Friday, May 30, 2008

Spare Change #5

“You got any smokes?”

“No, I don’t smoke.”

“Got a lighter?”



“Do I look like a god damn convenience store Parker?”

“Sorry J.”

I was glad to see Parker for the first time in four weeks for about five minutes. That was three hours ago. Two hours and fifty-five minutes of his non-stop chattering and a smaller than usual take from my clients have made me wish he’d crawl back under whatever rock he’d been hiding under. Which reminds me…

“Where the hell you been anyway?”

“They saying I OD’d again?”

“Of course.”

“Man, you over do it a couple times and people expect nothin’ else from you.”

“It ain’t personal, it’s what they say about everybody.”

Parker actually stops talking for a minute to think that over. A little girl drops my first five of the day into my hat and I decide to try to keep him thinking for as much of the day as possible.

“I guess that’s true,” he says, “it just hits a little too close to home for me.”

“You ain’t got no home to hit, man.”

“It’s just an expression J - loosen up a bit, it’ll do you some good.”

I let out a few long breaths until the urge to punch him right between the eyes moves on. That kind of behavior is bad for business – mine and the shops around me. I always do my best to make sure I’m welcome back at my Beg Five; maybe my best move for today would be to go elsewhere for the afternoon.

“So if you didn’t OD, where you been?”

“My sister found me down on Grant Street,” he says, closing his eyes and resting the back of his head against the wall. “I dunno how long she’d been looking but it sounded like a long time. I guess she got it in her head to ‘save me’ or some junk.”

Was there anyone out there looking to save me? Dad’s long gone, who knows if Mom’s still kicking, Karl is probably the closest thing to family I’ve got left. And that just ain’t the same…

“She wouldn’t let me out of her sight until I checked into rehab, so I did. She dropped by to check up on me every day for the first two weeks, then every couple days, then once a week. I think it hurt her too much to see me not making any progress.”

“Change don’t happen that fast bro.”

“You and I know that J but people that have never got the shakes, the cravings, they don’t know nothing about it.”

I nod my head and keep quiet. In my weaker moments I like to think I’m not addicted, that I can stay clean if I really wanted to. But then I remember why I need Karl to take care of my money, why I can’t trust myself with it, and the truth of my urges come strolling back into my mind.

“So I checked out to save us both the pain.”

“And now here you are again.”

“And now here I am, same as I ever was.”

We fall into silence for a long time, watching people walk past. People who think they’ve got “real” problems to deal with. Sometimes I wonder what it would take for them to realize that being unable to afford that vacation in Hawaii ain’t a real problem. That staying in motels instead of five star resorts ain’t a real problem. That having an idiot for a boss ain’t a real problem. But mostly I wonder how long any of them would last in my shoes.

“These people have no idea J. No clue what it’s like to be me or you. Put ‘em on the street, they couldn’t make ends meet. The hunger would go straight to their head, before the week’s over they’d end up dead.”

“Four weeks in rehab and he comes out thinking he’s a poet.”

“Hey, I had way too much time on my hands, I had to do something to keep busy. Besides, maybe I can bring in a few more dollars if people like what I come up with.”

“Yeah, then you can do up some shirts that say ‘I heard the Rhyming Bum and all I got was this t-shirt.’ Then before you know it you’ll be on the late night shows and…”

“Why you gotta shoot me down like that? You want me stuck here till I die? Let a man dream J.”

“Sorry Parker, I got carried away.”

He’s probably right though. I want to be the one to lead the way from the streets to the penthouse. To show my brothers and sisters that it can be done, that it’s possible to escape this hell if you’ve got the will. I don’t want to follow in anyone else’s footsteps.

But if I want to lead, I better start walking.

“It’s good to see you again Parker,” I say as I gather up my hat and stand up. “Let me know how the poems work out.”

“Will do my man, will do. Take care of yourself.”

“I do my best,” I say over my shoulder as I start to walk away. “I do my very best.”

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Spare Change #4

The night gathers in around me, whispering empty promises of rest and relief. The shop lights go out, the street lamps come on and I begin my walk home.

I like to do the return trip by foot when the weather is agreeable to the idea. It costs nothing but time (the one thing I’m fabulously rich in) and gets me off my butt after a long day of sitting, staring and (sometimes) sleeping.

I have no Night Time Jerry, no yet to be jaded driver to chauffeur me home free of charge. There are too many of us out and about when the sun goes down and not all of my brothers and sisters of the streets are blessed with my social graces. I learned quickly enough that “come on man, don’t be stupid, I ain’t got no cash” is not a good enough argument to earn a fare-free trip.

