Transience

Chapters from an epic memoir about homeless existence in Maine

illustrations by​ Bob Bergeron and Katy Finch

Editor’s Note

In early spring of 2013, I commissioned an op-ed for The Bollard by a homeless guy named Robin Rage. The subject was spice, the marijuana-like product aptly described by one user Rage quoted as “catnip sprayed with Deep Woods Off!.” Shortly after “Pros and Cons of The Spice Trade” was published in our May 2013 issue, I met up with Rage at Speckled Ax, the coffee shop on Congress Street, to hand him $100 cash (years later, Rage admitted he spent most of that money on spice).

Rage was gung-ho to do more writing, and we tossed around some ideas while his faithful dog Bella lay contentedly beneath the table. I asked Rage where he was living and he described a homeless commune of sorts in the last stand of trees along the waterfront, between the Fore River and West Commercial Street. I told him that sounded like an excellent subject for a story, and he agreed to write it.     

Months went by without a word from Rage. A year passed, then half of another, until one day, in the fall of 2014, it just popped up in my inbox: a sprawling manuscript, well north of 10,000 words, littered with snippets of history, interviews and conversations, plus quotes by people ranging from Saint Paul to John Prine to a drifter known as The Ragman. Tying it all together was a first-person narrative about life on the streets of Portland that absolutely blew my mind.  

The story that appeared in The Bollard five years ago this month, “Sherwood Forest: Life as an Outlaw on the Fore River,” remains one of the best pieces of writing I’ve ever had the privilege to publish, and a favorite of our longtime readers. Rage has since secured housing, written many more articles for us (most recently, “The Hidden Poor of Freeport, U.S.A.,” Aug. 2019), and is a member of the Mainer News Cooperative.

Writers like Rage are rare. As Bob Bergeron, another comrade in our worker cooperative, observes in the introduction below, surviving homelessness is itself a full-time job. Toss in alcoholism, drug abuse and mental illness, and the odds of producing good writing get slimmer still.

I met Kenny Wayne Beek last July, at the opening reception for The Art of the Comic, an exhibition at the University of New England Art Gallery, in Portland, that prominently featured work by Bob and fellow Mainer contributor (and co-op comrade) Katy Finch. “Kenny’s a writer,” Bob told me. “I told him he should send you some stuff.”

“Sure,” I replied, “glad to take a look at it.” I gave Kenny my card and split, mildly curious whether he’d send anything, and not expecting much. People with things like homes, jobs and Internet access tell me all the time that they’re writers and want to contribute to this magazine. Nine times out of ten they don’t send squat, and nine times out of the ten when I do receive something, it’s not publishable for one reason or another.

So Kenny Wayne is, as the Pirates of Preble Street say, a “real one-percenter,” at least in this regard. His e-mail arrived before the end of the month.

“Chris,” it began, “When Bob Bergeron first came up with the Pirate Ship concept, he had told me he was planning to write a novel. He recited to me his intended opening: ‘We never bought anything nice, like ice cream. We figured by intervals of a dollar thirty-seven on the block…’ 

“Then he put out the comic,” Kenny continued, referring to Pirate Ship Adventures, which The Bollard began publishing in the spring of last year. “Those lines were in the first issue, and he did seem to capture certain elements of the homeless experience and community, but for me, I wanted more. I wanted the book I had imagined would follow the words he shared with me. 

“So I set out to write the story,” Kenny went on. “I had envisaged a collection of vignettes, essays, mini bios, that sort of fare. I had also imagined a book that would be two hundred pages, give or take. The project has expanded and evolved, and will likely be about four hundred pages. … This isn’t a two hundred page tale. It also isn’t a two dimensional image. It encompasses the three dimensions of space, the fourth dimension of time, and additional dimensions of consciousness, community, class and many other angles and dimensions of being alive and human. And while I had planned a collection of independent pieces which stood on their own … the gravity of the book seems to me lost, to some degree, in excerpts. So I’m sending you all six parts. I hope that’s not too pretentious.”  

There they were, all six parts — six books, actually — in separate PDFs, each with a dozen or more chapters describing characters and events on the streets and in the jails of Portland and York County. In total, Kenny sent me far more than 100,000 words, a veritable mountain of prose to climb.

