Sunday, February 12, 2006
DIARY OF A RAG AND BONE MAN
(THE CONTINUING SAGA OF A HOMELESS MAN AND HIS DOG.)
by Jack Rafter.
Well, Vincent and I have suffered through some cold nights lately. We spent several nights in the tent in the strip of woods by the railroad, our usual campsite. But then it got so cold, we decided to break camp and trekked over to our fall-back camp in the basement of the downtown YMCA. (More on that later.)
We call the strip of woods by the railroad Sherwood Forest. We have a little homeless committee that meets once a week down there to discuss various issues, one of which is the ongoing problem of new people wanting to make camp or live in our woods. We get new ones coming in almost every day. Most are local, but a few strays are showing up from out of town. Believe it or not, there are some riders on the freight trains even in the most bitter cold weather. Personally, the only times I ever hopped a train was in the summer months, which is hard enough. Several years ago, I caught a train up in Roseville, California and rode it across the mountains into Utah and Nevada. This was in the month of August, so I really wasn't thinking how cold it might get once I got up in the mountains above the deserts. Well, I was on that train all night and the temperature dropped down in the thirties. All I had was a little second-hand windbreaker and a thin army blanket. I thought I was going to die.
So I can't fathom actually getting on and riding in the winter. But there are some, I guess, who are desperate enough to get somewhere.
Anyway, in Sherwood, we are trying to limit the number of new applicants for space in our woods. Space is limited and we are not anxious to draw heat from either the railroad people or the cops. Whenever the cops start seeing too many homeless bunched up in one place, they tend to think they have to do something about it. And what they usually do is start throwing people in jail. Now, if the weather becomes a real problem, then ending up in jail may not be a bad thing. Yes, there are some homeless who actually try to get arrested for vag so they can get out of the cold, but in my own experience, most of them would do almost anything to avoid getting in jail. Some have said they would even prefer sleeping on the cold ground to dealing with cops.
As I was saying, Vincent and I moved our camp to the Y a few nights ago. If you will recall, in a previous entry, I revealed how I discovered a way into the basement of the downtown Y (and it really isn't the Y, by the way, that's just what I'm calling it.) If I'm not in Sherwood on any particular nights, I leave my campsite and tent with someone I can trust, usually someone on the committee. Also, according to the rules we have established, no one loses his residency in Sherwood unless it can be shown they've been gone more than a week. So all you have to do is keep checking in from time to time. The homeless committee is pretty good at keeping track of people.
What's good about the Y is it's in this old-timey building that dates back to the twenties. It has steam heat, and the boilers are in the basement, so it gives Vincent and me a chance to really get warm all the way to the bone. This, I believe, to be an essential component to surviving the winter—is being able to get really warm from time to time. Also, there's a shower down there, which the janitor can use if he's been doing some dirty work, or if he just wants to clean up before he goes home for the evening.
Now, that's another nice thing, too, is just being able to get into a real hot steamy shower and let that hot water run on you for awhile and let it seep into your marrow. It's amazing how rejuvenating that can be after spending a lot of freezing nights out of doors. Most people in this country, the ones who still live in their houses, really have no idea how lucky they are to have roofs over their heads and a place where they can take a hot bath or a good steamy shower. The fact that most people in the world actually do not have these things is just totally beyond the comprehension of most Americans. It just doesn't touch them in any way.
But for many, I believe, all that is going to change, as the price of natural gas and electricity continues to soar, while jobs and income continue to decline. For old people and others on fixed incomes, and for all those many many thousands who are making poverty level wages or below, and who have families to support, the cold water bath is already getting to be a well-known and established feature of their daily existence. And having heat in their homes is either a luxury or a fading memory.
Up until last night, I hadn't met the janitor of the Y. But I knew what he looked like from a discarded i.d. photograph in his desk drawer. I knew he was black, I knew his name was Gilbert Chistian Gooch. I saw pictures of his wife and kids on his desk and on the walls. His office was real neat. He even had a little four by five foot carpet on the floor. Sometimes I slept on the couch in his office. Other times, I pulled my sleeping bag into an adjoining room.
Last night, I was sacked out on the couch, using my sleeping bag for a cover. Vincent was asleep on the carpet. We heard the outside door slam. Vincent jumped up. I sat up groggily and looked around. Suddenly, the office door opened, the light came on, and there was Gilbert C. Gooch standing there in his khaki janitor's uniform. He looked a little older than the i.d. photograph. His mustache and hair were whiter. Also he was bigger than I had envisioned him, strong and muscular, even for an older man.
He looked kind of stunned for a minute. I guess we both did. Luckily, Vincent had enough sense not to bark at him. Maybe he was already used to Gilbert's scent, which must have been present all along.
“What you doin' here?” said Gilbert Gooch.
“I—I'm--sorry,” I stammered, trying to sit up. “I don't mean to trespass or anything. I just needed a place to sleep. I live most of the time down by the train yard, the big one. You know where I'm talking about?”
“I don't care where you live. You're not s'posed to be in here. You and that dog gonna have to get outta here.”
“Yes, sir, you're right,” I said, getting on my feet. “I'm going right now.” I picked up my shoes and my unrolled sleeping bag, and started for the door. Vincent fell in behind me. He never made a sound. Not a whimper. Sometimes, I just have to hand it to him. His head may be down and his tail tucked, but he has a way of taking bad news stoically.
(More to follow.)