Transience

Chapters 10, 11 & 12

illustrations/Katy Finch and Bob Bergeron

Introductions & Chapters 1, 2 & 3

Chapters 4, 5 & 6

Chapters 7, 8 & 9

Chapter Ten: Revocationland

“A man would like to spank them, they are so stupid, and to take them by the arm and lead them away from here where they have no business to be.”
— Erich Maria Remarque, ​All Quiet on the Western Front

If you could find the Middle of Nowhere you’d be near the York County Jail, because that’s where it is. The location was supposedly chosen because it’s the center of York County. I’ve never gotten out a map and measured to determine whether that’s true, but it feels right enough on foot.

It’s a mile or more, uphill, to the sign that reads “Biddeford 17 mi,”  and Biddeford is about that distance from Portland. I was walking (soon to be hitchhiking) back to Portland when I exited the sally port into the fresh air of freedom, with Foxy’s guitar in my arms. I played it while I walked up the hill because I knew no one would pick me up on the jail road. I always waited until I hit Route 111 to extend my thumb.

I’ve been fortunate to get rides pretty quickly on that stretch of 111, despite its proximity to the YCJ. Mainers are mostly good folks, and incarceration, like poverty, is a pretty common experience in our state. This day was no exception. When I got picked up I had barely passed that Biddeford sign. But that’s as far as they were going: Biddo. I hadn’t wanted to stop there, but inevitably, I did.

I got in touch with a buddy on Main Street — ​Steve, a master in the art of duct tape — and he patched up the guitar with remarkable skill. His wife made a hell of a dinner in the meantime, which they were kind enough to invite me to share. The last time Steve and I had eaten together was in YCJ, so he was sympathetic. 

After supper I left to spend the night at another pal’s place. This friend of mine was living at the address that appeared on my arrest warrant for the heroin bust, the piece of paper that kicked off this whole series of events. The address itself is of no significance to this story. It’s just an example of the many ghosts and demons that haunt me in the barrens of the old mill town.

This place is less than a block from a Dunkin’ Donuts​. I​ wanted a coffee, so I stopped in, and ran into another one of Toni’s uncles. He tried to coax me back into the business. I professed my newfound faith in sobriety — ​or, at least, my desire to stay off heroin — and told him “there’s no way I could ever sell dope again.”

As a firm believer in Liberty I had defended the right to do heroin, as well as to sell it. I even denied there was a heroin problem, much less one worthy of the description epidemic. But I changed my mind once I was able to see Biddeford through sober eyes.

When I got back to my old address, my friend and I talked for hours about God and philosophy and physics. He’s an atheist, which made our discussion very interesting. In the morning I went to meet Steve, who drove me into Portland. He was going to Preble Street to find work through a temp agency near the soup kitchen.

We left for Portland at four-thirty in the morning. I was on a bench at the Resource Center by five, back in the migratory patterns of the Block. Vacation, or revocation, had ended. Probation to continue.

Chapter Eleven: I Wasn’t a Bank Robber

“Through the years our business has been killing; it was our first calling in life.”
— Erich Maria Remarque, ​All Quiet on the Western Front

If there’s a Heaven, I imagine it’s full of people like Ashlea. Funny thing is, were a church-going Christian to meet her they’d probably take one look and think, Satanist.​ Shit, she’d probably tell ’em she was a Satanist, but I don’t think she is, though she shares their musical taste.

Ashlea went through more wardrobe changes on any given day than most stage performers. Her head was shaved to a fine stubble and she intermittently wore a variety of wigs. I’ve seen her with fake hair in every color of the rainbow and more. She drew thick black circles around her eyes in the tradition of Alice Cooper or Marilyn Manson. She was always painting her nails different colors and tagging the streets and sidewalks with signs, often of dark or demonic symbolism.

But here’s the truth about Ashlea: she’s one of the most generous people you could ever meet. I can’t tell you how many gifts she’s given me. In fact, the wallet I have in my pocket right now was a gift from her a couple years back. The day she gave me the wallet I was wearing a coat, hat, pants, sunglasses, and the coolest Jerry Garcia t-shirt ever — all presents from Ashlea.