And I’m trying to save my money – I don’t know what for exactly, not yet anyway, but I know I can’t go on like this much longer. Five years on the streets have killed better men and women than I and year number six is coming up fast.

I have a shoebox full of bills stowed behind a loose ceiling panel for daily necessities and the odd impulse buy. I try not to keep too much up there since my impulses tend to lean in the direction of Tommy and his evil concoctions.

There’s a sock full of change under a floor board next to the couch that’s partly for protection and partly for small purchases. I’ve never had to use it for the former but get plenty of use from the latter – I’ve got a soft spot for Tic Tacs.

All the rest I trust to Karl, a high school friend turned social worker. Once a week we meet up for ice cream down at Ricky’s on 8th Street. We talk about our weeks over bowls of mint chocolate ice cream and before we part I hand over whatever I want stashed away. Sometimes it’s as little as five bucks, on the odd occasion it’s as much as a hundred, but I always have something for him.

Karl always takes the money with that near-constant smile of encouragement and limps across the street to deposit it in “our” account. He takes care of the paperwork and answers the questions I don’t even understand but he cannot withdraw a dime. That’s the one thing I can do, but only if he’s with me. And he won’t let me in there with him until I have a damn good plan for that cash.

We opened up the account around two years ago; I can still see the look on the bank manager’s face when Karl was explaining what we wanted. I don’t know how much is in there now, he won’t tell me until I come up with a list of good options for it. I don’t know what’s stopping me from doing that. Maybe I’m scared I’ll screw it up and end up back here with nothing again.

I hang a right down Brooks Avenue as the shops become a little more spread out, a little more run down. Traffic is more sporadic now, but no less noisy. A car races by, vibrating in time with the bass of its too-loud stereo. I may have to walk or bus everywhere but at least I’ll take my hearing to the grave. Well, they might too if they keep driving like that.

Besides a few strays out walking their dogs I have the sidewalk to myself. I’ve got a decent amount of cash on me, squirreled away in various pockets, but I know I’m perfectly safe. For some reason people never seem to think someone like me has any money.

My stomach rumbles as I pass another convenience store but I ignore it. Just a bit further to the only half-decent deli this side of downtown. Sarah always saves me a ham and cheese on multigrain with a side of yam fries; at four bucks it’s the best deal in town. It’s nice having people look out for you.

I pass an alley full of people but empty of dreams and keep walking. I know they take good care of each other down there but they also don’t care for outsiders. It’s a bum community of ten or eleven that watch out for each other from hour to hour but they’ve got no long term vision. Not like me. My vision might be cloudy but at least I’m looking.

What do people do with large amounts of cash? I’ve never had the chance before and I don’t have a damn clue. Karl won’t even give me a hint, he wants the idea to be all mine so that I’ll stick with it. But I don’t have a damn clue.

Sarah’s deli is all shut up by the time I get there but she’s a sweet old lady that won’t let me go hungry. I open up the black mailbox that hangs off the front door to find my dinner waiting in a brown paper bag. I take it out, drop four bucks in and head for home.

As I reach my block the food is all gone save for a couple fries. I like to leave those out for Phakov in the hopes that my wake up call will be gentler if he’s had a bite to eat. No luck so far.

I stand outside my building and take a few final breaths of the crisp night air. I look around at all the broken windows and empty barrels and broken down cars. How much money would it take to escape this? Would I survive the fall back here if I failed? Is change worth the risk?

Friday, May 16, 2008

Spare Change #3

“Get a job you lazy bum!”

“You know, I think I will! Thank you kind sir, you’ve inspired me!”

He stops in his tracks. They never expect a response to that one, always catches them off guard. Some handle it better than others, the smart ones ignore it. He doesn’t.

“Oh yeah?” he says, taking a few steps back towards Beg Site #2.

“Absolutely! I’ll get right to it,” I tell him as earnestly as possible. “I’ll head home and write up some resumes this afternoon. Only, I can’t afford paper so I guess I’ll have to use toilet paper.”

His face begins to turn red, with embarrassment or rage it’s too early to tell. Not that I care, I’d carry on regardless.

“And I don’t have a pen or pencil, so I’ll have to use my blood for ink. Oh,” I exclaim, dismay lumbering across my face, “but I can’t read!”

That’s a lie. I can read newspapers just fine. I enjoy them actually; they always make me feel better about my lot in life. I read an interview the other day with Max O’Conner, a guy who just finished a ten year stint in the slammer. He said that during his ‘tour of duty’ his fellow inmates’ shivved him twenty-two times, beat him ‘til he was unconscious twice and knocked out five of his teeth. He never filed a single complaint. I admire that.

