It’s What I Do!
When I left teaching about seven years ago, it marked the first in a series of poor career decisions that would ultimately lead to my current situation. I should have at least held on to the status quo by waiting tables and teaching a class or two until I came up with a better plan. If I were to die today, that moment would mark my departure from my life’s summit. It’s all been downhill since then.
Although that was the end of my professional life, I was able to keep things together for another two years or so. I may have been chronically late on the rent, as well as played the dangerous game of driving without insurance, but I made enough to get by. I also had enough to comfortably squander on frivolities. I never went without cigarettes and rarely was dry for more than a day.
The next critical juncture in my escalating failures was when I lost my last job as a waiter. I ended up staying with my dad, at his girlfriend’s place, in a town where jobs were more plentiful. I would stay there during the week and return to my apartment on weekends to spend quality time with my drinking buddies and Dude, my aged cat.
Denied the steady stream of income I had relied on for three years, this was the first time I was sober for two or three consecutive days in a long time. It took some adjustment to deal with life without the nightly promise of an easy escape. “Life on life’s terms,” in AA parlance, was difficult and uncomfortable. I had been regularly drinking so much beer that I almost forgot what it was like to produce a solid turd.
While certainly more promising than the small town I had lived in for two years, finding a job proved difficult. I no longer limited my search to restaurants; I was willing to take anything. I would simply have to relearn the art of budgeting money. Perhaps I’d stick with drinking only occasionally around payday.
It took a lot of effort, but I was finally able to land a job at a health food store. Nothing great, of course, but the potential was there to move up the managerial ranks quite quickly. The likelihood of this was heightened by the fact that Richard, the owner, respected my academic achievements. Unlike some other potential bosses, he looked at that record as an asset rather than as a liability. We actually had a good conversation about philosophy and religion during my interview. He surprised me by being relatively well-informed.
I might not be the poster boy for healthy living, but I felt at ease with the hippies and generally alternative people who worked there. This was clearly a place where the workers didn’t shy away from nonconformity. There was also a pronounced New Age vibe. I foresaw a lot of left-handed cigarettes during my lunch breaks.
* * *
“Hey Brian, the boss wants to see you in his office.”
My trainer told me this as I was returning from lunch on my first day at work. I used to pull a joke on my co-workers at my last job before this one. I would tell someone, usually a good-humored cook, that the boss wanted to see them before they punched in. To show how cruelly funny the cosmos can be, this is the exact message I got the day I was fired from that job. It took a while for it to dawn on me that the guy wasn’t pulling my leg.
We walked back to the boss’s office. It had to be something minor. I’d only worked for little more than four hours so far and couldn’t have screwed up anything yet. Since I hadn’t drank in a couple days, I knew I didn’t smell like booze.
“Have a seat, Brian. I’ll cut straight to the chase. I heard that you advised a customer to steal something. Is that true?”
“Oh. That. When I was getting trained on the register I was bagging up the purchases. An older lady said she didn’t need a bag. She said she’d just put it in her purse.”
“I said, ‘You should’ve just put it in your purse before you got here. You could’ve saved some money.’ It was just a stupid joke. I like kidding around with the customers. I think it’s a good way to enhance their retail experience.”
I began to sweat, a reaction that was surely taken as a sign of a guilty conscience. I’ve always been good at customer relations. As long as I didn’t go overboard, joking around had rarely backfired. I certainly got better tips when I entertained the diners.
“The thing is, Brian, we don’t really have a sense of humor about theft here. The fact that your mind would even think like that says to me that I’ve got to keep my eye on you. Frankly, I can’t afford that risk.”
“Richard, I haven’t stolen anything since I was 13.” I have also never told a lie. “I like to joke around. It’s in my nature. But I won’t do it anymore if there’s a possibility of it being misconstrued. Not even a knock-knock joke.”
I then realized why my trainer had remained in the office. He was security in case the conniving thief, whose true nature was betrayed by a Freudian slip, suddenly became violent. This hippie as security? Ha!
“I just can’t have a situation where I have to worry about employee theft. I’ve had too much of that in the past. I have no other choice but to nip this in the bud. I’m going to have to let you go.”
