Friday, August 29, 2008

Spare Change #16

It was all going so well

There had been a steady stream of customers since lunch and most of them had bought a record or two. I was working the register like a retail veteran, making change was getting easier and easier, everyone was being so friendly.

First-time customers were even asking for, and valuing, my suggestions and advice! It was pretty odd to be treated with respect by a group of people who only last week would have only felt pity or disgust or would have just ignored me entirely.

It’s been a long, long time since I felt respected by anyone who had a job and a home. I didn’t even recognize it at first; it was like a long forgotten face appearing suddenly out of a crowded room.

It was all going so well.

Yesterday had been easy, not too many people coming in, a nice way to ease into this new responsibility. Today, day two, it was a lot easier for me to unlock the doors in the morning. I felt good about that, it gave me some confidence. I remember thinking, “two unlocks down, five to go!”

Maybe I should have just left them locked today. Or closed early, that would have worked too. But I could never have seen this coming and it was all going so well.

I had my first female customer around two o’clock and she was a real beauty: wavy brown hair brushing her slim shoulders, librarian glasses, snug sweater, knee-length skirt and leather boots. If this is what she looks like in fall I’d love to see her in summer. We talked music for almost half an hour; TJ would have killed me if she had seen the looks we were giving each other.

But I was feeling good since things were going so well.

Karl came by at five-thirty to drop off a home cooked dinner. He watched over the shop for me while I went to the back to shovel down the mushroom soup, butter covered bread and yam fries.

He stayed for a while and we talked about the job, the money, the future.

“I’m really feeling good about this for you,” he said as the sidewalk and street became more and more congested with the after work rush. “I never would’ve dreamed things would turn around so quickly.”

“Me either man,” I had replied. “But it’s only Tuesday, let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves here. I’ve got a long way to go, nothing is guaranteed.”

“No, of course not. But you’ve found the path, you’re walking down it and you’ve got support. Speaking of which, have you told TJ that you’ve gone clean yet?”

“Not yet,” I had said, “I want to do that on my own for a while. To see how strong I really am. If I start to falter, I’ll have you both to turn to.”

“How long has it been?” he had asked as he flipped through DJ’s personal record collection, nodding his approval regularly.

“Five days.”

“And so far so good?”

“So far so good,” I had told him as another customer came into the store.

Karl had offered to stay until closing but I told him to go home, I’d be fine. I wish now that I had let him stay.

But it was all going so well.

I was ringing up my last two customers at quarter to seven, a nice couple who I had seen in here a few times before. Regulars, like me. They were telling me a great story about DJ, about how when he first opened the store there was a pimp who thought DJ was moving in on his territory. DJ kept telling him that he just wanted to sell records but the pimp didn’t believe him, didn’t think anybody sold those any more, it had to be a cover. Threatened to burn the store down.

DJ had had enough, so he called a few friends in social services and by the end of his first week of business every single last one of the pimp’s ladies had been picked up and put into support groups all over the city. The pimp never knew what happened; he just knew he was out of business.

We were feeling good, we were laughing, I felt like an equal. Like I belonged. It was all going so well.

Then Tommy showed up with a gun.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Spare Change #15

This was a big mistake.

I can’t do this, what was I thinking? Nobody spends almost six years in a row begging for breakfast, lunch and dinner then starts running a store on a couple hours of training. There are reasons why people are on the street instead of working a proper job.

I shift slightly to my right to avoid the inventory binder stabbing me in the back. Sitting here, behind the counter and out of sight of sidewalk window shoppers, I stare at the clock and pray that it stops, or better yet goes backward.

But it continues on, tick, tick, tick, and now it is only five minutes before the store doors are due to be unlocked. Oh do I ever need a drink or ten right now.

Other than right now, going clean has been a lot easier than I was expecting it to be. Well, I guess this is the first moment I’ve had to face where my usual response would have been to get wasted.

My finger traces the outline of the store key, traveling its peaks and valleys like a lost explorer. I’m so lost right now, completely out of my element; I’m not a fish out of water – I’m a fish in outer space.

The phone rings and I jump just enough to crack the top of my skull on the counter. Swearing loudly, repeatedly, I let it ring and listen to the answering machine’s greeting. After the beep a familiar voice begins to leave a message.

“J, pick up the phone. I know you’re there,” Karl says. “Well, you better be there anyway. If you’re not you better be halfway to Mexico.”

“Hey man,” I say into the receiver. “What’s going on?”

“Oh good, you are there. I just wanted to see how you’re doing on your big day.”