“You think you’re some kind of funny man?” People are stopping to watch now - everybody loves a free show. I look him up and down: mid-fifties, balding and grey on top, bulging in the middle. His shirt, full of vertical stripes for that slimming effect, is straining to contain his too-many-trips-to-7-Eleven-gut. I don’t even want to think about what his poor belt is going through.

“You think ‘get a job’ is useful advice to someone in my position?” I ask him, honestly curious to hear his answer. “Like it’s something I’ve never heard or thought of before?”

“What, I’m supposed to feel sorry for you? Give you some money to go score drugs and booze?” His jowls are practically quivering, like a walrus having a seizure. As I imagine tusks protruding from his face I can’t help but laugh. He doesn’t take it very well.

“Somebody needs to teach you a lesson,” Walrus says.

“That ‘somebody’ gonna be you, tough guy? You look like you’d run out of breath walking to the fridge.” The words are out of my mouth before I realize what I’ve done. I’ve backed him into a corner and now he’s only got two choices: fight or flight, and he doesn’t look like a card carrying member of the Ricky Rabbit Running Club.

He takes a half step back then kicks me under my right knee like he’s going for a fifty yard field goal. It hurts like hell but I don’t cry out; if old Max can go through what he did and never complain, I can take a few kicks. A few people in the crowd mutter the required indignations but most say nothing at all. Two or three look like they wish they were the ones doing the kicking.

Walrus gets a few more kicks in before he starts breathing heavily, his eyes wide and wild with a primal joy in them. I don’t fight back – “he hit me first” didn’t work in elementary school and it sure doesn’t fly with the police. So I take my kicking like a good bum should.

He looms over me for a few moments, revelling in his victory over evil, before straightening his tie and taking a few steps back. He nods to his admirers and then strides off to his desk job to conquer the rest of the bad men of the world, one meeting at a time.

My leg throbs but I refuse to let it show. I sit up straight and look around casually, not a care in the world, no siree. I’m going to have to get really drunk tonight to dull this pain, I should probably get an early start on it.

A young lady silently drops a twenty into my lap. I thank her with my eyes; words are never enough when genuine gratitude is involved. She smiles sadly before walking away slowly. I stuff the bill into a pocket and return to my watch. Within moments everyone who saw the incident is gone, replaced with other nameless faces. Nothing ever changes.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Spare Change #2

I hear the bus coming before I see it. The disgruntled rumble of its engine devours the silence of the morning and scatters my thoughts to the wind. I had been thinking of TJ again and I’m not sad to stop.

I get off the half-rotten wood bench as the bus rounds the corner and bounces from pothole to pothole before shuddering to a halt before me. Jerry opens the door, coffee in hand as always, and gives me a short nod for a welcome. The roads just get worse and worse but I’ve yet to see him spill a drop.

“Where to today?” he inquires. He has to ask because I fall asleep at the back of the bus sometimes. This way he can make sure I don’t miss my stop. He’s a good man.

“12th and Smith,” I tell him and head for the back without paying. Jerry and I have come to an understanding in the last few months – he lets me ride for free and in return I don’t cause any trouble for him or his passengers. The other commuters never complain but every now and again I catch a dirty look tossed in my direction. I like to sit right behind those ones and talk to myself just loud enough for them to hear.

This morning everyone is buried in newspapers and magazines so I take my usual seat at the back left of the bus. The cold of the plastic makes its way easily through the worn seat of my jeans and nestles against my skin as the bus lurches into motion again.

12th and Smith, better known, to me at least, as Beg Site #1. I’ve got five spots around the city that I use on a regular basis plus two others on special occasions, like big concerts and hockey games. Mostly I stick to The Beg Five though.

I set up shop at Beg Site #1 on Mondays and Tuesdays. It’s one of the many intersections here that have a coffee shop on each corner and I do my best business first thing in the morning when all the suits struggle by in search of their caffeine fix to start the week. Things pick up again around mid-morning and again at lunch and then it’s pretty dead for the rest of the day.

Wednesdays usually find me at Beg Site #2, International Square. It has a Starbucks for the morning crowd and for lunch there are a flock of fast food joints that I never eat at (hey, I may be destitute but I still have taste buds). Some weeks I have to share the area with Parker but he hasn’t been around lately. Word going round is he O.D.’d again but that’s what everyone says about anyone that disappears for more than a day.

Thursdays tend to be slow all over the city so I visit Beg Site #3 sparingly. When I’m there I bunker down between the banks on 1st Ave hoping for a few big scores from the ATM users. When I’m not there I spend the day getting high with Tommy in the alley behind the local Conservative Party head office.