He cannot be serious. Is this a hazing ritual, a joke on the joker? If he heard the comments my friends and I made, with our twisted minds, he’d probably try to have us arrested for thought crimes.
I tried arguing my point. I asked him to call any of my references or past employers, all of whom would attest to my trustworthiness. Granted, some of them might let my alcoholic secret slip, but I was willing to take that chance. I had optimistic hopes pinned on my employment here. I also had a good track record of reasoning with the obstinate.
“I’m sorry, Brian. I can’t budge. Look at this as a life lesson. Be more professional and more mindful in the future. I wish you the best.”
Professionalism. That word has haunted me in the past, from my serious teaching jobs to my stupid restaurant jobs. I will indeed strive for that in the future. But for now…
“I’m sorry too, Dick. Frankly, it’s your loss. And, might I add, you have taken the fine art of douchebaggery to new heights. Kudos to you for that. Go choke on some fucking tofu.”
He was visibly taken aback at this. His face reddened. Hell, I even shocked myself with that.
“Leave the property at once, Mr. Williard. Josh,” he said to his underling, “go retrieve his belongings from the lunchroom and meet him in the parking lot.”
Gee, that felt great! I’ve had an unpleasant exchange with a boss in the past when I quit a job, but I’ve never actually told one off. In fact, I’ve never spoken to anyone like that before. I’ve only had heated arguments with only my close friends, the kind of intimate pals where you remain friends at the end of the day regardless of what was said.
It felt so good that I briefly entertained the notion of smashing some stuff on my way out, but I thought better of it. That would likely lead to a date with the police. My history of respectful “Yes sir”s and “Yes Ms.”s had just yielded to a desire to say what I really thought. It was my mellow equivalent of going postal. Actually, I was probably doing him a favor. Now he wouldn’t be plagued with doubt about the wisdom of his decision.
When my dad picked me up, he was pissed at me for blowing it, but he was also proud that I finally stood up for myself. He also couldn’t help but laugh at the absurdity of the whole thing. He astutely observed that the boss seemed like the kind of guy who would drop a dime at the drop of a hat.
Without a word of warning, he pulled abruptly into the parking lot of the bar near his place. He handed me money for a 12-pack, saying I could probably use it. Father knows best.
He dropped me off at his place and went to his regular bar. We’ve been busted before, but his girlfriend forbade drinking at her place. This meant that, regardless of the weather, we spent a lot of time outside when she was there.
I immediately set to work scouring the classifieds. I also began the chore of draining the beer cans. The former task gradually took on less importance. After about eight beers, my anger returned in a less restrained fashion. As I was outside smoking, I picked up a stick that they used for gardening. I began to smash it to bits against the fence.
My anger was nearing the red-hot proportions that I experienced on the tennis courts. I would get so frustrated with my performance at the sport that I became totally obnoxious. It’s a wonder I never got arrested, or had a heart attack, during these tantrums.
I took a walk through the side streets, hoping that it would calm me down. Instead, the garbage that people had set out for trash day proved inviting targets for my rage. I picked up whatever looked like it could be smashed and beat or threw it against the ground. An old mop proved a particularly formidable adversary. I spied a TV set that I was about to have my way with when I came to my senses. I went back to my dad’s and took a nap.
Later that night, my dad confronted me about breaking the gardening stick. As if my vandalism in and of itself wasn’t bad enough, a neighbor had seen me flipping out and had gotten a little scared. Since I had refreshed my buzz with the remaining beers, I was unapologetic.
“I was angry so I needed to break shit. It’s what I do!”
He grabbed me by the shoulder. “Look, you’re a guest in her house. Quit acting like a fucking asshole! If she kicks you out there’s nothing I can do. Got it?”
He was right.
“Yeah. I’ll apologize to her. I’m sorry. I don’t get like that often.”
“Well save it for your own place. You’re so damn messy you might end up making the place look better.”
We both laughed.
That was about five and a half years ago. I’ve had a few eruptions of anger since then, but I’ve been pretty calm overall. My pinky is still sore from the last such incident, when I punched a payphone. I guess I’ve largely outgrown a trait I’ve exhibited since I was a kid.