Ashlea walks around all night with a shopping cart and gathers things up, mostly junk and stuff tossed into dumpsters. But she occasionally discovers treasures, like the Garcia shirt.

This is what Handsome Bob calls an ​Ashlea Offering: She lays out the night’s haul on the Preble Street benches for everyone to sift through and choose. If she’s found things that remind her of certain people, she offers those items to them. That’s how I got the Garcia shirt. I wondered how she knew it would be special to me.

Just recently Ashlea approached me with a skull-and-roses Grateful Dead t-shirt. She said she noticed I hadn’t worn the Jerry shirt in quite some time. I was flattered and fascinated by that. Most people didn’t recognize the photo on the front of the first one (Jerry with his “mystical” briefcase, circa 1977-78), but ​she​ obviously did. She also had to recognize I was a Deadhead to know I’d like it. And then, years later, she noticed I hadn’t been wearing that shirt and figured I needed a replacement. This was a deep level of awareness I didn’t think she possessed. She doesn’t seem to be operating on the same plane of reality. But she’s aware, alright. And the very soul of kindness.

Don’t get me wrong: Ashlea is a real outlaw, definitely one of the Pirate Ship Crew (to the degree someone so different can be a member of anything). She has a pure ​Robin Hood​ nature. In fact, she robbed a bank one time, and when she exited the building she just tossed the cash up in the air for the world to have. She never intended to keep the money. She doesn’t keep anything. She gives it all away.

Joe Blaze robbed a bank once while in a benzo-driven, alcoholic blackout. He left the bank and hopped on the city Metro bus. The cops just headed him off at the next stop.

I wasn’t a bank robber. Before I came to Portland I ​had been​ a heroin dealer. Allegedly. I was actually just an addict who did what it took to support the disease. I’d decided as a teenager that stealing was wrong. But from the age of five until I was almost seventeen there were only about a dozen people on the planet I wouldn’t rob if I could.

“Hey, Kenny,” Ashlea greeted me. “Got a cigarette? You can have this lighter.”

“You don’t have to give me your lighter,” I said. “You can just have a cigarette.”

She lit her smoke, then sparked the lighter again and stared into the flame with a disturbing gaze, cold and blank. Her expression stirred a strange sadness deep inside me. The gothic painting of her face expressed a state of mind way beyond despair.

“No, Kenny,” she said. “You should take it. I don’t want it. It’s green.”

“Thanks, Ash.”

Conversations seldom go beyond that with Ashlea. Sometimes she’d tell me she was excited to have a new Korn or Slipknot CD, but when I’d see her listening to it she’d have the same vacant stare. And when she finishing hearing the album, she’d give it away, along with whatever device it was played on.

“Wayne.” A voice from behind. It was Mark Wallingford and his wife Maria. The last time I saw him we were in the Middle of Nowhere, YCJ, and he’d just gotten off Rikers Island. He and Maria got busted in NYC while I was waiting for them in Biddeford. I’d been staying with them, I was in their place, and when they didn’t come back I just moved out. The next time I saw Maria was in a parking lot and I was bobbing neck-deep in a hot spoon. Soon thereafter, I was arrested in the same parking lot for a warrant issued during her time on Rikers.

“What’s going on, Mark? Maria.”

I probably seemed standoffish. He did a year. She did like fifty days. That’s not much time for the amount of dope they had. I’d already confronted him about it in the joint. “I can’t really say my wife isn’t a rat,” he’d said. “Some of her paperwork just didn’t make sense to me.”

Now here they were, standing in front of me like nothing ever happened.

“We got some tickets to move,” Mark said. “We can give ’em to you for fifteen. You’ll make five on every one you dump.”

“No, thanks,” I said. “My days of the five-dollar felony are ended.” There had been plenty of five-dollar felonies committed with these two. If you commit enough in a day, they can support you. But it’s hard, high-risk work.

“You’re out of business entirely?” Mark asked.

“Yeah, I’m clean and trying to stay that way.”

“Word. Well, we’re around for the day,” he assured me.

