“Chris! Hey Chris! What are you doing?”
I was at a streetlight facing the river at the north end of downtown. Here the train tracks come together ahead of Union Station just to the north, taking over 1st Avenue where the cars are banished. The street burrows under overpasses and bridges, combining with the dilapidated stone and brick that absorbs the lessened light to give it the feel of a tunnel. As one moves north along the river here the homeless and their camps become more numerous, and their condition rougher.
Chris had just gotten off of a bus, shuffling along miserably, as he has for years, in a boot fixed to a leg ruined from the knee down, carrying a laundry bag and a box of belongings. He had been renting a room until last month, burning through a legal settlement for his leg injury, smoking marijuana constantly and, maybe, staying off of the harder stuff. He had been lately depressed, complaining there was no work for him anywhere and his money was running out. He announced his intention of moving back onto the streets. Looks like he’d done it.
Chris was a carpenter (he left his meager tools and possessions behind after he abandoned his rented room) and couldn’t work because of his injury, incurred on the job. As for doing something else he complained to me in his plaintive slur about job applications, saying he’s always worked informally. Clearly this is a dodge, but I think it wasn’t necessarily work he was afraid of, but the responsibilities that come with it. He’s unemployable in any work that requires a neat appearance, dealing with the public or speaking; he can’t even fake the merest respectable sort of speech. Adopting the professional demeanor necessary to running a cash register would be difficult. He complained to me he’d always worked informally. Forms are inherently intimidating to him. The scrutiny of others is unbearable. He’s always shrinking back, a little. I’ve seen this type, gentle and hapless, before.
That was the last time I’d spoken to him, when he still had a roof over his head. He’d already been homeless before. I asked him what it was like. Food can be had, that’s not a problem; the hassles with the other homeless however, and others, are unavoidable. Shelter in the winter, of course, is a problem. Some people just don’t want to fuck with the hassles of modern life, he said, in his way. I don’t know if he knew he was talking about himself. Chris’ own foray into paying rent was short-lived; a matter of a couple of months. Unable or unwilling to find work, his spirit was spent along with his settlement money. He grew fatalistic. He talked of suicide so much a roommate called the authorities and he spent a couple of days away in a facility. He was home just days before the suicidal talk resumed. His roommates tried to talk him out of going back on the streets, but felt some relief at his leaving. The overcrowded boarding house had already experienced one suicide, in the madness of 2020, when a man in the miserable converted garage out back took a lethal dose of pills. Chris’ behavior deteriorated as the time for his parting approached. His roommate complained of cleaning out his abandoned room, finding bottles of piss lined up behind the bed. Old habits, I guess.
Chris is probably half my age but you wouldn’t know it. There’s an open, friendly face fading behind the wear, angular still and handsome once. He looked exhausted. His left eye was reddened and receding behind its craggy folds
“Hey Dennis, what’s going on?” He smiled the same ironic, defeated smile.
“How you doin’?” I asked. What a stupid question.
“You need a ride?” His grin tightened and he shook his head half-shrugging, as if to lament he had no where to go.
“Where you staying?” Still bearing his default grin of defeat he indicated as best as he could the immediate environment, with a sweep of his elbow.
“Out here man.”
“Fuck.” I said, stupidly shaking my head. “How is it out here?” I asked, my eye scrolling along the rough camp nearby.
“It sucks. Fuckers punched me,” he turned the painful looking eye to me, “and then fucking maced me. People out here are assholes.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. I have to go.” A car had pulled up behind me as the light turned green.
“Be safe.” I said. He didn’t seem to hear. I couldn’t hear him either, but he kept talking as if oblivious to the fact I was moving away. His voice faded out. Later I guiltily realized I forgot to offer him money. I wonder if it’s the last I see of that one.