Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Diary Of A Rag And Bone Man

The Continuing Saga of a Homeless Man and his Dog

by Jack Rafter

Woke up to snow this morning. Damn near froze my ass off last night in my little tent by the train yard. Nights like that make you feel grateful for a dog. Good ol Vincent snuggled up close, kept at least part of me from freezing to death. Problem is the sleeping bag. She's all gone to rot and the feathers are falling out. Gonna have to scrounge another somewhere. We boiled some water over the cookstove, had some oats and coffee. Then broke camp and hightailed it downtown. Straight for the library.

I carry a blind man's fold-up stick in my shoulder bag--got it for a dollar at the Mexican flea-market. So if we go in somewhere, I just get out the stick and put on a pair of dark glasses. Vincent always pulls a little ahead of me on the leash, so with the sunglasses and the stick in play, people think he's a guide dog. That's how I smuggle him in on cold mornings. Some may wonder why he doesn't have the leather harness gizmo with the handle on it, or how come a guide dog looks like it hangs out in junkyards, but they never say anything. Nobody messes with blind people nowadays. They're all scared of lawsuits, and they don't want to look like assholes.

I thought about using the blind act as a panhandling gimmick, but you want to be careful with a thing like that. I figure if it gets you and your dog in out of the rain or cold, that's one thing. But if you use it to enrich yourself, it could turn on you. You don't want to mess with your Kharma. So we walked in.

Well, everybody was there. All the folks from the train yard--there was Billy and Frank and Lena, Oskar and Clarice. All sitting at different tables or hunkered down in comfy chairs. Trying to appear nonchalant in their filthy clothes with unkempt hair and scruffy beards. They all had books in their hands or a magazine, and looked almost studious, like the bedraggled pupils of a hobo cooking class. I nodded to them, subtly, as I walked by. Had to keep looking straight ahead, of course, like I couldn't see them. They knew who I was, so they nodded or winked on the sly. There were others besides them I didn't recognize. I tell you, cold days like this, the library starts looking more and more like a day-shelter for the homeless. The librarians spend half their time being a cop, making sure nobody's asleep. If they are, then out they go. You have to sit there with a book and try to look like you're reading or studying, when all you're really there for is to get warm and think about how you'll score your next meal.

Maybe that's why the city keeps cutting the library hours. God forbid the place should become a haven for outcasts trying to get out of the cold. I read somewhere that Mayor LaGuardia kept the libraries of New York City open clear through the Depression era. The last one, I mean. He knew the homeless were bunching up in those places, but he wasn't gonna shut em out because he had a heart. He also knew it was the one thing people could still do for free--read books. Well, there you go--one more example of the demon socialism.

I spied a friend seated at a table in the history section, so I took a seat across from him. Vincent plopped down on my foot and leaned against my leg. Big smile on his face. I knew he was happy to be out of the cold. So was I.

My friend Gordon was sitting there bent over a newspaper, looking at it real close. Squinting his eyes. That's how you know it's Gordon. You can spot him a mile away. He spends a lot of time in the library even on warm days cause he actually likes to read. He'll spend upwards of eight hours at a stretch reading. Today it was the newspaper. But it could be anything. Novels, poetry, plays, history, music, art, travel journals, you name it. Definitely a sick man. He needs glasses, but he won't buy them cause he doesn't have the money.

He's a strange dude. Used to be a stock-broker. Had him a wife and kids, cell phone, SUV, the whole nine yards. Then the crash came. He lost a lot of money--his own, and other peoples' too. He almost jumped out the window of his twenty-second floor office, but something changed his mind.

He went through his savings. Lost his home. His wife divorced him. He was a little crazy for awhile. Maybe still is. Hard to tell. He's on some meds, I believe, but he forgets to take them. He moves around a lot. He started out staying in a friend's garage. After the friend kicked him out, he showed up with a tent and lived in the freight train camp. That's where I met him. From there, he went to a salvage yard where he took up residence in the back of a wrecked Volvo station wagon. He was there almost a month. Then it was a condemned house for two months, a dilapidated barn for a week, followed by a tool shed behind a machine shop.

The tool shed was interesting. He figured out how to pick the lock. He only stayed there at night after the machinists went home, and he was always careful to put the lock back on the door in the morning. He said he really liked the tool shed cause it had a portable electric heater nobody was using and a grimy old radio that still worked. Also, the machinists kept regular hours and they were predictable. So he stayed there six months and nobody had a clue someone was living there.

Then one night a workman showed up needing some tool or other from the shed. He heard music playing softly--Gordon had the radio tuned to a classical station to lull him to sleep--Debussy's Prelude To The Afternoon Of A Fawn. The machinist turned him over to the cops. He spent three months in jail for breaking and entering, trespass, and vagrancy.

He now lives in a boxcar at the freight yards.

When I sat down, he said, "Hi, Jack," without looking up from his paper. I said hello, Gordon. Then, he held up a hand and said, "I'll be with you in a minute." I looked at the paper. He appeared to be reading about the president's latest machinations--sending more troops to Afghanistan. Added to the ones already there it would make a total of a hundred-thousand troops. Gordon made little groaning sounds and shook his head. He squinted his eyes.

"You oughta get yourself some glasses," I said after awhile.
"I know," he muttered. Then held up his hand again, so I shut up. He kept reading, squinting, groaning. Finally, he shook his head and mumbled something.
"What's that?" I said.
"I said there's something wrong with him."
"Wrong with who?"
"With the O-man. Obama."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean there's something not right about him."
"You mean he's crazy?"
"No, not crazy. Not exactly."
"Well, what do you mean, then?" I said.

Gordon picked up a pencil and stared at it for a moment, his eyes almost crossed. "I mean he's not right in the head."


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