These assurances, these opportunities to get high and make a few bucks, were everywhere. I could commit many a five-dollar felony any day on the Block, but I wouldn’t sell heroin again. I didn’t like what it did to the people around me.

I didn’t think of it this way back then, but it violates the concept of ​right occupation, which ultimately leads to a violation of the ​First Precept (abstention from killing). When I ran into Toni’s uncle in Biddeford, and then Mark and Maria in the courtyard, I was only aware it was wrong, and that was enough. If I knowingly sell something that causes harm to other sentient beings, it violates my values. That doesn’t leave much wiggle room. Most of the things sold to us — ​from the foods we eat to the philosophies we swallow—​ are harmful to beings somewhere.

Chapter Twelve: Two in the Bush

“We don’t talk much, but I believe we have a more complete communion with one another than even lovers have.”
— Erich Maria Remarque, ​All Quiet on the Western Front

As the Crew members meandered into the courtyard, each at his own pace, they expressed their appreciation for my return, each in his own way. Trake hugged me and planted a wet kiss on my neck. If anyone else in the world had done that (​aside from Toni), I would have felt uncomfortable. Most men probably would have been knocked out. But this grimy, smelly homeless man — ​half in the bag at six in the morning, exhaling stale cigarette smoke as he kissed me — didn’t bother me at all. In fact, I couldn’t have felt better if it ​had​ been Toni. ​If​ it were Toni there would have been all these confusedly mixed emotions to sort through and analyze. Coming from Mark Stephen Thompson, there was no confusion. It was a genuine expression of Love.

Foxy came out of the overflow shelter with his head down. He was carrying another guitar. I could see right away it was a Yamaha. I love Yamahas. Even the cheapest ones play beautifully. I could hardly wait to show him how well Steve had patched up his Fender. He lifted his head and spotted me.

“Well, look who decided to come home,” he teased.

I handed him the guitar. I thought he’d be thrilled, and he was, at first. Then he took on an accusatory tone. “Where the hell is the electronics?”

“I left them in Biddeford,” I said.

“​Now how​ will I plug it in?” he drilled me.

“How the hell were you going to plug it in anyway?” I shot back. “You’re homeless.​ Were you gonna plug it into a tree?”

Everybody laughed. Foxy clarified: he was houseless, ​not homeless, and that was the end of it.

Joe Blaze offered me a drink. Joe always offers.

“I have to report to probation every day by nine now, Joe.”

Here’s the thing about that: This is an example of how ​normal people​ think, as opposed to how ​alcoholic people​ think. Setting the deadline of my probation check-in at nine instead of noon was supposed to be stiffening my conditions. In reality it gave me more of a window for drinking. Before, I couldn’t have a drink until afternoon. Now I could start shortly after nine. And that’s exactly what I planned to do.

“When I get back I’ll want one,” I said.

Joe and everyone else had a good laugh at that comment. I didn’t intend for it to be funny, but I suppose it was to an alcoholic mind. Regardless, it was true. By the time lunch rolled around I’d gotten probation out of the way and myself into a bottle. It was the beginning of November and the holidays were coming on fast. I might as well celebrate my freedom.

My library books and everything else I had stored in the Preble Street locker — shower shoes, shampoo, journal; my sole possessions — had been discarded during my time away. I checked with the library in hopes the volumes had been returned. They hadn’t, so ​I​ was also ​dis​-carded — my library card and computer privileges had been suspended. I walked back down to the Block.

After lunch Bobby showed up. I’d met him before when I was in town, but he looked different today. He was all cleaned up. His lamb’s wool hair was freshly sheared, the mangy white beard had come off, clean Converse on his feet (maybe even new ​Chuck Taylors)​. And he was with a girl, a woman. She was pretty, too, slender and blonde with sharp blue eyes and fair skin. I wasn’t the only one with new conditions. Something new was happening with Bob.

Bobby Chops first called him Handsome Bob, and he hated it.

“Stop calling me handsome!” he’d yell at Chops as he knuckled him upside the noggin. “And another thing” — this punctuated with another knuckle — “you can’t choose your own nickname! Nicknames just happen.”

