Thursday, November 23, 2006

Two Thanksgivings

Wishing you all a happy and healthy day
-- and going down memory lane.
The setting is Cambridge, Massachusetts....

Journal excerpt, November 28, 1992

Earlier today I saw G, whom I had met at the University Lutheran Church shelter. He did not look good. The last time I saw him, I'd given him $5 that H, another homeless man, had refused for a watercolor he'd painted and given to me. But that was years ago.

The first thing I noticed was that G's bald pate was covered with open, weeping sores. He looked like he'd been beaten.

I asked him, "What happened to your head?"

He began with a roundabout answer about Social Services and the need to take a shower. He concluded by saying, "It's lice." He'd been trying to shower daily, but we had a wet summer, which exacerbated the problem.

As usual, he was carrying numerous papers with him, including a copy of the Financial Times. Most of the papers were folded and served as a kind of seat cushion in the cafe area of Au Bon Pain. Weather was clear and warm; people were eating outdoors. It was hard to tell if the "cushion" was a way to alleviate discomfort caused by the sores or if it was a way for him to keep track of what was where.

He'd shown me his calf at one point and it looked almost leprous. It reminded me of my Summer of Fleas in '83, only worse (and it's hard to get worse than that).

Throughout our conversation he kept scratching. I pretended to ignore it. I overlaid: I've seen men scratch like that, as a prelude to unsavory behavior. Here was G, a man both brilliant and kind, scratching from pain. Scratching to keep from dying. Talking about other multitudinous topics to distract himself.

We'd shaken hands. His nails were black and his skin bore a patina of grey. He's petitioned the Massachusetts Civil Liberties Union three times, with no response, in an attempt to get himself some medical attention, at least a daily shower. We discussed bathrooms — he telling me which had electrical outlets and dryers, which didn't. He felt sheepish about washing up in a public bathroom. Interspersed with this was a discussion about the library facilities and museums, he telling me and reminding himself that there were annual reports he had to get hold of. Told me he was once a financial analyst.

At one point I asked G, "Is there a home remedy that could help, like ammonia or lemon juice?"

He knew what I meant, and told me that Tegrin had been recommended. I went to CVS and picked up a bottle to give him: $5+ for next to nothing, but so what?

I'd left a small suitcase at the Au Bon Pain table — it had held the VCR I dropped off for repair, and now held only a few papers. But it was a step for me to leave it behind, in the hands of an acquaintance tortured by lice, while I picked up the shampoo.

On my return I handed it to him. "Use it in good health." He kissed me.

When we first met today I'd handed him 3 singles, mouthing a lame, "Happy Thanksgiving."

"What's this for?" he asked.

"Whatever."

He introduced me to a grizzled old man whose name I forget, and asked me if I wanted to join them for coffee. I said sure, and ended up going into Au Bon Pain to get two coffees — one for G and one for me — and was asked to get a croissant. G handed me the $3 I'd given him. I picked up two coffees, a plain croissant, and a turkey and cheddar croissant ("protein," I explained).

When I returned I handed the $3 back to G, saying, "Here's your change."

He placed the bills on top of a pile of papers — some open newspaper, some articles carefully folded, almost like origami. He'd given a glossy, full-page photo, from I don't know where, of an elephant, to his friend. The white-bearded man grinned and held it up for me to see, then asked G, "May I have this?"

"It's for you," G said.

His friend thanked him, then warned him that if he wasn't careful the dollar bills would blow away.

"To my advantage," the friend added. G qualified the statement by saying that the white-bearded man also served as his "bank."

The white-haired man had grown up in Illinois and gone to an Illinois Latin school, then moved to Massachusetts and gone to Andover. I think G had mentioned that he'd had a home, but that he was living on a fixed income.

Journal excerpt, November 25, 1995 (two days after Thanksgiving)

I'm at the Harvard T-station waiting for the train. I don't usually do this — I walk instead, but this head cold forces me to pamper myself and the weather is
wintry.

I'm reading Mauriac's Dinner in Town when a trench coat walks up to me and a voice above my head asks, "Excuse me, but have you heard of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints?"

Without looking up, I nod, in a kind of quasi-rudeness zone. He goes on talking in spite of my bowed head, asks me where I live.

"I'd rather not say," I say. "United States."

He laughs. I join in. "State of Massachusetts."

"Cambridge?"

I don't answer.

He asks me if I know the church is devoted to families.

I say, "Yes. So is every other religion."

"But this one is the true religion."

I nod and say, "That's the one thing you have in common with every other religion."

As I speak I look up briefly. Blond hair, blue eyes, clean-cut. The word my mind conjures up is: typical.

He keeps talking. I keep forcing myself to be rude, looking into the Mauriac and trying to read, for the sixth time, one character's thought that the dialogue he engages in is one that is both repeated endlessly and is positively futile. I nod inwardly at the character.

Finally I tell the man, "Look, I'd really rather read."

He doesn't give up. Finally, encountering nothing but my silence, he goes away.

No sooner does this happen than a very rotund man in a blue Michelin Man jacket comes up and says, "Hi! I'm homeless. Could you give me some money for something to eat?"

Sometimes I say yes to these requests, sometimes no. Today I say no. Had I been thinking I'd have said, "Look, why don't you go to the man there in the brown trench coat?" (He is already proselytizing to someone else.) "I'm sure he could spare some of his Christian charity." But I am too polite to say that. My upbringing overrules my sense of irony.

A paragraph further into the Mauriac I glance around quickly, see the two men working the crowd in their own individual fashion.

The train comes. Seated, bent over my book, I hear two men's voices above my head. Before my face is the familiar brown trench coat. The man not in the trench coat says, "...but then I started getting into it."

Ah, I think, the proselytizer found another Mormon.

But then the other man starts telling about deer and about Maine, and I realize the two of them are talking about hunting. Hunting for sport. The proselytizer takes a break from his missionary zeal to swap tales of how God's creatures are killed for recreation.

Now I truly am interested in the man because of his contradictions. This is what makes good character material. Running in tandem with this thought is the one that we are objects to each other. He views me as a potential convert, someone to talk to, not with. Someone to reform. Someone to mold in his image. The homeless Michelin Man sees me as a dispenser of money. I see him as a homeless man — after all, he has announced himself as such.

And both become character material to me, the price I exact for the time I've spent with them, for their insistent interruptions. Objects all, in the name of my own self-preservation.

3 Comments:

Blogger Brenda said...

Yes, the writer does insert them(its)self in there, and I wonder about that level of what is going on. I do it all the time, too. Some aspect of my mind recording while the connections/transactions are taking place. Does it cushion? Is it fair? These are all questions that can become part of the writing that is writing itself. You are traversing memories these days... but not from your present stance; rather, at-the-time, then, when it happened...

5:22 PM  
Anonymous Rhea said...

Very cool. I am from Boston and liked the local bits that I recognized from your tale.

4:05 PM  
Anonymous colleen said...

Like two scenes from you book of life!

11:36 PM  

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