“This is the part where I disappear into the night.” I said over my shoulder, not intending to be heard.
“What? You don’t want a ride home?”
“No, I’m going somewhere else.” I lied, all but running as I picked up my pace, giving in to an old familiar impulse to flee social awkwardness, and its constant companion, dumb pride. I would navigate the five miles or so home at two am rather than incur a favor and endure a conversation. Have you known the feeling?
I realized I’d probably end up hailing a ride share, and I might even converse with the driver; dreading that wouldn’t even occur to me. So: I was about to pay a stranger, to be a stranger; like the celebrity who said he paid call girls not to come over–that’s not a problem–but to leave after. Needless to say, I’m no celebrity. I’m crazy.
I made for the black shadow of an unlit parking lot across the street to more quickly pass out of view. The vaguely human outline of a pile of rags under which a man crept along turned toward me as I passed. Briefly I saw a glint of eye there. Something shuttled across my path over the black ground, heading for a row of food carts. I relaxed and settled in to my stupid decision.
I’ve always done this sort of thing; the behavior is long set. Diligence is required in resisting it, and I’ve acquired some–or just calmed down with age; it happens more and more rarely, fading out like an echo. Still it strikes with the old vigor sometimes and must be appeased with an occasional indulgence like this, paid like a tribute. My burnt offerings are Saturday nights, blistered feet, relationships.
Sometimes I can only watch with dread as I act–noting it with a weird passivity and alienation, marveling, yet again, at myself: front brain sits on the bow, arms crossed, shaking his head, glaring with familiar resignation at back brain, hand on the tiller and mouth agape in determined oblivion. Still this isn’t what I’ve come to tell you about.
Two blocks on I peeked at the ride sharing app, balked at the cost, saw the wait, pocketed the phone. Waiting twenty minutes in the windswept–it felt like fall already–boredom of the south end of downtown was unappealing; I preferred, if not the human contact at least the presence of the degenerate denizens enlivening the north end. And you never know what you’ll see. Something occurred to me; I patted myself down for a mask. I would need one to ride. That settled it. The nearest 24 hour outpost, a boarded-up fortress of a Chevron station at Burnside, would be my destination.
I turned up Third at Market Street, overtaking and passing wide around a frail figure going my way when he hailed me. I stopped and let him catch up. He was walking as if falling forward on his stiff bowed legs, which seemed to trail behind as they worked, feet splayed, barely bending at the knees, favoring a wasting lower back. He had over his shoulder what looked like a white sheet folded up and fashioned into a pack, tied bindle-style at the corners and hanging from his shoulder over a clump of bags in his hand. Something under the other arm; when he came close I saw a cat peering out through mesh with alert curiosity. At first I wasn’t sure he wasn’t acting a little, as homeless will, when he staggered up with evident exhaustion, and presented himself, stooped at the waist in a perpetual bow.
“Can you help me find this place?” He wheezed. His shaded eyes were barely discernible, like a faint impression left behind on stone, imploring. A narrow face, narrowed further with age, tapered into the point of a wispy beard. He was winded; at points he would draw a deeper breath, groaning a little inhaling and rattling a little exhaling.
His answer was hard to hear.
“I’m not sure it exists. It’s supposed to be somewhere around here,” he rotated his stiff trunk weakly to indicate the surroundings. Seeing he held a scrap of paper:
“Is that the address?”
“Yeah.” He said enthusiastically as I took it from his hand. I squinted in the dark: VA something-or-other scrawled over a legible address. The address was on my way, a good ten blocks.
“Three oh eight first. That’s this way.” I gestured north. “Come on. We’re going this way.”
“What?” He asked.
“Come on. I’ll take you there.” I waved at him a little more emphatically.
He gave a little wheeze of surprise, and fell in.
He said his name was Larry. I don’t remember telling him mine.
“I’m a veteran.” He said. It didn’t occur to me to tell him I was too. Then:
“I’m sixty six years old.”
And a moment later:
“I was a minister.” He said these things with a morbid enthusiasm, offered like credentials in a routine pitch for relief. I didn’t tell him how old I was. He was homeless of course.
I tried picturing the block we were headed for, a distressed nook near a commuter train station and rotten with homeless. I thought as likely as not the place wasn’t there. But, someone had written that address down recently, before sending him on his way–to happen upon me, and here I was, assisting the hand-off. Absently I said:
“I think there’s a Salvation Army there.”
“I was a minister in the Salvation Army” he said with heightened enthusiasm, as if to reiterate what he’d said before. I was now confused and it was hard to hear everything he said, but it sounded as if he was some sort of evangelical minister who spent time working with the Salvation Army. I didn’t take him to be lying. Could it be that he had spent his younger years ministering to the needy and now here he was?
He struggled to keep up and I struggled to go slow. He huffed and wheezed along periodically cursing the effort but each time I offered to stop he insisted we press on, determined, giving out another tepid little curse. I think with his last-hope destination so close and an unlikely guide at hand he wasn’t going to rest until he got there.
“You want me to carry the cat?” I asked.
“Well he’s pretty heavy.” He said, as if to politely decline, but he didn’t resist when I gently lifted it from him. I could feel the outline of the cat through the soft fabric carrier; he was a good twelve pounds or more. The old guy laughed as I tucked him under my arm.
“See?” He said.
He complained things were getting worse on the streets.
“I’m surprised you stopped.” He said. “I can’t get anybody to stop. Not even the cops. They won’t even talk to you!” More grim enthusiasm.
