Monday, March 28, 2005
DIARY OF A RAG AND BONE MAN
No. 10. HERE COMES SPRING, by Jack Rafter.
Rough winter. Down with flu for two weeks, but I’m back on my feet again. For the most part, Vincent (my dog) and I spent the winter in Red Dunkel’s tent in the woods by the freight yards. Red hopped a freight train to Phoenix before the cold weather hit. Said he had a sister living out there and was going to look her up. And while he was there, said he was going to see about getting a checkup at the V.A. hospital. Hope he made it all right. His drinking was getting pretty bad before he left; maybe they can get him off the sauce. He thought he might be back in a month or so, but now it’s the middle of March, he’s still gone, and I haven’t heard anything about him. I figure maybe his sister took him in, if he found her.
Around Christmas, I caught a nasty cold-—this was before I caught the flu. Sleeping out was only aggravating the situation, and I couldn’t seem to get over it. Then, I had a little bit of luck. I was snooping in the dumpster out back of the YMCA one afternoon, when I noticed somebody had left a door open at the back. There’s a kitchen in the Y, and since there’s more yuppies going to the Y than ever before, I’ve observed an increase in the amount of food they throw away there. (It seems like it’s mostly your A-fluent people who can afford to throw away copious amounts of food.) Anyway, it was close to sundown when I noticed a certain door was ajar. The door was located down a flight of steps that lead into the basement. I glanced around, went down the steps, pulled open the door and went in.
First there was a hallway with lots of pipes running overhead. The hall lead to a big room lit with light bulbs in little cages. Half the room was caged off with a big boiler sitting inside the cage. The whole place was heated with steam heat, so the pipes overhead were hissing and pinging. It was like a conversation going on all around. On the other side of the room were two closed doors, one marked, “Storage”—-it was locked-—and the other, a few feet away, said, “Janitor” on it. I knocked, but no one answered. In fact, no one seemed to be around. I tried the door and found it unlocked, so I pushed it open and stepped inside.
It was pitch dark. I felt along the wall and found the light switch, and had a look around. Whoever the guy was, he had set it up pretty nice. Even had a cot in there—nice regulation army, with blankets and everything. There was a utility closet, a desk, an entire pegboard wall with tools hanging on it, each one had an outline of itself in black magic marker. The desk was made of steel, painted gray. Except for two items, the top of the desk was spotless. One of the items was a set of about a hundred keys on a brass ring; the other was a picture of the janitor’s wife in a fine little gold standup frame—a black lady, looked about sixty-years-old. She wasn’t smiling exactly, but there was a definite warmth in her eyes.
A file cabinet sat next to the desk, on top of which I found the janitor’s time card; the name, Washburn, John C., typed across the top. He worked regular hours—eight to five. I figured he was probably some old guy who had been there half his life, and had the routine down so good he could take catnaps now and then. Most of the time, the management probably didn’t even know he was there.
I took the keys and tried them on the storage room till I found the right one. I was surprised to find it vacant. Or almost. There was an old suitcase banked against one wall. I opened it and found it empty. But a search of the old ratty nylon pockets turned up a dollar bill. I started to take it, but something told me to leave it alone, so I left the dollar and closed up the suitcase.
The temperature that night was supposed to dip into the twenties. I took the key to the storage room, found the one that fit the lock on the outside door, then I was off to the hardware to made copies. After that, Vincent and I hoofed it over to our little camp by the tracks. I broke the tent down, rolled up my bedroll, and loaded the whole works in my wagon (an old Radio Flyer I found at a resale shop for five bucks.)
It was after eight o’clock by the time we got back to the Y, and it was pretty cold. I was wiped. Sneezing, runny nose, coughing, hacking, the works. I wished I had some of that NIQUIL, or whatever that is that helps you sleep when you're sick as a dog, but I was a little short of funds that night. We also did without dinner. I didn't feel like going out again, anyway. I returned the original keys to the ring, then rolled my wagon with my bedroll and other gear into the “Storage” room.