“My big day? Thanks man, I really needed some more pressure right now,” I tell him. “You caught me just in time though – I was just about to see if there’s a back door I can sneak out.”

“It can’t be that bad,” he says before hesitantly adding, “can it?”

“I can’t handle this kind of responsibility, something major is going to go wrong and I’m not going to know what to do,” I say as panic begins to creep into my voice. “People are going to ask questions that I can’t answer, I’m going to give the wrong amount of change, I’ll forget to lock up before I leave, I’m -”

“J, take a deep breath man,” Karl interrupts. “In fact, take ten. Don’t say another word until you do.” I do as he says since I don’t know what else to do. Following instructions is so much easier than thinking for yourself.

“Alright,” I say when I’m done and feeling much calmer, “now what?”

“You can do this J, this will be the hardest part. It’ll just get easier and easier after this,” he says with a confidence I’ll never know. “DJ is counting on you, don’t let him down. Don’t let yourself down.”

“What if,” I begin but he cuts me off gently.

“You’ll handle it. And if you can’t, give me a call and I’ll help you figure it out. What time do you close?”

“Tonight? Seven, I think. Yeah, seven.”

“Alright, I’ll swing by around quarter to seven,” he says. “I’ll bring ice cream.”

“No food allowed in the store,” I say automatically.

“See?” Karl says with a laugh. “You’re going to be fine. Call me if you need me.”

“Thanks,” I say then hang up. I look up at the clock to see that it’s one minute past opening. I take a few more deep breaths then walk across the empty, silent store to the door. I stand there for another minute, staring at the deadbolt.

“Here goes… everything,” I say and unlock the door with a resounding thunk. And then… nothing happens. I open the door just wide enough to poke my newly-shaven face out and find an empty sidewalk.

“Idiot, of course there’s nobody out there,” I say as I pull my head back into the store’s shell. “Who would be waiting for a music store to open on a Monday morning?”

I stroll back to the counter, pull a record out of DJ’s personal stash and put it on. As the first guitar strings play on the store stereo I sit down on the cashier stool and wait for my first customer to arrive.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Spare Change #14

There are so many empty bottles around me that there’s hardly room to stand, much less walk. Bud, Coors and Michelob clink together indiscriminately when I shift my foot, like someone just made a celebratory toast at an important gathering.

Which I guess this is, in a way. Empties, loaded thoughts, one life-altering decision and me – perhaps not the most impressive guest list ever created, but an important gathering it is.

I roll the last unopened bottle of Bud between my hands back and forth, back and forth. The stained sink reeks of spilled beer, with a hint of the dark rum that was the first liquid to go down the drain. I almost take a deep whiff before stopping myself, wondering if that would be cheating.

I thought this would be the easy part, a way to ease into flushing the two plastic baggies of weed in the back pocket of my jeans. If this is like pulling teeth with rusty pliers, I don’t want to think about how the dope is going to go.

“This is all your fault TJ,” I tell the empty room; it’s coming up to noon so Phakov is long gone. Have I really been at this for five hours? What is that, like four bottles an hour? This is pathetic, I’m stronger than this, I don’t need this poison.

I rip off the twist cap and the familiar sound sets my mouth watering. One last sip, a final toast, then down the pipes with it.

No, I’m done with this crutch. This break will be clean, I won’t do it halfway. I tip the bottle sideways and as the first drop splashes down my hand begins to shake. How embarrassing, I’m glad there’s no one around to see.

By the time the bottle is empty I’m shaking so bad I can barely hold on to it so I throw it on the floor to join his dearly departed brothers. I grip the edge of the sink with both hands as I fight the sudden urge to vomit. Do I know how to throw a party or what?

Once the waves of nausea subside to more manageable swells I try to gather myself for the next stage. As if this wasn’t going to be enough of a challenge on its own, the toilet here stopped working in the 70’s so I’ll have to go to the gas station two blocks away to finish the job. Two blocks to freedom… so close yet so very, very far.

I push away from the drunken sink and make my way slowly through the graveyard of the life I hope to leave behind. No, that I am leaving behind. The first steps have been taken, I’m on the road and there will be no turning back. I wouldn’t survive the return trip.

Down the barely there stairs, out into the shaded courtyard, the momentum is building. I head west for the gas station at a brisk walk, swinging my arms like wrecking balls, smashing down the wall standing between me and a better tomorrow.

Half a block from the station the weed in my back pocket turns to cement and tries to drag me down to hell. My pace slows but I refuse to stop. I’m going to walk into that stall, throw the junk in, flush it down and walk out. No thinking, no delay, just a quick, clean cut and I’ll be done.

