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Monday, November 18, 2013

Cold day by the river

January 16, 1987

It isn’t too cold today. But I’m so out of shape that I can’t jog far when I try, huffing and puffing even before I get to the Monroe Street Bridge, a merely four city blocks from where I started.
I’m tempted to cross back, over the rail bridge and come back home through the park.
But I’m a little put off by the homeless people camping there, even though it is the shortest way back.
I huff and puff for another four blocks, walk three, run two, and reach the Dunkin Donuts at Outwater Lane where I buy coffee (but no donut) and walk the whole way back to Monroe Street sipping the coffee.
Worn out by the exertion, I cross over the rail bridge anyway, figuring I might be able to escape the homeless and their constant begging, and get home.
I almost make it, too, when I see him – a familiar face among the walking dead, although older than when I knew him in high school, looking older than he had a right to look considering we are the same age.
Worse, he sees me and remembers, and refuses look me in the eye.
I go up to him.
He tells me to go away.
I tell him no, and join him on the other side of tin can fire the homeless use here to keep warm. But they don’t keep it ablaze, adding only enough wood to keep the coals going at the bottom.
“You have a cigarette?” he asks me, his hands shaking as he forms the v between forefinger and middle finger in anticipation of a smoke.
“No,” I say. “I don’t smoke. Do you want me to find more wood for the fire?”
“No,” he says, glancing around. “I don’t want it too high. I nod off sometimes, and the fire spreads. Then the cops come. We’re not supposed to be here.”
“But if you don’t have anyplace else to go…” I say and then stop.
“Oh, they have a place for us. They usually take me to the police station first, and if they can’t find me a bed in a shelter, I stay there. It’s warm. But it’s not comfortable. It’s worse when they do. Then I get grilled by a social worker who always wants to know why I prefer being out here and not in a shelter.”
“It’s a natural question,” I say.
He gives me a dirty look, and then mumbles about telling them how he hates rules, and how they always tell him every place has rules.
“Not this place,” he says to me, warming his hands over the top of the can where there is very little heat. “Well, not many rules anyway. God, I hate the cold. I just hate being contained more. I had a job once, but the boss treated me so bad I told him I’d starve before I kept feeding his damned time clock.”
He blows on his hands. The nails are nearly black from either dirt or injury, I can’t tell which.
“People are always looking down on me,” he goes on. “Some people think I kind of deserve it. One time some bastard kids even tried to set me on fire while I was asleep. I don’t sleep much now because of that. I don’t have anything to steal. They just did it out of meanness.”
He looks over the top of the can at me, his dark eyes filled not with pain but rage.
“people are always asking me how I got here and why I didn’t want to get back to where I was. But to tell you the truth, I’ve spend most of my time trying to forget all that. Now I’m not exactly sure what I did, only that I didn’t want to be there any more.”
He glances over at a pile of rags, and a collection of odd things that someone had obviously thrown away.
“When I do sleep, I sleep there,” he says and points at his makeshift bed. “It’s tough enough getting myself up each day, especially on cold days like this. It’s tough finding enough to eat and staying warm until I can lay down again. I can’t be bothered trying to remember anything else. But on some mornings, when I see the ice dripping from the limbs of trees like today, I remember something, even if I don’t quite remember what.”

I don’t ask him any more questions. For a long time, we just stand there warming ourselves over a fire that isn’t a fire anymore and doesn’t produce heat enough to keep my fingers or toes warm. Then, I dig in my pocket and come out with the change I have left over from buying my coffee, and I dump it all – unasked for – into the palms of his dirty hands. Then, I head back home to a cold water flat that isn’t warm either, but it’s home, and I’m grateful for it, even if I do feed the boss’ time clock to keep a roof over my head.

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