The day before I wrote the last piece, I had written this. I guess I just had something inside I needed to get out. A couple of months later my (then future, now ex-) wife came down to Florida. I let her read them.
15 years later my life took a dump and I was seriously depressed. Doctors tried me on a bunch of different medications and some of it was so damn bad I couldn’t get out of bed. I didn’t work for a year, didn’t do much of anything. Her patience at an end – if not her love – my wife filed for divorce.
At one point we were discussing where things went wrong and she screamed in frustration: “All you had to do this last year was write a damn book!”.
I was confused. “What are you talking about? What book would I write? I’m not a writer!”
“Sure you are! I’ve read your stuff!” I searched my mind and came up with these 2 essays. I dug them up, showed them to her – with the dates at the bottom, from a single weekend – and asked her if she remembers ANYTHING else I had written in the 20 years she’d known me. She wracked her mind and couldn’t come up with anything.
I bring this up because she knew me better than any person has ever known me. She’d known me for 20 years and saw me every day for ¾ of that time, yet she still had some basic misconceptions about me. So when I want to pass judgment on someone I try to remember that I could not possibly know enough about them – or see clearly enough – to know who they are.
That has become the single most important mission in my life: rooting out the lies I tell myself.
One of the lies I’ve told myself is: “I’m not a writer”. I may not be a great one – I may not have anything to say that interests you – but I am indeed a writer. It is crucial to me to organize my thoughts and feelings and I must write them down. I am compelled to look for patterns and lessons in my experiences. I will continue to write long after any audience I have is tired of reading me. I write because it is what I do. I am a writer.
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The King of Cartography, and Other Characters
Every bum had his own territory. They overlapped, of course, but I don’t think many street people went further than a few blocks from their own center. Almost without exception they were all insane. Some were crazier than others.
I recall one who wasn’t crazy. I first saw him standing on the corner of 17th & K. He was singing “Amazing Grace” or some such Christian song, and had a small box for donations. “God bless you!” he’d shout if you put anything in. I was waiting for the light to change and he was practically singing in my ear. I looked over at him, and caught his eye. He winked and gave me a sheepish grin: “It brings in the bucks!” He was no more Christian than I was. It made me feel better to think he wasn’t panhandling for Jesus; he was fleecing the sheep.
The next day I saw him a hundred yards back, in Farragut Square. He’d taken his proceeds from the previous day and bought a box of cigars. He was selling them for a dollar apiece. I wish I recalled his sign. It gave a very good reason why you should buy a cigar from him. I did. He remembered me from the day before, smiled at me, and said: “A month from now, I’m going to be dressing just like you!“. I was a nappy dresser in those days. I never saw him again. He’s probably running his own corporation by now, or selling junk bonds on Wall Street.
I saw another street person sitting on a retaining wall once. There was a flower box behind him being watered by an automatic sprinkler. He was being watered, too. He was drunk as hell, and I couldn’t help wondering if he thought it was raining.
There were three men living in the middle of Farragut Square who had been there for over a year that I knew of, always sharing a bottle of something. On this particular day one of them was holding and wouldn’t let the others have any. He had one bottle in his hand that they were trying to take away from him, and another in each of his back pockets. “Gimme some! Godamit! Gimme some, now!” It was rubbing alcohol. It will get you really drunk, just before it kills you. I never saw any of them again, either.
One day they were giving out free sample of Yves St. Laurent cigarettes on Connecticut Ave. I didn’t take any. As I went further, I saw a drunk standing in the middle of the sidewalk, feet spread wide to maximize balance, hands spread wide to take the money no one was giving him. “Hep me gesome food! Hungry as Hell!” Hanging out of his back pockets were packs of designer cigarettes. There’s a picture of America for you.
I remember a woman on 14th street. She was obviously mentally unbalanced. There were three or four black guys in their early twenties fucking with her. She was spinning back from one to the other telling them to get away. She looked like a wounded, scared animal. I walked up to her and the guys backed off. Her shirt was torn open, and in spite of myself I couldn’t help noticing she had a nice set of tits. Small, but pert, even if they were covered in filth. I wondered if the guys had torn her shirt open and it pissed me off. I felt kindness for her, as well as pity. There wasn’t much I could do for her, but I felt I could buy her a meal. I reached back for my wallet and she recoiled, back to the wall. I moved more slowly and extracted a five. I held it out to her. She reached under her skirt and pulled out a handful of feces. She held it out to me.
I dropped the money and ran.
The black guys laughed like hell.
Walking down 17th street once, I saw a tall, gangly bum walked towards me. He’d been around for years, and hadn’t bathed in all that time. He was a white guy, but his skin was almost black with grime. He must have slept under cars. He never begged for money. In fact, I never heard him talk. This day there was a trash can halfway between us shaped like the kind of houses kids will draw. There was a hole on each side of the roof to drop your garbage into. As I was approaching it, he grabbed the top, flipped it open, and looked in with the same bored expression I’d imagined on my own face when I wasn’t really hungry, but looked in the fridge every fifteen minutes to see if anything looked good.
I laughed like hell.
The man I remember the most, or at least the most fondly, was the King of Cartography. He looked like a white-haired bear. On the far side of Farragut Square, right by the Metro station, was a U.S. Geological Survey office. This old man used to buy maps there, look at them for an hour or so, put them away, and draw them from memory. Scales, contours… all of it. He later told me he’d had to memorize terrain and think three dimensionally in the mountains of South America.
When he wasn’t making maps, he was working on his shopping cart. He used to take the axles off and scrub them with fine steel wool. Then he’d oil them from his 3-in-1 bottle and put them back on. He had a down jacket, old but clean, and an Insulite sleeping bag. He even had a pair of scissors to trim his beard and hair. I watched him for many a month before I had the courage to talk to him.
He was cleaning his cart that night, and I’d had a bit much to drink (I never saw him drink). Heading for the Metro station from Ha’ Penny Lion I stopped and tried to give him a ten. “No, thank you” was his reply. I noticed he had a slight Spanish accent. “I have enough money“. I asked him why he lived in the park. “So I can be close to the Superior courthouse. I file petitions there every week for the country to give me back my land”. He claimed that he and Che Guevara and Fidel Castro were partners. He was given a country to rule – I forget which one – but the U.S. government arranged for him to be overthrown. He was trying to get reinstated through civil means.
I asked him how it was going. “Not so well. Every few months they lock me up in St. Elizabeth’s (a mental institution). But I never expected to get very far“.
“Why do you bother?” I asked.
“It’s like this cart. If you notice some corrosion, you must try to do something. If you let yourself ignore it – fix it tomorrow, get another cart – you’re losing what makes people different than animals. You’re losing your self respect“.
He got locked up one time too many, and they decided not to let him out. I read about him in the paper. Some politician held him up as an example of how poorly our social services were handling the mentally ill. The papers said he was suffering from this delusion and that psychosis, and he never should have been let out. He didn’t have anything to worry about now, they went on, he’d have a place inside for life. Warm and sterile.
I never worried about whether or not the story he told me was true. It didn’t matter what wallpaper he put up in his head. I’d seen how he lived.
Sometimes when I see a bum panhandling, I want to give him a can of 3-in-1 oil; self respect in a can. I never do. They might drink it.