So I started reading, wondering how much bullshit I’d have to bushwhack through to get to the good stuff. The answer turned out to be none.

OK, some of the philosophizing in Kenny’s original introduction got a bit dense and obscure, but really, the work was nearly flawless. I’ve gotten drafts from professional writers who’ve been in the game for decades that aren’t this well executed: nary a typo nor a grammatical error for pages; clear sentences and perfect paragraphs, all structured and ordered into a coherent whole.

I was, frankly, flabbergasted before I got even halfway through Book 1, and this was also beforeI found out how he wrote it. Kenneth W. Beek composed his first masterpiece entirely on a cell phone with a cracked screen and no Internet connection — one of the few objects he’d managed to hold onto during the most recent year of his journey through the circular hells of destitution, addiction and incarceration.     

“I had considered calling it a work of fiction, because that would give me license for imprecision,” Kenny wrote in that first e-mail. “But it isn’t fiction. Every single story, every individual character is real. I’m not writing a story, I’m reporting. The Cosmos wrote the whole thing, I witnessed it, and now I’m doing my best to share with others what it told to me, what it taught me.” 

Kenny’s achievement is unprecedented in the history of Maine letters, and not because he was homeless (he’s since secured an apartment in Portland), or because he wrote it on a tiny digital keyboard with his thumb. No Maine memoirist I’ve ever read or even heard of has matched the material contained in Transience. It is indeed a work of many dimensions. There’s sadness, for sure, but just as much love and joy, the joy of music and camaraderie. The fact it’s the happiness of penniless buskers in the Old Port dims the picture only slightly.

There’s philosophy in the book, and spirituality — Beek’s a budding bodhisattva in the street-Zen tradition. His words paint portraits of dozens of other homeless people he’s encountered along the way, and Kenny depicts them just as they are, eschewing the temptation to criticize or romanticize. These characters come and go throughout the narrative, and the reader gets to know and love them (well, love some of them, anyway) the same way Kenny did. More than a few disappear and never come back.

As a reporter, I was equally astonished by the social issues Kenny’s book raises. As you follow his tortured path from street to cell and back again, you find yourself thinking, Why the hell isn’t someone helping this guy?

Kenny has been helped by the good people at Preble Street Resource Center and other social-service agencies, but their assistance was just sufficient to keep him alive. He’s a recovering heroin addict and alcoholic with a mental illness. Dumping him back on the street without a dime to his name, as the so-called “criminal justice” system does again and again in this book, is not doing Kenny or society any good. And the Portland Police Department is only making things worse.  

Through Kenny’s account, we see how the cops routinely abuse their authority: violating civil rights, harassing and mocking the homeless, and even beating them up, including the illegal practice known as a “rough ride” in the back of a speeding paddy wagon en route to jail. Guess what, Portland cops: not everyone on the street is illiterate or afraid to speak their truth. At least two of them are now regular contributors to Mainer, and there will be consequences if you don’t cut the shit, like now.        

The three chapters we present in this issue are just a taste of what’s to come. Mainer plans to publish Transience in its entirety, serialized weekly on our new website, mainernews.com. Mainer subscribers — readers who support our cooperative with monthly or annual contributions — get PDFs of entire books in Kenny’s six-book Transience series, and we intend to publish print editions, too. (As Kenny points out, most of his pals on the street don’t read anything on screens, and we’re determined to get his book in their hands.)

Transience is a prime example of why Mainer exists: to provide an outlet for marginalized voices in our state. These days, even writers with bona fide careers can’t get a call back from an agent, nevermind a book deal. And who else in Maine is going to publish this material? Down freakin’ East? Maine Homeless Design?

I hope you’ll read this amazing book and consider supporting the author and our cooperative as a subscriber, so we can bring Kenny’s work, and that of all our great contributors, to wider attention in this state, this nation and the world. As Kenny observes of the working class later on in Book 1, most of us are only a paycheck away from joining the Pirates on their dirty blanket in the parking lot. We’re all in this together.

