Sunday, February 21, 2016

The Wandering Homeless of Fort Lauderdale

When I worked the Las Olas Bridge as a bridge tender, I had some time on my hands. I tried to use the time to write, to study Spanish and such while I listened for boats on the marine radio, but self-improvement only went so far. Especially self-motivated self improvement. What I ended up doing was looking out the windows a lot. One thing about being in a fixed position like they (the bridge house) was that you saw the repetition of the world, of human activity, rather acutely. An example of that was the people who walked over the bridge on a daily basis. Sure, there were tourists and visitors but there were also a lot of regulars who came over and back on the bridge, headed to and from the beach across the Intracoastal. And of those, the most regular were the homeless.

Evidently, as homeless people, they had to keep moving. I don't know if the police kept them going or this was just something to do or it helped with their survival on the streets but it didn't take long for me to see the pattern. To recognize these men (and a few women) as they did their daily trudging. And then I'd see them other places as well, when I was driving the kids to school or out running errands, I'd recognize these people. At times I was astonished to see them quite far away from the bridge, to understand that their route was much bigger and wider than I would have imagined. I was both kind of appalled that this was their life yet also held a certain admiration that they had the strength and willingness to do it.

Now, of the three I recall most vividly--all men--I think their mental stability had a great deal to do with their homelessness. One guy who walked across my bridge daily--sometimes more than once or twice a day, was an older guy with a severe hunchback. He was stooped, he had a more than obvious hump--bent, face down, one slim bag slung over his better shoulder, this guy would march soundlessly around town. Of course I felt sorry for him. He never spoke and I never spoke to him. Another guy was younger, African-American, who I would often see on US1 standing on a corner and talking to himself. He came across the bridge often, nervous and skittish looking, aware of his surroundings, trying--it seemed to me--to be invisible, or at least to look "normal" and fit in with society. Or hide his affliction. But he talked to himself all the time, not loud, but you could see his lips move, hear him faintly if you were close enough. The third guy I'm thinking of I thought of as The Professor. He was middle-aged and always wore a tweedy sport jacket. He never wore shorts or short sleeves--always the proper jacket--and he pushed a cart. He had glasses and bed-head longish hair. he appeared pretty oblivious to the world about him and made his rounds pushing his shopping cart, maybe mumbling, doing his rounds. I did talk to him once--in fact, he made me angry. I was trying to put the bridge up for a sport fishing boat, I had the cars stopped, the gates down, lights flashing, warnings blare-beeping and dinging, and The Professor walks right past all the warnings with his cart and onto the bridge. I had to call the captain and explain why the bridge was not going up (and the cars had to wait) and he said he saw the guy. I stood outside the bridge house as the guy came across and admonished him. I said: "You're supposed to wait behind the gate. You understand that much, don't you?" or some such. He looked at me, almost astonished, breaking from his inner world to acknowledge that someone was actually addressing him. He didn't say anything, but he had a quick and brief look of guilt in his eyes and expression (though I'm not sure about that). But he kept ambling across, back to oblivion I guess. Yeah. I felt kind of bad. I men, I'm sure he heard worse on a daily basis, but not from me.

Even after I quit that job and went back to teaching, I'd see those people around. I felt like I knew them, in a way. Even after we moved away from Fort Lauderdale and I'd return to visit, I'd see them--a few--and it gave me a certain, I don't know, satisfaction (if that's the best way to state it) while still holding on to my sympathy for them. But, not anymore. No, not the lack of sympathy. They aren't there anymore. At least to the best of my knowledge--I've been back many times but I've never seen those guys. Are they still there? I know I'm not.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Not a KGB Agent: Seagrove Beach 1987

It was Halloween and I was back in the Florida Panhandle living in Seagrove Beach with Dave and painting houses in Seaside for my money. I was back there, living there, I think, because I didn't know where else to go. I'd been in Seattle and Des Moines. But, Halloween: I dressed up as a KGB agent. A trench coat, sunglasses, Cossack hat. I affected a Russian accent and a certain ignorance of American ways. I stayed in character almost the whole night--though people didn't quite get what I was supposed to be (I should have put the letters KGB with masking tape on my back or breast pocket). Yet, I was still a hit among friends and acquaintances--my catchphrase was: "Hmmm. Typical American evening, yes?" But this was before my friends came to pick me up and I had walked down to the little gas and grocery store in Seagrove, in my costume, to buy some cigarettes and beer. The cashier, whose name I don't recall now, but who I was hoping to see was working. I had liked her. I didn't know if she was involved with anyone or even maybe married and I was lonely but didn't have the guts to inquire further but she had a nice smile. I liked her smile. Like most southerners, she was friendly, chatty, pleasant to spend time with and I knew enough not to mistake this for interest beyond that. Nonetheless, I was a little smitten with her. But after my purchase and a few kibitzing words, as I was leaving, she asked what I was supposed to be. I turned around at the door, put on my sunglasses, and said in my Russian accent: "I'm not a KGB agent, that's for sure." This made her laugh.                                                                                                                                

Friday, February 5, 2016

Trunk Full of Beer Cans: Des Moines 1975

I was seventeen, maybe eighteen, still in high school and working at Yonkers at the Merle Hay Mall. I could walk to work from my house (my parents' house) in Urbandale. I worked in the stock room and the loading dock and hadn't been there long before there was a trucker's strike--the truckers picketed behind the dock but I was not the brightest of kids and didn't really understand fully what was going on, even though they called me a scab and put a knife to the tires of the people who tried to keep the goods moving. (Later I was decent friends with most of the truckers.) Anyway, there were a number of men who wore suits that were in charge in some capacity at Yonkers, and they were ferrying things back and forth between stores in Des Moines. One such suit was a guy--nice guy but not my direct boss--who only had one arm. He came and got me and needed help moving some stuff into his car, which was parked out back on the sloping concrete that led to the dock. So I got the boxes or what-have-you and went with him to his car and he popped the trunk and it was full of empty beer cans. I mean completely full. Cans came clattering out as soon as the trunk went up and he quickly gathered them and then closed the trunk. I don't recall what kind of beer it was--not Budweiser or Miller, but of that ilk--but they were all the same brand. I mean, that trunk was chock full of emptied cans. The guy, this one-armed suit guy--he was clearly embarrassed, but I was savvy enough to say nothing, to pretend as though it was normal to have your trunk stuffed with beer cans.