I like to take Friday mornings off, often to recover from Thursday’s activities. Just before lunch I’ll hit up Beg Site #4 at Marlowe and Kennedy. There are several pubs in the area that draw big TGIF crowds and wallets tend to get a bit looser with all the booze flowing around. So do tempers though so you gotta be careful to avoid trouble.

Business remains brisk right through to nightfall and it tends to be my most lucrative location. I make a point of eating well on Friday nights and if the day was really good I’ll treat TJ to dinner at one of the organic grocery delis downtown. If she’s talking to me that day anyway.

Beg Site #5, outside the big shopping mall downtown, is great for the weekend tourist hordes. If TJ and I are on speaking terms we spend Saturdays and Sundays together and split the haul at the end of the day. People seem to give more generously to couples; we discovered that back in January during the cold snap when we had to huddle together for heat. Now we just cuddle for cash.

If they only knew the real story of us.

TJ and I aren’t exactly your typical couple, if we could be called that. Sure we drink and get high and screw, sometimes all three at once, but I don’t know if she does that with other guys or not. I don’t mess around with anyone else but that’s mostly due to a lack of opportunity. Mostly.

Ah TJ: part-time lover, part-time friend, full-time crazy bi-

“12th and Smith!”

I thank Jerry as I hop off the bus and survey my workplace for the day. It’s empty of people now but that won’t last long, my clients will be along shortly. They always are.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Spare Change #1

I wake at 7am sharp, as always. Not because of a screaming alarm clock, I have no use for that. Nor is it due to a noisy neighbour, for mine is the only occupied room in this two storey mockery of an apartment building.

No it is because of the stray cat, who I have christened Phakov. Because that’s what I yell when he invariably claws the bottom of my right foot at seven every… single… morning. I’ve tried burying it in cushions from the couch but he just digs his way in to find pay dirt. This time I had wrapped my feet in a rotten sweater I had found discarded in the back alley. No matter, his claws still found purchase in the wrinkled tenderness of my right foot.

“Fack off!” I yell dutifully (lucky for him I’ve always preferred the British slant on that one). It’s important that I play my part in this morning routine. I worry that if I break character Phakov might resort to more sensitive territory to get me off the couch. Some mornings I wonder what he wants from me. Usually I don’t.

I tumble to the floor as he eyes me benignly. The carpet smells a little less like rotting eggs than yesterday. I can see out into the hallway thanks to the door finally rotting off the frame last month. Not the most secure place on earth but it keeps the rain and some of the cold off. In the six months I’ve been sleeping here I’ve only been bothered once, by a few drunken frats boys that stumbled across my ‘home’. They roughed me up a bit but nothing too serious. That tooth had been loose anyway.

What a sorry mess this was. Pops would be so proud that I followed so closely in his footsteps. The only things I’ve missed out on so far are fathering a bastard (at least I think I haven’t done that) and developing that stupid disease of his. Then I could die of ‘diabetic complications’, as the doc would say, and I could call it a life.

“If I don’t have anything to eat for myself,” I politely ask the cat, “what makes you think I’ve got anything for you?” All part of the script of course. Now he would saunter off to the corner, sniff around a bit and then pee on my Yankees t-shirt. That used to piss me off, but then I remembered I never really liked the Yanks anyway.

Having taken care of his morning obligations, Phakov gives me one final stare then disappears until tomorrow to do it all again. Some days I wonder what he does between visits. Mostly I don’t.

Oh what a marvelous life we have together. I’m not sure what I’d do without him.

Alone again, I beat back gravity long enough to get to my feet in order to get on with the business of the day. In my line of work being on time is everything and being early is never a bad idea. It’s so easy to lose your spot and for me location, location, location are the three things that stand between going to sleep hungry and going to sleep starving.

As I head for where the door used to be I gather up the tools of my trade: my paper thin blanket, for sitting on in the summer and some distant cousin of warmth in the winter; my ghost-gray sneakers that barely remember having laces; and my trusty ball cap for donations to my cause. The logo is long gone now but I think there used to be a Bulls emblem on the front.

I tread lightly on the creaking stairs, part of me praying they’ll hold out for just a bit longer, part of me wondering who I’m praying to. I have no answer for that one, but I pray my way up and down that staircase every day.

The morning mist covers the broken glass and rotting trash, it almost brings beauty to this place. If only it hid the abandoned buildings and cars as well I might be fooled. Maybe I should put in some flowers, spruce the place up a bit. Nah, that would just bring the masses out here and I’ve got no interest in the overcrowding they’ve got downtown. I’ll take the relative peace and quiet of this dump any day.

I head for the bus stop, blanket over one shoulder and cap on my head, pulled down low. It’s time to try to convince the good people of this city that they can change the world with what’s jingling around in their pockets. It’s time to go to work.