When I met with Bob and Katy and Kenny shortly after I received the manuscript, I remarked to Bob that Portland’s homeless population seems to be teeming with talent. “It is,” Bob said, “there’s a whole salon of writers, poets, artists and musicians on the street!” A salon of undiscovered Bukowskis and Prines and Harings and Chutes and Plaths, I thought, marveling at the potential wasting away on the sidewalks downtown. There’s much work to do, and we thank you again, dear reader, for making all of this possible.    

— Chris Busby             

Part One​: ​The Middle of Nowhere & Back

Introduction

“It’s hard to know, when you’re in such a jam, which is worse — not having a place to sleep or not having a place to work. One can sleep almost anywhere, but one must have a place to work. Even if it’s not a masterpiece you’re doing. Even a bad novel requires a chair to sit on and a bit of privacy. These rich cunts never think of a thing like that. Whenever they want to lower their soft behinds there’s always a chair standing ready for them.”
— Henry Miller, ​Tropic of Cancer

One day Kenny and I were sharing sips. It was right after Katy Finch and I had published the first installment of our ​​Pirate ShipAdventures​, a mostly comical take on Portland street life. Kenny was at that magical stage in a drunk that one might refer to as the ​surly​ stage. We’d been discussing the comic, but I was unaware it was a sore subject for Kenny. Here I was, making a tiny ripple in the city’s art scene, while Kenny hadn’t even broken the surface.

“Your comic sucks, Bobby!” he hollered at me. “I’m gonna make my own comic and it’s gonna smoke yours!”

I didn’t take that as anything other than the hirsute grumpy drunk walrus blowing off steam. Besides, Kenny couldn’t draw a stick figure if you put a gun to his head.

It wasn’t hard to figure out what was really going on. We were creative types with neither the means nor the energy to create. We both felt a deep frustration because our creative nuts had been cut off. Surviving homelessness eats up a lot of focus that could otherwise be directed elsewhere.

[Cue the sad, grainy black-and-white footage as the band launches into a tinkly piano heartbreaker.]

Yeah. Sure. Folks freeze to death and overdose and get killed, and it’s sad or whatever, and this is the picture that sells papers. But that’s only part of the truth. Dig a little deeper and you find people lead similar lives wherever and however they live — which is to say, they prosper, they fail, they fall in and out of love, they laugh and cry, they have hopes and dreams, good times, bad times.

Except when you’re on the bum, you die and a week or two later hardly anyone remembers you existed. All the amazing tales about these one-of-a-kind people are quickly lost. To think that decades of life could amount to so little — to me, that was the saddest bit.

I longed to counteract the transience of being transient. I wanted to make sure Trake and Joe Blaze and Wheels and everybody else weren’t forgotten. I wanted people to see past the backpack and into the flesh and bone. I wanted their triumphs and tragedies to be memorialized, if not in granite, then in art.

I can’t say for sure that Kenny shares my motivation, but I think he does. We both sure as hell know the stories are there, and neither of us has ever been accused of being short-winded when the mood strikes to spin a yarn.

I got lucky. The comic has been well received. Folks familiar with the homeless struggle nod in identification. “Normal” readers ask, in that quiet voice usually reserved for words like ​cancer​, if it’s OK to laugh. Yes. It’s OK to laugh. It’s a comic book. Readers were surprised to discover that, though untraditional, a homeless lifestyle is not without camaraderie and celebration.

When Kenny started to send me the early passes at this book, I realized the whole time he’d been sitting on the bench like a gelatinous lump, he was mentally recording everything. I didn’t think he had it in him. He was sitting there with ​intent.​

In the comic book stories, Katy and I change names, dates, places. Sometimes only a crumb of the actual thing that happened remains. In the

medium we’re using, we can bend reality at will. When anyone calls us out for this, all we have to say is, “Chill, it’s a comic book.” As a writer, this makes for a nice shield.

Kenny doesn’t do that. He’s rather matter-of-fact about it all. Dr. Beek is a fan of facts, details. Like a good card player, he considers all the angles, and like a good student, he does his homework.