* * *
The next impending snowstorm presented a good news/bad news scenario. On the one hand, this storm was to be more severe. The tent and campsite would be out of commission indefinitely. I would have to collect what clothes I needed to get by and haul them around with me. Plus, going to the shelter would be necessary and walking there would prove to be even more of a hassle.
The good news was that I could get work shoveling for a church that hosted one of the meal sites. Plus, I could crash there, as the snow was to continue throughout the night. I had missed out the day I camped out under the library, but I was told I could expect a generous payday. I prayed to the snow gods to “bring ‘em on.” The news got better when I learned that half of the attractive homeless women in the city would be there. To my knowledge, this total population consisted of two girls. The hot homeless are few and far between. One of them, Jackie, would be there. The other girl, being a lesbian, doesn’t really count. Yet I’m sure if she gave me a chance—okay, I’d probably just make her gayer.
“Jackie Red,” as I took to calling her on account of her hair, had invited me, whom she didn’t know at the time, to spend the night at her boyfriend’s place nearly a month ago. As I got to talking to her that night, I felt that all-too-familiar lament that she had been snatched up. When they broke up two days later, I felt optimistic about the fortuitous timing. Yet I resolved to play it cool, to see if anything happened between us on its own volition.
It didn’t. The more I got to know her, I realized that it was probably for the best. She was ten years younger than me, and I look like I’m ten years older than I actually am. It was perhaps unrealistic to think she’d dig me in that way. She was also an even flakier New Ager than me, and that’s saying a lot. More importantly, she had confided to me that she had been hospitalized for depression a while back. Given her sunny disposition, this was a shock. Perhaps I should call her “Jackie Blue.”
Along with other addicts or alcoholics, sluts, and fat girls, I have resolved to never get involved with anyone who has mental problems. Yet since my current situation only affords me chances with girls in these categories, I must surely improve my lot. I do not wish to live as a drunk monk for the rest of my days.
* * *
A funny thing happened on the way to the church. Paul, for whom I was able to snag a position, produced a nearly full half gallon of vodka at dinner. This was a godsend; contrary to the disinformation of Big Medical, you want to get good and drunk when you’re going to get cold and wet for the evening. Since Paul was well on his way to getting dysfunctionally intoxicated, it was in the best interests of all of us that I drink more so he’d have less to drink. Let it never be said that I’m not a team player.
After putting in my fair share of shoveling, I went down to the tent to clean it off. I would have to make several such trips until the storm abated. Just a little bit of snow would collapse it, and I had already waited too long. When I got there, sure enough the structure had been felled. As I commenced cleaning off the tarp in my resurrection attempt, I heard a familiar yet unplaceable voice. It seemingly came from nowhere, almost as if it was disembodied.
“Hey man. Who is that? Is it cool if I stay here? I can’t get my tent set up in the snow.”
“It’s Brian. Who are you?”
Sir Francis Drake? I’d heard they chased everyone out of their tent village because Jill had been raped and badly beaten there. (I went to the cops and told them I knew how they could find someone who knew where the culprit was, but they never followed through on my tip.) We had joked about refugees coming to our place, and apparently Francis was part of the first wave.
“Why are you out here tonight? You should’ve gone to the shelter.”
“Fuck those assholes.”
Oh, that’s right. I forgot that everyone was stupid but Francis.
As I continued clearing off the shell of the tent, I brushed a human form. Holy shit! He’s in my tent! The dirtiest, most hydrophobic homeless man imaginable was in my tent! He’s no doubt keeping warm in my sleeping bags. At a time when I need every penny I can get, I’d have to shell out a couple bucks to wash them. It would move past clean underwear on the laundry priority list.
“Shit man, I didn’t realize you were in the tent.” I was pretty ripped by now and didn’t really care all that much. Still, without asking?
“Like I said, man, thanks. It’s fucking cold out there.”
That’s why there’s shelters, dipshit. You’re an explorer; go find one. If I was able to put a lock on my tent, you’d be guilty of breaking and entering. Really starting to hate the Drake.