I enter the store at the front of the station and grab the washroom key from beside the cash register. The clerk thinks about saying something but decides to keep quiet. I can’t blame him, I probably look like I’m on a serious bender.

I go back outside and stride to the side of the building. My hand shakes as I try to slide the key into the slot. God damn it. After scrapping a few paint chips off the door I finally get it in. I rush to the toilet and throw the weed in, bags and all. As my right hand reaches for the lever, my left hand reaches in and grabs the dope.

“Oh come on!” I yell. It’s hard to have faith in yourself when you’re standing in a dingy gas station washroom with two bags of weed dripping with toilet water in your hand. I guess you really do learn something new every day. “Just throw it back in.”

Still as a statue I stand, although no one would be foolish enough to commemorate this scene with an actual statue. Well, never say never with art these days; maybe “Bum on the brink” would be a big hit.

“I don’t need this garbage,” I say as I stare at the past sitting in my hand and try to see the future in my head. Then I finally get it, it finally sinks in at last: “I don’t want this.”

I drop one bag into the bowl, then the other. The slap of the plastic meeting the water seems amplified, like this scene is playing out on the big screen in the movie theatre downtown. I resist the urge to look for a camera and focus instead on the cracked lever sticking out of the right side of the toilet.

I reach out and my hand is steady. I press down and my demons are sucked noisily away… for now. I know this is not the end. But it is a start.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Spare Change #13

I place the strawberry smoothie on the table in front of TJ then slide in across from her and take a sip of mine, blueberry of course. The diner is pretty quiet and the counter girl seems to be enjoying the brief break between the lunch and after work rushes.

“You’re looking well,” I tell TJ and mean it. Her short curly black hair looks recently washed and cut, she looks alert and well rested. Same dirty white t-shirt as always though.

“Thanks, you’re… not,” she says with the smallest hint of a smile.

“Well share your secret and I’ll start catching up.”

“I’ve been clean for a while,” she says while stirring her drink with a straw.

“I guess that would do it,” I admit. “How long?”

“Since the day after I last saw you,” she says matter-of-factly. I let that stir around in my head for a few seconds before replying.

“You saying you couldn’t have done that with me around?” I try to keep the anger out of my voice with limited success. This is typical TJ, always blaming me for the choices she makes.

“I’m saying, J, that it was a lot easier without constant temptation to -”

“I never forced you to do nothin’!” I say in a harsh whisper, jabbing a dirt covered finger at her. I’d yell but I like this place and want to be able to come back. “I never paid for your dope, I didn’t say I’d leave you if you went clean, I -”

“J lower your damn voice,” she says in her best high school teacher tone. “I’m not blaming you for anything, okay? I’m just too weak to get clean when you’re not. Besides, this isn’t what I wanted to talk to you about. Sit down.”

I didn’t even realize I had stood up. I glance around and slump back down, glad the diner is still mostly empty. Why do I let her work me up so easily?

“Alright, so what is?” I ask quietly.

“I heard you got yourself a proper job -”

“Oh, you need money, no wonder you -”

“If you can’t keep your mouth shut for five seconds,” she hisses at me, “I won’t waste anymore of my time here.” I glare at her for a full minute, exactly sixty seconds. Counting the seconds out, that’s how long it takes me to settle down enough to speak calmly.

“Fine, say what you’ve come here to say.”

“Thank you. Now, with a proper job comes proper money,” she says as I nearly draw blood by biting my tongue. “And with proper money comes some pretty serious temptations in our world. Do you have a plan for that money? I care about you J, God knows why, but I do. I don’t want to see you dead in a ditch because your new money got you into trouble you couldn’t handle.”

“I’ve got an idea or two,” I reply. I haven’t told her about the account with Karl and I’m in no mood to do so now. “I’m not planning on buying so much of Tommy’s dope that he’ll be able to retire, if that’s your concern. Although a hut on a warm beach somewhere might be exactly what he needs right now.”

“J this could be your chance, what you’ve been wanting for years,” TJ says, giving me an uncomfortably intense stare. “A chance to get off the streets.”

“How do you figure that?” I squirm a little in my seat but manage to maintain eye contact. This crazy cow will be the end of me.

“Just think – you keep this job for a while and maybe you find a landlord that’ll rent you a place. A steady job, a roof over your head, hot water, a bed… if you went clean you’d never see the streets again.”

“Sorry, what was that last bit again?”

“You could do it J,” she says, leaning across the table, close enough to smell her strawberry breath. “I’ll help, if you let me. We could do it together – support each other in the weak times, celebrate the successes. Be a real couple.”