There’s an Olde English proverb: “‘Every little bit counts,’ said the old lady when she peed in the sea.” I think that’s a thread between our work. Despite our different approaches, Kenny Wayne’s tales and ours arrive in the same place, the same part of the city, Anywhere U.S.A. They are pictures of covered lives, recordings of notes otherwise unheard.

If this leads to further understanding, and that understanding increases compassion, then either means justify the end. Boldly or subtly, it matter less how the story gets told than that it gets ​told​. So sit back, light a smoke and crack a Natty. Good, bad or ugly, this is the real deal, folks.

— “Handsome” Bob Bergeron

Dedication

This book is dedicated to my son, Bowman Charles Beek, to whom I’ve never given the things a father should, and who has never really gotten to know his dad. I love you,Son.

And to the memory of my father, Kenneth W. Beek, Sr., whom I knew very well, and who always gave me the things a father should … even if it was an ass-whooping. I miss you,Dad.

Prologue​: ​The Wallet

“How is it I haven’t seen this lofty sky before? And how happy I am that I’ve finally come to know it. Yes! everything is empty, everything is a deception, except this infinite sky. There is nothing, nothing except that. But there is not even that, there is nothing except silence, tranquility. And thank God!”
— Leo Tolstoy, ​War and Peace

I turned forty years old playing bass guitar in a biker bar with a teenage garage band. I was legally drinking before the lead guitarist was born. We played together as Band of Bastards for a few years, and a source of great embarrassment for the boys was always my wallet. You see, I’d had the same old worn-out wallet since 1989.

By 2014, the band had disbanded but the singer and I would still occasionally see one another for various reasons, usually music- or drug-related, and my wallet still irked him. On Christmas, he brought me a present. What else? A beautiful new leather wallet.

I told him once again of the significance mine carried for me, how it was good luck. I told him he had no idea how much money had passed through the old fold of leather that looked so weathered. It was worn because it was well used. But he had given me a gift. What could I do? I had to accept.

I transferred the contents of my old faithful purse into my new wallet and went about business as usual — which was highly unusual business, as well as illegal. And the money came in, as it always had. A few days passed and I began to feel silly about the attachment I’d developed for the old one. I became rather fond of the gift from my young friend. It was a very nice billfold.

Come June, I was arrested. When I received the paperwork in jail I noted the date of the “controlled buy” that hemmed me up was one week after I received the Christmas present.

I no longer have either wallet.

After spending a couple of months in jail I agreed to a plea deal: two years of supervised release with two years of time hanging if I violated. Upon release I was enveloped by a deep depression. It seemed disturbingly clear I had been better off in jail, happier in jail, and I decided I didn’t want to live anymore. Having been clean for nearly two months, I shot up a gram of potent heroin in an attempt to commit suicide. When I came to I was strapped to a stretcher.

“What’s going on?” I asked.

“We just brought you back to life with a shot of ​Narcan​ and CPR,” an EMT answered.

“Why?” I asked, enraged. “And where’s my wallet?”

“You’re not getting your wallet now,” he replied.

“But you know I’m going back to jail! I need money!”

I never saw either wallet, or any of my other belongings, ever again.

Chapter One​: ​I Had to Go

“‘There are other people back behind there who profit by the war, that’s certain.’”
— Erich Maria Remarque, ​All Quiet on the Western Front

Following four short days of freedom and a failed attempt to find God, I found myself in jail rather than Heaven. But I ​had been​ in Heaven. I was certain of it.

This wasn’t my first spiritual experience. There had been a few in my life, but it seems I had forgotten their significance. It also seems strange a person can forget something like that. My faith fades like a powerful pop song they didn’t know how to end, so they just fade, like “Mr. Crowley” or “Hotel California.” Those endings become part of the power of the song and the fade out makes sense. It had to be that way. And when you listen to them again and again, you remember that Power. My light had been turned back on.

I spent two months in the York County Jail without even seeing a judge or a courtroom. It was a strange couple of months that I won’t go into much right now, but I will say that everything I read during that stint ​— ​and I read a lot, especially in jail ​— ​seemed to connect: the books, the newspaper, even the comics. And then the TV seemed to be in on it. And the jail ministers, too, because their sermons were making sense to me.