“You can stay tonight. Just don’t steal anything and keep the tarp clear of snow.”
“No problem. Stay safe out there dude.”
I downed the rest of my share of the vodka on the way back to the church. True to form, I began to crave more. I started to wonder if the Methodists used real wine for their Communion. Based on how many times I slipped and fell, I didn’t need any more. I was in no position to go on a clandestine search for it anyway. Plus, I didn’t want my alcoholism to imperil anyone’s soul. If I drank it all, no one would be able to receive the Eucharist.
I returned to find Jackie Red alone in the kitchen, dancing to some disco music that played quietly on the radio. Ah, along with a gal who can sing, a girl who likes to dance is a definite turn-on for me. I began to dance with her. Since I have as much soul as the laws of physics allow a white boy to have, I clearly out-danced her and she soon sat down.
I sat down next to her, perhaps a little too close. She told me everyone else was either asleep or watching some stupid movie in the dining room. I rolled and lit a cigarette. Our supervisor was a smoker himself and allowed this in the kitchen. Sitting drunk in a church, smoking a cigarette; how many other unholy deeds could I pull off here?
“I don’t know if you picked up on this, Jackie, but I’ve got, like, a crush on you. We should hang out sometime. Ditch your gang and we’ll find something to do. If we do it soon I’ll still have money from this gig.”
A crush? I sounded like a damn teenager. A teenager who could set off a Breathalyzer from across the room, to be sure, but certainly not a man. Because of my boozy breath, and the fact that the others were nearby, I resisted my inclination to initiate some low-grade physical contact. Since she’s a little unstable somehow, I couldn’t guarantee that she wouldn’t freak out and start yelling. Then I’d end up with Francis in the limp tent.
“I’m really flattered that you’d think of me that way. I mean, you’re a cool guy…”
I’d heard this one before. Spoiler alert: It doesn’t end well. Where’s the “but”?
Right on cue.
“…I broke up with Rob because I’ve got to focus on me right now. I still have to get my head screwed on right.”
That’s funny, I kind of had screwing on my mind too.
“I got you Jackie. That’s cool. I shouldn’t have even asked when I’m a little drunk, as I’m sure you can tell. But the timing seemed good in every other way.”
“That’s another thing. I told you I’ve been sober for a year and a half now. If and when I start seeing someone again, it can’t be a drinker or drugger.”
“I understand. If you’re ever ready, you have my email. I could remain sober around you. It’d be your loss to overlook me when that time comes.”
That was as honest as I could be. I did understand, and I could stay sober when with her. And it would be her loss to deny me then, given that she’s in the same boat that I am. I wondered if I could take this candidness a little further.
“Hey, you know, if you ever need a break from the shelter, you can always come down to the tent to crash. Even in the 20’s, it’s surprisingly not too cold in there. My flap is always open.”
As any guy will admit, when you’ve been shot down as a suitable candidate to have a meaningful, romantic relationship with, the next best thing is to go for meaningless sex.
“You don’t give up, do you?”
“No, that’s not something I do.”
She laughed. (A bad sign.) She then reached over and took my hand, holding it for a few moments. (A good sign.) She then excused herself and went to join the others. (Bad sign again.)
I changed the radio station to classical music, figuring that it would soothe my troubled mind. Indeed, it quickly put me to sleep. I slept with my head on the table for some time, until someone woke me up. I then went to find a spot of floor in another room.
* * *
With the hobo camp out of service for the time being, Paul and I did something unusual when we got paid the next day. We actually drank in the bar, rather than get our beer to go. I did something else that was out of character. I limited myself to a few. I had other plans for my pay.
The day after that, however, as the liquor store reopened, the money in my pocket started becoming flammable. I had planned a productive day of writing at the library. Just the right amount of sauce would certainly loosen up the gears a bit. To vary up my routine, I bought whiskey.
By 2, 3, 4:00—time had ceased to have a hold on me—I was pretty drunk. I was on my way to get smokes when I saw Jackie walking down the street with one of the male members of her entourage. They were holding hands?! She was with that doofus?
