passersby. There were several old aluminum lawn chairs with shredded plastic webbing, a beat up bark lounger, a big red sofa with springs and stuffing popping out of ragged holes.
And huddled in the middle of all this desolation were three lone trees, a little juniper, a deformed scrub oak, and a fair sized elm; they were a ragged and pitiful trio, besieged on all sides by garbage.
Thistlewaite studied our grim faces and smiled. “Now, don’t let this little job throw you,” he said. “You got three days to clean it up. If that’s not enough time, we’ll see what we can do, but we need you to clean it right down to the ground. Just work steady and work together. Fill your wheelbarrows and throw everything in that dumpster, there.” He pointed at a black dumpster parked at the curb.
“Why don’t you just get a bulldozer?” I asked.
He chuckled. “Well, I was gonna do that, but ours is bein’ overhauled. Meanwhile, we need to make some headway on this place, so we hired you. Ain’t you lucky?”
We smiled sheepishly. In the back of Tom’s truck sat a big orange water cooler with a cup dispenser on the side. He dropped the gate and Delbert and I slid it to the edge. “Okay,” he said. “I’m gonna leave this truck here with the water cooler, and I’ll be back at noon with your lunch. Let’s see how far you can get before then. Any questions?”
We shook our heads. He pointed at the cab. “There’s more bananas and apples in yonder, if you need a snack. Make sure you drink plenty of water. I don’t wanna come back here and find somebody passed out on a pile of bricks. Good luck, boys. See you later.”
Then, he and the young guy got in the other pickup and drove off. We stood there a moment. Then, in unison, we each picked up a shovel, a rake and grabbed a wheelbarrow and moved toward the lot. We didn’t have to go far before we hit the first pile, which was mostly brick and rock, five feet wide by three feet high. We all agreed to follow Tom’s advice and work together, so we went to work, filling the wheelbarrows from the same pile, then wheeling them over to the dumpster and emptying them out.
We trudged along for an hour or so, but without any real pep. You might say we were just pacing ourselves to get through the day, but you’d be wrong. Truth is we were intimidated by the work, so we had no enthusiasm. It dawned on me that if we kept working at that pace, we wouldn’t really be saving energy, just letting it all out like the air from an inner tube. It was the same dilemma I saw in a movie one time. The movie was Cool Hand Luke, and it was one of the best pictures I ever saw. Maybe you remember it. Paul Newman, as Luke, gets himself thrown into a state prison somewhere in the South. At least, that’s what it looks like on the surface. But it’s really about a total non-conformist, someone who refuses to recognize the rules of society or take orders from bosses or anyone else. And what the movie says will happen to that person is that society will eventually squash him like a bug.
Anyway, there’s this scene in Cool Hand Luke when he and the other convicts are out on work detail one hot day, shoveling gravel down a long straight road. The pace is set by “No Eyes,” the lead guard, whose face is forever hidden behind mirrored sunglasses—the cold, anonymous face of the State; No Eyes is a crack shot with a deer rifle, who hardly ever utters a word. He walks down the road swinging his cane, ahead of the line of men, who must try to keep up. And, of course, at first, it’s just a steady burn, the road seems to stretch forever, the men are quiet and grim-faced as they trudge along. But then, something happens. Luke instinctively knows the men are intimidated by the work and the guards; he can read the defeat in their faces.
So, at that moment, he turns to them, whispering excitedly, to come on, pick up the pace. “Let’s pass No Eyes,” he says to them, suggesting the quicker they get done, they’ll have the rest of the day to lie in the weeds and relax.
And, of course, it works. Suddenly, the men are galvanized like never before, especially at the thought of passing up the murderous guard, which had never occurred to them. So now the pace picks up, the men march forward, swinging their shovels, furiously throwing gravel down on the road. We see shovels rhythmically stabbing gravel and slinging it down. We see faces lit up, eyes ablaze with new life. Now, in this moment, they’re free, alive, sweeping ever forward, all eyes pinned to the indifferent back of the guard as they begin to close the gap between them. And then comes the moment—almost like magic—when they realize they’ve actually caught him, and as they overtake him and brush on by, we can almost see through the mirrors at the stunned eyes watching the convicts around him all laughing riotously, no longer defeated. And we can see that what really irks him in that moment is the awareness that he is no longer in control, he no longer owns these men.
So as we finished emptying another load in the dumpster, I was thinking about Cool Hand Luke. Then, I got to looking at the three lone trees marking the middle of the lot, and suddenly, I had an idea. Turning to the others, I said, “Let’s make those trees our goal.”
Delbert looked up, sweat dripping from his forehead. “What do you mean?” he said.
“We’ll work in a circle—all the way around ‘em, till they’re free. We’ll liberate those boys. What do you say?”
Both men smiled. “Sounds good to me,” said Greg.
“Count me in,” said Delbert.
So the trees became our goal. And just like in the movie, suddenly, we were energized. It was really strange, but from then on, we worked furiously, as if we were on a mission, a larger reason to do the work than just ridding a non-descript lot of years of debris. We were driven. We went from one pile to the next, working clockwise around the trees. Sometimes when a barrow got too heavy with rock and broken brick, two of us would get on it, one on each handle, and steer it over to the dumpster. It was kind of funny and strange how we three strangers seemed to meld together. We all noticed it, I think, because, every so often, we’d be in the middle of some task, and look at each other, and just grin. Or even break out laughing. We were actually enjoying the work. In fact, it even ceased to be like work. It was Delbert who first spoke of it. We were back at the dumpster, working a mile a minute, all three of us, huffing and puffing, and suddenly Delbert paused, and said, “Hey, you guys, look at us!” We stopped and looked. Delbert smiled, shaking his head. “We just a workin’ machine!”