Everything was connected.​

When I got released I went back to Biddeford. It was like returning to the wastelands of a battle nobody ever fought. The war on drugs is a business as much as crime is a business. War is a business. Wars happen because people either want to make money or take money. The money may be in the form of gold or grain, land or oil, even drugs (legal or illegal), but it’s always

for gain that we wage war, no matter what your president or king tells you.

The war on drugs is no different. It’s a civil war that destroys our neighbors and neighborhoods, very likely causing as much damage as drugs do. The jails are full of people who should be receiving treatment, rather than criminal records that will adversely affect them the rest of their lives. Biddeford is also full of these people. One of them was my youngest child’s mother. And that’s why I went back.

In York County Superior Court, Friday is probation day. I was released with time served and nineteen and a half months hanging. I would have to report to the probation office in Portland, in person, every weekday, by noon, beginning Monday. But it was Friday night and I was in Biddeford. I was there for Toni. We spent three nights together, and on the third night I finally came to realize she wasn’t going to be going to Portland with me. When Monday morning came, I left alone. I had to go.

She begged me to stay. She said all sorts of things a man in love wants to hear. She also writes a hell of a good jail letter ​or two, ​but then they pretty much stop. And I understand it’s because of the addiction. And I know what that means. I know from my history as an addict all the dirty deeds and demoralizing acts civilized animals are capable of committing.

I had to go.

I explained that I wasn’t leaving because I ​didn’t​ love her. I told her I was ​goingbecause I did love her. I meant every word I said. It was all true. My friend who was driving me to Portland dropped her off by her aunt’s house. When she got out there was no last kiss. There wasn’t even a ​“goodbye.”​ She never looked back. And I haven’t seen her since.

I got dropped off at Probation on Washington Ave. in Portland at one minute past noon. I was late. My probation officer was a woman roughly my age. After we introduced ourselves, she told me she’d heard I died and was brought back to life. She wanted to know if I’d ​”seen anything.”

I began to tell her the story of my experience and the belief system I had developed and was now fine tuning in order to make sense of it all, but she stopped me right there and said, “You’re beginning to sound a lot like my college philosophy class, and ​that was right over my head.”

I was devastated. This person, incapable of keeping up conversation with me, was now in charge of my life and Liberty.

Chapter Two​: ​Preble Street

“This way lies the Abyss.”
— Erich Maria Remarque, ​All Quiet on the Western Front

Preble Street is a one-way street in downtown Portland, Maine, but in the street parlance of the city, Preble Street is more than a street. It’s a label. It marks an area that loosely covers several city blocks, and it marks a person. If you’re from Preble Street, you’re destitute.

The successful social-service work done at the Preble Street Resource Center is largely the reason the street’s name has sprawled beyond its sidewalks. (The center’s address is actually 5 Portland St., a short street that becomes Park Ave. near Deering Oaks; in Portland, Park Avenue really does lead to skid row.) This miserable place, this soup kitchen and homeless shelter, is sought after as a sort of Shangri-La for street people. This has caused a transient population explosion in our little town. The national rate of homelessness is .5 percent, or 1 in every 200 people, while in Portland it’s closer to 5 percent, or 1 of every 20.

The Internet is a major contributing factor. Most homeless people these days have smart phones that can connect to the Web and to other people plagued by homelessness. It really is the Information Age, even for the poor. I’ve met many homeless people who told me they heard of this place and travelled from out of state for a shot at getting off the street, or at least getting fed on the regular.

I don’t know what these travelers expect when they get to Preble, but whatever paradise they imagine is about as real as ​Shangri-La​. These days what you’re likely to find is a locked building with dozens of homeless junkies and drunks loitering outside, many of them spaced out on ​spice​, most of them broke and seeking someone to scam or rob, and all of them seemingly concerned only for themselves. These are the real Walking Dead. These are people who dwell in a different universe than the common world where ​normal people​ exist.

I’m not judging. This is a mere observation, my personal assessment of the place. I have known it all too well for far too long. Many days and nights were spent wasting away on the benches in the courtyard, hundreds of days and dozens of nights. There was simply no place else for me to go. I was just out of jail, out of money, and out of ideas. Most people arrive at this place due to similar or even more dire circumstances. So again, I’m not judging.

