Volume 25, Number 2

Taking #71

Jeff Burt

I have a brown hooded sweatshirt I got from the Salvation Army that has Picasso splashed across the front in italics, and on the back the words I’M NOT! I imagine when I walk by people or stand on the curb looking for work, that as soon as people read the front and pass and their head turns to see my back, they go, “You’ve got that right. Crazy homeless.” That is one of the self-deprecating jokes I play. But I have had two painters pick me out for a job because of the sweatshirt. It’s my cardboard rectangle saying HIRE ME.

I have a pair of shoes from a church, some tee shirts from a church youth group, lots of socks from youth groups and the United Way, some from the lost and found at a conference center and a jacket from the services center donated by a temple. I can honestly say I’ve been clothed some days by inter-faith and no-faith and little-faith people all at the same time, kind of like a Raggedy Ann doll made from different fabrics, or Mr. Potato Head assembled out of pieces belonging to other characters. If I am Everyman, I am Borrowed Man, Discarded Man, Assisted Man, Donated Man.

I have done the layered look, but I’m warm-blooded even when I haven’t eaten. Humvee is always cold, so dresses in the layers the homeless are known for, which, when the layers accumulate, denies the spindly legs and arms their true and shocking appreciation. Humvee appears to be well over two hundred and fifty pounds, a tackle on a football team, amazing girth of torso and widened hips. Fact is, he’s just over two hundred and has little fat, but the layers of tee-shirt, thin sweatshirt, hooded sweatshirt, nylon jacket, and polyester filled jacket suitable for climates with snow on a fall afternoon make for a forbidding hunk to employ. He has learned in the mornings to keep his hands warm with gloves and coffee and keep his winter jacket at his feet with his backpack. Then he only looks about two-twenty-five and small enough to occupy only a single space in a truck, so when a contractor is hiring two he can fit in the back of the cab, or three he can fit in a seat. Otherwise, the sheer mass of material keeps him without work.

Sometimes it’s hard to know about socks, too. On some days, if you just stand around waiting for work, two pair of socks keeps feet warm and cushioned. But if you work in the sun the second pair annoys and tennis shoes and boots become squishy with sweat, and in Humvee’s case, smell like ammonia after one day. Wool socks suck unless they are a second layer. They itch, they don’t stretch. A lot of them get tossed when we receive a gift bag. People buy them thinking they are doing us an expensive favor, but they mostly contribute to the landfill.

A few like the knee-length argyles to be stylin’. Gregor, a gypsy refugee from France who inhabits the park near the golf course, tucks his shortened pants legs into them and dances around like some Renaissance jester, juggling anything you can throw at him. Wolfgang, our violinist, does the same, though he mismatches the socks to provide additional colors. The socks add several dollars a day in tributes from the people passing by him near the block he plays on. Wolfgang doesn’t remember his real name and named himself after Mozart and thinks Mozart wore argyle socks, and if you mention that Mozart wore hose, he’ll drop his violin and demand to fight you on the spot because hose means gay, and Mozart was not gay, and Wolfgang is not gay, though everyone knows otherwise and could care less.

Layered clothes also provide a type of demented fun when the cops come by. A normal Joe can be frisked in a manner of maybe five to ten seconds. But Humvee? Try several minutes. They frisk first, taking about fifteen seconds, but then it’s off with the big jacket and checking the pockets, then to the next jacket, then to the sweatshirt, then to the next sweatshirt and so on. Like peeling an onion, except the tears are from laughter. Humvee never carries anything, so the cops don’t search him anymore.

I have a photo from the newspaper posted on the windowless wall of my shed that shows a bunch of homeless men, myself included, standing in line for a free hearing exam. The day is March 21st, the first day of spring, the sun is bright, the temperature would have been about sixty degrees already. Of the nine men you can see clearly in the picture, all wear several layers of jackets or sweatshirts or combinations of the two. Most are dark, and the picture looks oddly black and white in the mass of men and yet in color surrounding them. Six men have their heads down. I and one other have our heads up though under hoods.

One man, Iffy, has his head looking into the sky, as if praising the glorious sunshine. He was praising the sunshine, and the picture captures him well. Iffy, from Nigeria, has slid way past dementia and mental illness into a universe none of us can understand. This universe is filled with praises for traffic lights and round things, bistro tables, the bottom of cups, Oriental lampshades, bugs he couldn’t begin to name but gives names to in Ibo, rocks, concrete pilings, yachts in the harbor, the fragrance of mown grass carried in his hand, the odor of a dead bird he has saved from the ants except the few that already inhabit the brain and come running in and out of the eye socket.