Well, the first night I spent there was a little spooky. In the first place, once the light was off, it was like being in a mineshaft. Pitch-perfect darkness. Then there was all that cacophony in the pipes running overhead. Most of the time the noise just hummed and pinged and whistled along, but every so often, there came a sound like someone banging a hammer against one of the pipes, and I would wake with a start. Vincent didn’t sleep at all, but whimpered and paced the room till dawn. Thus, added to all the rest were the sound of his whimpering and the click-click-click of his toenails as he paced. It all took some getting used to. But at least we were warm.
I stayed there several nights till I could get over being sick. After that, we went back to the train yards. I made up my mind to stay at the Y only if the weather turned really bad or if I were just too sick to sleep out. It became my safety-net over the winter.
* * * *
With the weather turning warmer, Vincent and I took to the neighborhoods to try and snare a little work. My plan was to try to get in ahead of the usual yard guys and offer to do some weeding and turn some beds for spring flower planting. Of course, I don’t have any tools, but I figured most people who still own their houses have shovels and hoes and what-not, and I pulled my wagon along to use for moving dirt.
Well, as they say at the racetrack, things just didn’t quite work out the way I envisioned. Naturally, I went through the wealthier neighborhoods, with the biggest houses and the finest yards. The first house I picked was a plantation style home with columns and a statue of a Negro holding a lantern next to the porch. There were lots of flowerbeds and they were looking kind of unkempt after the winter. So I rang the bell. In a minute or so, I heard the bolt turn and the door swung open. A black lady in a white uniform stood in the entrance.
I says, "Good morning, Miss. I'm a landscape professional. By any chance, would you be the person in charge of the grounds hereabouts?"
She smiled as if she'd just heard the best joke she was apt to hear all day, and said, "Wait here. I'll fetch the lady of the house."
"Thank you, ma'am."
She smiled again and went off. About a minute later, an old white haired lady walked up. "What can I do for you, young man?" she smiled.
I introduced myself and pointed out that her flowerbeds could use some tending to.
“Well," she says, "I have a landscape man who works on my place. I’m expecting him to start in a week or so.”
I says, “Well, ma’am, I could go ahead and be turning those beds for you, getting them ready, you see, and probably do it cheaper than he’ll do it for you. But then they’ll be ready, and then all he has to do is come along and put in the plants. See what I mean?”
She says, “Hmm, well, that sounds like it might be a good idea.”
She seemed like she might go for it, when she looks past me, kind of frowning a little, and says, “Where’s your truck?”
I smiled and said, “Well, ma’am, my truck is actually in the shop right at the moment, but I just figured I could use your shovel and your hoe, if you wouldn't mind.”
She says, “Well, I guess that would be all right.” But I could see the gears starting to turn and hear the doubt creeping into her voice. Her eyes focused past me again, and I knew she was scoping out my beat up old wagon and the somewhat disheveled dog tied to it.
“What is that?” she says, pointing with a bony finger.
“Oh, that? That’s my wagon and my dog.”
“What are they doing there?”
“Well, I use the wagon to move dirt and rocks and such. I like it better than a wheelbarrow for garden work.”
“Oh, I see. And what about the dog?” she says.
“Well, that’s Vincent. He’s just my dog. He goes with me.”
“Vincent? What kind of a name is that for a dog?” she wanted to know.
I managed a smile. “Well, I named him after Vincent Van Gogh, the artist.”
“Oh.” She paused, and seemed to study on that a little. Then she says,
Well. . . I just don’t know about that.”
“I assure you ma’am, I can do you a real good job on those beds.”
“I’m sure you can,” she said, smiling with great forbearance. “But, well, perhaps I better wait till my man comes at the end of March. I don’t really know what he plans to do out there, and, you know, he might be upset if I were to use someone else. Maybe I better just stick with him. Thank you anyway, young man.” Then, smiling, she closed the door.
And that’s pretty much how it went with every house I went to, with slight variations. Almost without exception, the one thing they all wanted to know was, “Where’s your truck?”
* * * *
I had some money, so I went to a convenience store and bought a sandwich for lunch. Then I decided to try my luck in a more middle-class neighborhood. I thought maybe those folks wouldn’t be quite as hung up over the idea of my not having a truck.
Sure enough, fewer people asked me that question. And they seemed less concerned with the idea that my dog was trailing me around. I actually scored a job mowing a lawn, using their mower. Made twenty bucks. Not bad.