If a person is broken and broke, disabled or disillusioned to the point of hopelessness, carrying everything they own in a single bag, everybody they ever loved and everything they’ve worked for gone, lost, destroyed or stolen, and that person arrives at your door, what do you do? At Preble​,​ they feed you and try to find a place for you to sleep.

Unfortunately, that only takes up maybe eight or ten hours of the day, sleep included (if you ​can​ sleep). The other fourteen to sixteen hours you’re outside somewhere, just trying to survive. That can be a long day, especially if it’s 10 degrees Fahrenheit​, ​or 10 below​, ​or if it’s windy or raining, or if you are struggling with addiction.

People don’t go to the shelter to get off drugs. They go there to get drugs. People don’t go to the shelter to get sober, either. There’s actually a good chance you can score a free drink there if you’re broke and needing one.

I didn’t plan to be a drunk. I had other plans. But I am a drunk — an ​alcoholic​, anyway ​​​ and my other plans were indefinitely postponed by the disease. Sobriety is a sort of remission of the sickness, but at any moment you can relapse and the disease is reactivated. Once that happens you are at the mercy of the drug and subject to the compulsive behavior that results.

If you’re a drunk or an addict (or both, like me), what you will find at Preble Street is others like yourself. I can assure you almost nobody wants to be there. It can’t be helped. Getting there is like water flowing downstream, obeying the law of least resistance. Getting out is all upstream. You’ll have to swim against the current, the patterns of behavior that are the nature of the addict. In other words, you’ll have to work. And ​you will need help​.

Chapter Three​: ​Between Heaven and Biddeford

“How thin the boundary that divides him from the darkness… against the storm of dissolution and madness.”
— Erich Maria Remarque, ​All Quiet on the Western Front

I was finally in Portland. This had been my exit plan since the moment I got back to the YCJ intake. You need something to look forward to in jail, somewhere to hang your hope. Preble Street had become my goal, ​The Last Resort​.

When I left the probation office I desperately needed to urinate, but I couldn’t find a public restroom. Then I spotted a narrow alleyway between two apartment buildings. It was either piss there or in my pants, so I went there — which is to say, ​outside.​ It was the longest, most frightening piss I had ever taken. I was practically across the street from the probation office, barely five minutes out the door, committing my first probation violation: an act of Nature.

In Portland there are very few public toilets —​ aside from City Hall and the library, when they’re open ​— and if you aren’t a local, you don’t know where they are. Even if you do know, it isn’t always possible to make it that far. This is one of the major difficulties the city’s homeless population has to overcome every day and night. It isn’t a crime against Nature, but it ​is​ a crime. I got away with it this time. I wouldn’t always.

I could smell booze the second I stepped inside the resource center’s neighborhood. The atmosphere was saturated with it. I was totally alcohol-free and fresh out of jail, so my sense of smell ​— e​ach of my senses, actually ​— ​was very sharp. There was a crowd of people in the courtyard, dozens of them. There were dozens more on the surrounding sidewalks. Trash cluttered those sidewalks: bottles and cans, empty cigarette packs and coffee cups, discarded blankets and dirty syringes. Every form of refuse could be found on those curbs, from rotten food to human waste to withering humanity, wasting away with as little concern for themselves as the world had for them.

I spotted the guy with the guitar before I even made it to the building. Mine was gone for good and I hadn’t played in more than six months. I wanted to play, but my head was in a strange place. Hell, my whole body was in a strange place. ​Preble Street​ is a strange place. And my heart was somewhere between Heaven and Biddeford. Biddeford and Preble Street seemed like they couldn’t be farther from Heaven at that time. But Heaven is under our feet wherever we are, whether that’s Walden Woods or the Forest City, the old hoosegow in Concord or the York County Jail.

I didn’t talk to anyone. I just walked into the building, explained my situation and asked for help. There were dozens more people inside, homeless people. A Preble Street caseworker was assigned to work with me. The poor girl was going to have her work cut out for her, though she probably had it pretty easy with me compared to her other cases, especially since I was to spend far more time in jail than out while she was my caseworker. We didn’t know that then, of course. I just gave her the rundown of my situation and she helped me fill out some paperwork.