No one sees Iffy eat, only stand on the sidewalks and praise. No one knows where he sleeps because he walks everywhere all the time. He has a necklace made of large teeth that he says comes from many lions he has killed, though we know he worked on oil decks and was never near lions, and the teeth are some composite and not bone at all. The cops told us that they receive more calls from people that they should do something about him, but he has never had drugs, booze, or stolen goods on him and except for some people who find him an eyesore. He never causes problems. He never even jaywalks. In winter, though he never wears anything on his head or his hands, he will wear up to four coats to stay warm and waddles around like a marshmallow with legs, and if you pushed him over he might rebound back to his feet. Eco-friendly may hate polyester. Iffy loves it.

I often obsess over clothes before falling asleep at night, probably no differently than a teenage girl. My obsession is not one of choice, however, such as what shirt might I wear out of the dozens, or what pants will the shirt go with, what are the permutations and combinations, does everything really go with black and tan, and what shoes go with the pants and does the belt have to match.

My obsession focuses on passing an interview, should I be offered. I have one pair of good clothes, a nice blue striped shirt, a nice pair of khaki slacks and one good pair of donated brown shoes. I never wear them. I used to keep them in a special roll in a special box with a special brown belt tucked into the side for a special occasion, but except for a rare interview, they do not come out of the box. But if I should wear that to an interview and they ask me to come back, what will I wear? What if I do not have the money to buy a second dress shirt and a new pair of gray or blue slacks suitable for an office? What if I have the money but do not have the time? So I spend my time falling asleep planning scenarios:

Option A—if the interview is downtown, I need to have the interview by 3:00, so I can check clothes at the services center or take the bus to the mall and arrive by 5:30, leaving thirty minutes to an hour and a half to shop.

Option B—if the interview is anywhere from Third Avenue to Forty-Second Avenue, I can interview by 4:00.

Option C—if the interview is any further east than where I live in the shed, I need to have an interview by noon so I can catch the hourly bus by 2:00 p.m. to make it to the mall by 3:00.

Then the other complexities come in. If I am hired after the first interview and can afford a second pair of clothes, will I have time to buy more, will I have money to buy more, and since places close by six and I would get off by five and would need to take the bus, how would I buy another set of clothes? I could launder my blue shirt and khaki pants and wear them for the third day, but what do I do for the fourth day?

I am accustomed to being paid in cash. How do I survive two weeks, or a month, without any money, without lying about food stamps and bus money? How would I pay for the bus when I can’t even get to the center for the food stamps and bus tokens? I would be fired after a week because I wouldn’t be able to get to work.

I do rise early, so maybe if I woke at four a.m. I could start walking by five and make it to work on time. Which route would I take? The shortest is not always the cleanest, but the other ways might add blocks to the walk. Would I have enough energy after working to walk maybe four or five miles back, especially if I have little money to eat with and no way to stay on food stamps, not that I might not qualify for food stamps, but I would have not time to pick them up?

What would I do with my paycheck? I wouldn’t want to pay someone to cash it, but I have no bank account and probably not enough identification to start a bank account and nothing to put in the back account. Can you open a bank account without a deposit? I could put in ten dollars, but the fees are twenty a month.

Would people smell my homelessness? Do my clothes carry the odor of homelessness? They are not mildewed or rancid. I keep them clean. But do they have an odor I can’t detect that would vaporize from my clothes as I worked during the day in an office? Would they see that my fingertips are worn and scarred from working on wires and fences and trenches and pipes and plumbing and shingles and wood and nails? Would they know I am homeless and need the job for four or five months to save enough money to afford a place? Would they smell desperation? Would it bypass my deodorant and soap and go straight to their noses?

If I walked to work, I would smell of the walk. I would lose the freshness of the laundry before I arrived at my cubicle, and then people would know within days that I cannot afford a car, that I cannot afford the bus, I must walk. I must walk, and the only people who walk are the maids and housecleaners who work part-time and the DUIs who can’t drive anymore or the homeless.

I am neither proud nor embarrassed about my poverty, if you can call having nothing and not even being on the scale being impoverished. Whatever the line below poverty is, that’s where the jobless/homeless fall. But I would be embarrassed to explain the complications, the lack of funds to buy clothes, the decision to ride or not ride the bus, the lying about food stamps for at least through the first couple of paychecks, the lack of a bank account, the fear that a donated jacket belongs to a co-worker and he would recognize it.

For two weeks I have slept without this panic destroying my rest.

Now, one night removed, the long dark teeth of phantoms appear, faces shoot in and out of my consciousness, a blinding series of shirts and pants and shoes parade before me, price tags zoom into view, numbers fall to the floor, and I cannot pick them up, hangers collapse and cannot be reassembled, busses leave me at pickup spots, rain covers me, my khaki pants turn red with blood, I check schedules and times change, I walk and never arrive, I work but cannot eat, I am naked in a laundry and the cops arrest me, I am fired because I smell, I smell.

It feels like I am always waiting for the #71 bus.

It feels like I am always taking the #71 bus.

It feels like I am always getting off the #71 bus.