Greg said, “Yeah, we somethin’, all right. My head’s about to split, and I don’t even give a shit.”
“Those trees are waitin’,” I said.
“Let’s go,” said Delbert. And off we went again.
Still, it was slow going. If you pictured the whole lot with its trees in the middle being a clock face, by noon, we’d only cleared out maybe an hour’s worth of trash and rubble. But that hour that we cleared out was nice and smooth, clean to the ground. When Tom Thistlewaite showed up with our lunch and surveyed the work, he was pleased. He gave a little sharp whistle. “Whew. You boys been humpin’ it, ain’t you?” he said. We smiled and looked at the ground. Thistlewaite whistled again. “Well, gonna take more than three days to do this job, I can see that right now. Gonna take a week, easy. But at least, I got three guys ain’t afraid of a little work.”
He went in his truck and came out with a grocery sack full of food. He handed it to me, then, he looked at his watch. “Okay, I want you to take an hour for lunch, then get going again. I don’t imagine you’ll get as much done as you did this morning, but just do the best you can. I’ll be back at five and take you to the labor pool, so you can sign out.” Then, he got in his truck and turned and looked at us. He actually winked, and said, “Good work, fellas!” And then he drove off.
We crossed the street and sat under the awning of a warehouse to eat our lunch. Mr. Thistlewaite had brought us cold cuts, a loaf of wheat bread, some sharp cheddar cheese, spicy brown mustard, mayonase and red-tipped lettuce. We found a jar of pickles, more bananas and oranges, a big can of V-8 and a big bottle of grape juice. He had brought along an ice chest to keep our fixings fresh. The guy thought of everything. And I was so sure he was going to be an asshole. Well, it just goes to show you can’t always judge a book by its cover.
We finished lunch in about thirty minutes. We all agreed if we sat too long after eating, we might start to get sleepy, so we got up and walked back across the street. As we stood over our wheelbarrows, Greg clicked his tongue and said, “Hmp.”
“What is it?” I said.
“Just thinkin’ about somethin’ Thistlewaite said before he left.”
“Said we probably won’t get as much done as we did this morning.”
Delbert smiled. “Yeah, I heard him say that, too.”
“Why do you think he said that?” I said.
“I don’t know,” said Greg, “but I think maybe we need to prove him wrong.”
Delbert and I looked at each other and nodded agreement. Then, we picked up our shovels and got down to business.
That afternoon, we worked with a fury. By five o’clock, we had a whole new section cleaned out—at least an hour on the clock-face, plus a little more. When Thistlewaite showed up, he couldn’t believe his eyes. Just kept shaking his head. “Well, I never,” he said. In fact, must have said it two or three times.
He drove us back to the Labor Pool and told us to be there same time next morning. And so we were.
And so it went, and we ended up working a whole week cleaning the lot on Baxter Street. And we skinned that lot down to the ground. It took three dumpsters to hold what we cleaned up.
On the last day, we actually finished around three o’clock. After we dumped the last pile, we just stood on the sidewalk awhile surveying our handiwork. The lot was clean as a pin, and the trees stood out free and unencumbered. We thought we could hear them thanking us. The breeze seemed to blow through them in a different way. At last, we strolled over and sat down under them. Luckily, one of us thought to bring the snacks, ‘cause once we sat down, I doubt if anybody would have felt like walking back to the truck.
Amazingly, the grass there was still green, and there was yet a layer of grass over the whole lot, even though most of it had been buried for a long time, and there were quite a few dead spots and weeds and stickers and thistles; but minus all the debris, we thought it looked pretty good, and as we sat there quietly looking, it suddenly came to me that we were very proud of our work.
We were sitting there looking pretty relaxed when Tom Thistlewaite drove up at five o’clock. He got out and walked over to us. He just looked amazed. I don’t think he knew what to say. He took off his straw hat as he walked up. “Well,” he said. “Well. Wow. This is--. Wow.” He paused. Then, he said, “Well, your checks are waitin’ for you.”
As we got up, I realized for the first time, how sore I was. We all groaned a little as we climbed up in the truck. I noticed as we drove off, all three of us were watching the little lot disappear in the distance. We were about to get paid. We should have been happy, I guess, but nobody said anything. Funny how you get attached to a place, no matter how homely it is—when you’ve worked on it awhile, when you’ve swept it out and made it your own.
I thought about all the grungy forgotten lots in all the big cities. I thought what if all you had to do to lay claim to them was to go in and clean them up, love them a little—plant trees, flowers; put in a garden, perhaps, some flagstone paths and maybe a bench for folks to sit on. And once you’ve done that, then that lot becomes the peoples’ property, and nobody else can claim it, no developers can come along and build on it.
A few days ago, Vincent and I were walking down Baxter Street on our way to Johnny Blair’s Café. We walked clear past the place where Delbert, Greg and I had worked so hard for a week, and got to the next corner before I realized where I was. Then we turned around and went back and looked. It was a four-story parking garage. The juniper, the oak and the elm were gone.