There’s been a lot of paperwork. I never would have been able to do it on my own. It would take almost four years, more than four caseworkers from as many welfare agencies, and piles of paperwork filled out with each of them to get me off the streets.

The meeting with my new caseworker might have lasted an hour, which left three hours to kill before dinner. I sat and read. I was reading Nietzsche’s ​Beyond Good and Evil​ at the time. That’s a heavy book, especially when you’re reading it in a crowd of crazy people.

That may seem like an insensitive thing to say, but it would be far more insensitive to pretend it isn’t so. There were hordes of people yelling, arguing, fighting. This is the perpetual Preble Street scene. About every five minutes someone is robbed and every half hour or so you see somebody assaulted. I’ve seen people hit with bricks, boards, canes, bottles, bags; I’ve seen shootings and stabbings, seizures, suicides, OD’s, heart attacks, bad trips, people lit on fire, people pissing and shitting and fucking right on and around the galvanized benches in the resource center’s courtyard.

Most homeless people suffer from mental illness or addiction, which is a form of insanity itself. I’m bipolar, but addiction has been an equally destructive force in my life. I honestly can’t say whether mental illness is the cause of my addiction or not, but between the two my decision-making has been flawed, to say the least.

When it came time for dinner I went around the back of the building to the soup kitchen, on the Oxford Street side. The shelter is also on this street, about a block east from the kitchen. I went inside and got in line. It was a pretty long line. All of the many dozens of people hanging around outside​ — hundreds, if you cared to count — ​eat dinner in here. (Well, except the Milestone Cowboys, but that’s another story or two.)

I got my meal and found a place to sit. As I sat down I gave a friendly nod to a woman across the table. Her reaction was to lean forward, wrap her arms around the things in front of her ​— cups, coffee mugs, bowls, tray — ​​and draw them in towards herself, like a mother protecting her young. This is free stuff, all of which she was free to have more. But she was instinctively protective.

The lady next to her was carrying on a long conversation, and I realized after a few minutes that she was talking to herself — or, more likely, to people who weren’t there. This wasn’t immediately obvious because the guy next to me had been rocking back and forth, mumbling: “Yup… Uh huh… Um hum… Yup… Um hmm… Yup… Uh huh…” I’m not sure they were even aware of each other’s presence. It was like having dinner with the characters in ​One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest​.

They closed the soup kitchen down at six. That left a couple more hours to kill before shelter registration. I read some more in the courtyard, then walked to Oxford Street. Upon your initial visit you have to fill out a little more paperwork. I got that done and they gave me a shelter ID on a necklace. I’d seen a lot of people wearing them. It’s like a dog tag for the homeless. It identifies you at a glance to the cops, hospital staff, and anyone else in the know as a transient.​ Once I was properly labeled they gave me a bed at the overflow shelter, which is at Preble Street Resource Center. So I walked back down the street.

I went inside, where I’d met with my caseworker just hours before, but it was no longer the day room. The floor was covered wall to wall with mats, the same mats they give you at YCJ, but without the bunks under them. The mats are spaced about two inches apart, all seventy-four of them. That’s seventy-four homeless men in one room, many (maybe most) drunk, ​snoring, farting and stinking. The stench that stiffened the air defies description. They gave me a sheet and a blanket,​ too — ​also YCJ issue, Bob Barker​ brand linen and wool​—​and I went to make my “bed.”

As I lay there feeling sick to my stomach, all I could think about was Toni and how I could be laying down with her right now​, ​the young, beautiful woman with whom I was in love and had fathered a child. Instead, here I was, lying on the floor with seventy-three other homeless men, and by then I was convinced everyone​ was drunk but me. I didn’t belong here. I wasn’t one of them. ​Was I better off in jail?

I had to go … outside.

And that’s where I spent the rest of the night, on the steps of the Preble Street Resource Center: Chez Shangri-La. I nodded off now and then, but mostly I read and wrote in my journal. I wrote a poem that night. The journal and the poem no longer exist. Those were neither the first nor the last things I lost.