I’ve heard enough. I stand up, leaving my glass half empty… or is it half full? I don’t trust myself to tell up from down right now.

“Please don’t leave J. Sit down, let’s talk this through. Let me help you.” She’s practically begging. God damn her.

“I’ll see you around TJ,” I tell her and walk away.

“What are you so bloody afraid of?” she yells after me. It’s a good question and I don’t have an answer for it. Not yet, anyway. I just need some time, some space, this is all too much.

“When I figure that out,” I call as I walk out the door, “you’ll be the first to know.”

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

A Dozen Days, A Dozen Ways

Homelessness action week will be October 12th to 19th this year and in the twelve days leading up to it the Stop Homelessnes site will be featuring an idea a day on how to help solve homelessness. They've put out a call for submissions, so head over there with your best idea and let them know what you've got buzzing around in your head.

They've linked to this here page of mine in their Friends section, which I thought was pretty cool. So if you get here from there, welcome and I hope you enjoy your stay.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Spare Change #12

“Does this purse go with these shoes?”

“For the last time, yes baby. Let’s go grab some burgers for lunch.”

“Burgers, you know those things go straight to my thighs!”

Ah, Saturday at the mall – it’s been too long. I’d forgotten the teenagers who don’t have a dime to spare for me but have a few hundred bucks for Nike. I’ve missed the seniors who either jab their canes at me or drop bills in my hat; thankfully I’ve seen more of the latter than the former in the last three hours.

Three hours and no sign of TJ. I’m in our usual spot, just to the left of the east mall entrance, just far enough from the bus stop to avoid confusion about my purpose here. It took a few weekends before we finally found the sweet spot where we no longer got asked if we needed change for the bus but could still work the traffic going in and out of the mall.

Waiting here may not be the most efficient way of finding TJ but at least I’m making money doing it. In that area it sure beats checking the shelters and wandering the streets. If she doesn’t show today, I’ll come back tomorrow. If she still doesn’t –

“What would you do,” a man asks, leaning in much too close. How can I describe his proximity? Imagine you have a tiny hair in your eye. Now picture yourself stepping outside yourself and turning to face your body. Imagine how close you’d lean in to find that elusive hair. That’s how close he is.

“What would you do,” he repeats, recognizing that I’ve figured out how to describe his closeness and have rejoined him in the moment, “if I gave you ten thousand dollars right now?”

What a stupid question. I’d do what any man in my position would do: go down to Cherry’s, pick out the two hottest strippers (Doll and Candy, for the record) and ask what ten grand would get me. Well, nine thousand, nine hundred and eighty-six dollars and sixty-nine cents, after the mandatory drinks.

But something in the look of this guy says he just might have that kind of green and I don’t think that’s the answer that would convince him to hand it over.

“Well,” I tell Blue Eyes (for what else can I name him but what takes up 90% of my field of vision), “I’d probably start by getting some new clothes, then I’d splurge on a motel room for the night. I’d take the longest, hottest shower in recorded history, order some pizza and then sleep until checkout.” Or until 7 am if Phakov found me; I’m pretty confident he would.

“Is that right?” he asks, only his lips moving as his eyes burrow into my skull. I can smell his breath – there’s a trace of fine wine, of a three course lunch, of a life I’ll never know. “You wouldn’t get drunk or high?”

“I don’t do that garbage, man.” Not this early in the day anyway – a man’s gotta have limits. His eyes narrow, his nose twitches as though he can smell the lie.

“You know what I think?” he casually asks as he straightens to his full height. “I think you’re just saying that in hopes of getting my money.”

“Why should I even believe you’ve got that much money at all, much less on you?” I ask, trying to swerve the conversation around that nasty pothole. He stands there, unblinking, trying to decide which of our questions should be pursued first, when a well dressed redhead appears at his side.

“Darling, are you being mean to the homeless again?” she purrs.

“Of course not dear, we were merely discussing finances,” he says with a stiff pat on her arm. She sniffs daintily and looks away, losing interest already. Having no idea what to say, I remain silent. “He doesn’t believe that I have ten thousand dollars on my person.”

“Oh stop being silly darling,” she says without looking back, “nobody carries cash these days.”

“Sad but true,” he murmurs as he reaches into his front pocket, pulls out a five and drops it into my hat. They turn together and stroll away, arm in arm, never looking back.

“Making new friends J?” a voice asks from my right. It’s been a while so it takes me a moment to recognize it. I close my eyes, take a deep breath, open them again.

“Hello TJ.”