Don’t get me wrong, the guy seemed nice enough. He was a young guy who was homeless as well. But how could she go for such a, such a—pussy? The guy was a scrawny girly-man, a pipsqueak. He was a ghost of a man. I won’t begrudge a girl who chooses brains over brawn, brawn over brains, or looks above everything. But I clearly had the guy beat according to any criteria (maybe the looks were a draw). Or maybe she’s into sensitive guys. Doesn’t that bitch know that I’m pretty fucking sensitive?
She said something to him, and they released grips as they neared me.
“Oh good Gaia! It’s that drunken lunatic I told you about, the one who thinks he can dance. He wants to take me to his tent and sodomize me. Then he’ll start calling me ‘Jackie Brown’ and laugh that cocky evil cackle of his.”
Whatever she in fact said to him, he looked nervous when we stopped to exchange banal pleasantries. Ever since that night we first hung out, it seems like we never had much to talk about. If things were already awkward between us, things were only going to go downhill. I could sense that this would be another girl whose friendship I would lose because I made a pass. But I have enough friends as it is anyway.
When I left this brief encounter, I felt a sense of relief. Once again, fate had cut short any lingering hopes I might have clung to about a future with her. If there’s an upside to my long string of romantic disappointments, it’s that synchronicity doesn’t take long to reveal to me that something ain’t gonna’ happen. No sense in pining away for someone for too long.
After this initial relief, I also started to feel kind of angry. I’d heard two people say recently that brown liquor, e. g., whiskey, makes one quarrelsome, and I was feeling that tendency. Or maybe I was bipolar, like so many people I met claimed to be. I had been content, having put her rejection out of my mind. Until I realized that they were together, I was feeling fine, the wind at my back. Now I was irrationally jealous.
I decided to go back to the tent to sleep. The snow would be up to my knees, but I was pretty sure I had some dry pants and socks back there. I doubt if Francis had repaired the fallen tent, but I didn’t think I could hold on until the shelter opened. I’d prefer sleeping in a smothering tent than the spacious drunk tank I was liable to end up in if I stayed downtown. Because of my previous run-ins with the law and the judge, that would be followed by 90 more days in an even more spacious prison.
I was getting on the trail to the tent village when I realized I’d neglected to get something for a chaser. Straight whiskey would be rough, but in my lassitude I could not summon the wherewithal to do a U-turn at that point. I thought about using the snow, except that Paul and I are as indiscriminate as the animals with our bodily waste.
I crawled into the tent and found some dirty but dry jeans and socks to change into. I was about to pass out under the sleeping bags when an odor struck me. It wasn’t mere body odor. Let’s just say that the smell really pissed me off. I jolted awake so suddenly that it was as if I’d been given a hit of crank. I was livid as I emerged from the tent.
“Fucking motherfucker! I knew he wasn’t housebroken!”
I don’t know if I’d hoped he was in the vicinity and would hear me. I don’t know if I would’ve been pleased to find him lying dead in the snow, a victim of the cold. All I know is that I succumbed to my primitive habits of yesteryear. Smash therapy.
Picking up a golf club that I’d salvaged from an abandoned site, I began slamming it against everything in sight. The tent, the laundry hanging from a tree, the trees themselves. I was cursing the whole time. Now I was a mad drunk monk. Rasputin after he switched from vodka to whiskey.
When the wedge of the club broke off, I kicked over the grill. As this functioned as our makeshift refrigerator, I realized how stupid I was behaving as I saw the food disappear into the snow. And now I’d soaked another pair of pants and socks. I retired to my shelter, the one that now stank like garbage and urine. I slugged some more whiskey before passing out. I don’t remember if I had the presence of mind to look for dry blankets.
I awoke around 9:00 PM, just late enough to preclude going up to the shelter. I had a small amount of whiskey left but couldn’t find my smokes. I was soaked from my shins on down. My feet were numb. I couldn’t tell if the throbbing in my head was from an internal or external source. I must have punched something—a tree?—because my knuckles were bloody and sore.
As has happened many times in the past, I was faced with an unanswerable question: “Why do I do such stupid shit?”