I said something about last year’s riots and reduced police patrols. He didn’t understand me. I made mention again of it, but he still misunderstood; I’m not sure he knows about the riots and the diminishing role of police here.
The cat gave out a plaintive meow.
“I’m trying to position myself so he can see you. as we walk.” I explained.
“That’s not it. He’s just hungry. He won’t stop til he eats.”
By all indications the cat was eating better than he was. Nonetheless he began his own periodic lamentations, miserable little meows.
We arrived where First Avenue ducks under Morrison Bridge, where two rail lines take over the street heading into the MAX station. Car traffic is banished and the street is brick cobblestone; a tent camp, of course, has taken over the sidewalk under the bridge. He hesitated.
“Come on. We’re going up.” I said. He didn’t understand but eagerly followed up the concrete steps leading to a parking lot at Second Avenue. We neared the top when a furtive whisper came:
“Hey, you got a lighter? Got a lighter?”
Turning I squinted through chain-link into the black wedge under the bridge where it made landfall. The voice seemed to be coming from behind a strung-up blue tarp. The old guy got a little spooked, letting out a hollow whine under his breath as I let him pass me to the other side.
“No, I don’t.” I said, after taking a moment to decipher.
An obese rapper wearing a crown, five stories high, bearing an expression intended as pensive, looms over the parking lot. “The King is Back”, declares the billboard promoting his new single available on all platforms, “Bussin’ [shooting] Back”.
“Couple more blocks.” I said.
We turned back to First and I was relieved to find the 300 block accessible. I scanned across the solid old brick building across the street for a number before landing on the sign over the door right in front of me:
VETERANS COMMUNITY RESOURCE AND REFERRAL CENTER
“Here it is.” I said. “Nice.”
“Is it?” He said hopefully.
We crossed the train tracks and he set his bags down in the door’s alcove, expressing gratitude it was empty.
“Where you going to sleep?” I asked stupidly.
“Right here until they open.” He said
“Of course. Well then. Now to find you some water.” He’d been complaining miserably of thirst the whole time, and I’d promised him water.
“Where we going now?” He asked, discouraged, arranging his bags to hoist them back up.
“We’re not going anywhere. You’re going to rest here. I’m going to find you some water. There’s a place nearby.”
He sighed in gratitude, whistling a little. I set down the cat.
The Chevron on Burnside is girded in plywood, like a lot of places have been over the last year, but it’s the regular clientele, not antifa, against which fortifications are sometimes necessary. You can no longer go inside the little store, I think because of Covid. The door has been fashioned into a sort of Dutch door with the glass taken or broken out, and paneling over the bottom half; the attendant sells goods through it when he isn’t pumping gas.
His face is imploding, the homeless man at the window. His forehead tilts down and his chin tilts up, like rock outcroppings being drawn into the sinkhole of his toothless mouth. His mottled skin is dotted with open red sores that match the red around and lining the white of the eyes. His body wobbles one way and his head teeters another, as if having no relation; his collapsing chin bounces back and forth, his face makes little circular motions and his mouth works continually as if he’s in silent conversation.
The words bubble up as if through a viscous fluid, and he’s looking nowhere in particular when he says to the attendant:
“I’d like one of those double breve lattes.”
What? Do they have an espresso machine in there? And he’s ordering one? Now? What in the hell? I nod excuse-me to him, he appears oblivious–his eyes never look at anything–when the attendant lets me go first. The attendant’s facial expression and accent are both indecipherable; he gives me a Cheshire Cat grin when he says he’s out of masks. I think he’s East European.
The old guy didn’t recognize me at first, squinting up at the figure hovering over him.
“Here you go.” I said, opening the liter of water and handing it to him. The cat was out of his bag, a couple of tins laid out for him.
“Oh.” He sounded surprised, recognizing me finally. “Thank you.” He took the bottle in his shaky hand. Turning to the cat and filling one of the tins he said, “and there’s some for you buddy.” I stood there for a moment.
“Well, good luck.” I set out on my second escape of the night.
“Hey, wait a minute.”
I turned around and he was up and coming toward me, walking with a little more vigor and a little more upright, with all the dignity he could muster, his bow legs and skinny arms angling outward as he moved. He brought his hand around wide to shake mine, sharply, like a salute.
“God bless you” we said, and I patted his bony frame as he pulled me close.
I headed back in the direction and Old Town and then Broadway, still not sure how I’d get home. I wended through the tent camps, here an there stirring with life, if just barely, and then over the bridge, the silence occasionally and gently broken by the crashing wave sound of a passing car, and the city twinkling impassively and small behind.
I was well past the bridge when I came upon another service station. Around the corner a homeless camp had made a bonfire in the street. The maskless attendant gave me a pitying look as I approached with my shirt over my face; nobody among the clientele, typically motley, as required of a gas station convenience store at the hour, was wearing one.
“I don’t care if you wear a mask.” He said.
“Where do you keep them? The masks. I need one to get a ride.” I explained, embarassed.
Again the wait for a ride was unappealing, the service station parking lot an ugly drag (a middle-aged black man was fiddling with some sort of antenna mounted on his van while his slatternly white girlfriend brought out an armful of bright shiny food product), and with the perverse exhausted energy released by the evening, I decided to walk a bit more. I wouldn’t walk all the way, I told myself.
That would be stupid. And if I did walk five miles home for no good reason, I sure wouldn’t tell you about it here, now would I?