Bobby Chops had chosen his own nickname, and he was Bobby Chops till the day he died, and now in history. Luckily for Handsome Bob, that name didn’t stick as well. He’d been on the Block too long. He was just Bobby.

Bobby is a guy who seems to know a little bit about everything and a lot about nothing. I don’t know how he got so much information into a head so full of booze, because he’s one of the real alcoholics, the sort of case study they keep in the back of the Big Book of AA. I don’t mean that in a derogatory way. I can’t relate to anything in the book between Bill W and that section in the back. I’m also one of the real alcoholics. We drink until absolute oblivion, which is to say not just oblivion of our senses or consciousness, but of our lives.

I’m also the type who likes to discuss the finer details of many subjects, so Bob and I quickly developed what has become a lasting friendship. We have slept in the streets and scrounged change for high-gravity, low-cost booze while searching for a half-smoked snipe outside the beer store at four-thirty a.m., so sick we weren’t speaking (that being an unspoken rule), then fought to hold down the first couple swallows, Bob often accosted by me for letting too much back up the gullet. Then we’d spend the rest of the day talking about the Beatles and the Stones, Yastrzemski and Big Papi, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Jeremy once joked that we were lucky the Beatles didn’t play baseball or we’d never shut Bobby up.

“Bob!” I exclaimed. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but you look great! What, d’you find a cleaner bush to sleep under? And who’s this pretty young lady?” I directed my gaze at his new girlfriend, giving her the up and down like I was scanning her for a barcode.

“​This​ is Debbie. Debbie, ​this​ is Kenny Wayne​.​” He really did look good. They both did. “And yes,” Bobby continued, “I did find a cleaner bush to sleep under. I have a roof over my head now. There’s a garden on that roof. I think there’s a bush or two up there.”

This was incredibly inspiring. I hadn’t known Bobby long, but he’d gotten housed. He actually had been sleeping under a bush the last time I’d seen him. Now he had his own place. It really could happen. It would happen for me,​ too. I believed that more than ever now. I could hardly wait to see his new pad.

A few of us went there after lunch. Bobby lectured us on the way over. He ​had​ to lay down the law — the recently housed always ​have​ to do that. You can lose an apartment faster than you can get one.

Bob still had some of his stuff. He had some pictures. He had some mementos and keepsakes. He had a record player and some of his old records. He had CDs of music he’d written and recorded with a couple of bands he’d been in. And he had some decent books: Tolkien, Melville, Miller. I was impressed.

We had a pretty good time. Shaggy had a tattoo gun and added some ink to Benny. Bob had a heart put on his arm with the affection ​MOM​ inscribed in it. Mark and Debbie and I just watched while we passed around a bowl. We didn’t have to pass around the beers in here or worry the next sip could send us to jail. There wasn’t supposed to be any smoking in the place, though, so we had to huddle in front of the fan in the window.

The 21st century sucks. You can’t smoke indoors, you can’t drink outdoors, and flying cars are simply unaffordable. I’d been hoping for better. Now I’m hoping for a time machine to get back to the ’70s. The technology presently eludes me, but I still think about it.

Around five o’clock we all walked back to Preble Street for dinner. Handsome Bob’s place was only a few minutes’ walk from the soup kitchen. We all went through the line together, sat down together, and ate together. It was a far more enjoyable experience than having to do all that alone.

After supper Bob and Debbie went back to his place, Shaggy went to a flophouse where some friends of his were squatting, Benny and Trake just vanished and I was alone again. I didn’t feel as alone as before, though. I felt good. I had a sense of hope. And I had friends.

The next couple weeks went by in this way, drinking, playing music, eating and sleeping in the shelter, with occasional visits to Bob’s new bush. Bobby worked on Debbie and his art some. Jay worked on half the homeless women in the neighborhood. Foxy wooed anyone willing to be wooed. Benny worked a bit for the temp agency. Blaze and I mostly hung around the Block, and Trake faded in and out like a virtual particle in the quantum fog. It seemed like we’d known each other a long time, though I’d only spent a few weeks in the Crew’s company.