The winter of 93/94 was a snowy fucking mess, cold and shitty, colder and shittier than usual and i remember it well cuz i had to walk back and forth to work, about 2 miles each way and usually i was hungover and stoned or both. I was young and stupid and broke and had just returned from the beach and spent a month sleeping on couches, homeless for all intents and purpose, all my shit loaded in the good Doctor's car, the Doctor being my best friend who acquired the nickname because he looked a bit like a mad scientist, when i had met him he looked like an extra in a Flock of Seagulls video, a man of few words but wise and well read and a complete recluse. Our ventures into the big bad city of Pittsburgh usually had us driving in circles until one day his girl came home from school and helped us find a place.
And oh what a place it was, a three story walk up, of course we lived on the third floor but it had a balcony with a bar and soon we'd add a grill and there was a large hole in the ceiling and during the winter we would watch the snow gently fall into our kitchen. Basically the place was three rooms, a kitchen and two bedrooms, i myself didn't even have a bed but lucked out when i discovered that the beat up leather couch was a pull out sleeper, i took the thin mattress off and threw it on the floor and bought an eggshell mattress or two and voila, i had a fucking bed. I also owned a small stereo that would keep me company through the night while i lay on the floor reading books and staring at the ceiling.
Needless to say the good Doctor and i were both destitute but we had lucked into the lovely neighborhood of North Oakland in which within half a block was located Mitchell's Tavern (quarter beers and $2 pitchers every monday and thursday), a grocery store, a laundromat, a liquor store and a diner. Damn near everything a couple of young bums needed, now all we needed was jobs and after a bad foray into the world of late night shelf stocking i had landed a job at a bagel store. The Doctor took to parking cars and we were off and running.
The bagel shop may have paid shit but it was the fringe benefits that made it worth while, i got to take home the mistakes and of course always being the grifter i soon started lifting bundles of meat and cheese, all portioned out nicely of course by the home office, so between the bagels, ham and swiss etal we were able to eat and still make the short trip to the tavern to enjoy the head splitting ale that was served on tap by a grumpy old man who once shit himself while tending bar and his relief who was a small Jewish woman with a penchant for the brothers, the place was right out of Barfly and you could often find bums taking a dump on the stall with no door and any number of stolen goods being offered at cut rate prices, it had beautiful Naugahyde booths that were perfect for drug deals or doing the crossword and during happy hour the jukebox was shut off so that the place could play Jeopardy, in a nutshell it was damn near Valhalla...
Of course soon the student loans kicked in and the finances got even tighter until one day an old college friend parking cars with the good Doctor asked if i would be interested in a business proposition and since i was always open for opportunity i took him up on it. It was small time nickel and dime shit but when you're big expenditure of the week was a $4 pizza from the "O" (Orignal Hot Dog Shop) that you ate all day sunday and into monday any amount of coin coming in was good. As i stated the Doctor wasn't much in the way of conversation with those he didn't know, couldn't work a scale and sucked at outside sales so to speak so i ran the operation myself and cut him in on the profits, he was my best friend and i figured it was the least i could do though he actually turned down the 50/50 split i offered and took less since i did all the work.
The bagel store helped out in other way's, namely by running a special that advertised 4 bagels for a buck, no tax, and since people would run in and throw a dollar or two at you and run off if you were slick enough you pocketed the coupons and the money in one motion and moved on to the next in line. This little maneuver was practiced by everyone but the managers and bakers and usually landed me an extra 10 or 20 bucks a day. Being broke ain't no fun and i was soon to learn that i didn't have it so bad...
Since i was one of the only guys working at the store i got to take the trash out back, which was beneficial in that it gave me time to smoke the one hitter and daydream in the alley's of South Oakland while catching fleeting glimpses of the college girls, it was in the alley i met Robert, a 46 year old black man, a guy who had lost his job and had his wife walk out on him, a guy who now slept on the street, the cold, snowy streets, a guy who i would talk to each day and who slowly told me his story, one that didn't involve drugs or alcohol, just some bad luck mainly that landed him with no place to go, a guy who's eyes lit up when he talked about his old job and his old life until he remembered that it was now gone, a guy much like my father only a year or two younger and with no savings when the roof caved in, he said that his mother had wanted him to move back in when it all came undone but that at 45 years old you don't move back in with your mom, a statement that gave me the chills as i had heard almost verbatim the same words from my dad's mouth.
Robert told me he stayed sober cuz out on the streets it was to easy to get rolled and once you started hitting the booze it all came undone, that then came any form of release, meaning crack or heroin and then the cycle was complete and you never got out, he talked of getting jobs but was stymied by the fact he couldn't list an address or phone, he talked a bit about God and was a more or less on the fence with this so called Creator, i helped him out by sliding him cups of coffee and bowls of soup, giving him the bagels that were misshapen, the same ones i ate, tried to give him a sandwich now and then. He never failed to say thank you and never asked me for a fucking dime. In the face of all the shit he wanted to retain his dignity, his humanity.
Then during a particularly brutal cold snap i saw him standing outside the windows of the store, something he normally wouldn't do, he was panhandling and when i walked out to see what was up his face was a fucking mess, a swollen eye and a split lip, his hands were so cold that his skin had actually split in one place and he told me that two days before while he was sleeping two guys beat the shit out of him for his blanket and gloves, two other homeless guys, i asked him who, told him maybe i could speak to them or better yet beat the shit out of them and get his stuff back, he shook his head, said he usually rolled alone and didn't want the hassle, didn't need any more trouble than he already had. I could see it in his eyes that the beating had taken it's toll, how he was trying to make sense out of this nightmare he was in, why one day he had a wife and a house and the next day he was getting the shit kicked out of him for the last few possessions he had.
I was shaken and worried cuz i knew that it wouldn't take much to break the poor guy, i told him to go round back and meet me and i brought him out some hot coffee, a couple bagels and a large bowl of soup, i asked him what i could do and he smiled and said nothing, thanked me for the food and studied the dirty ice of the alley, i said why don't i get you a pair of gloves Robert, i'll get them tonight and have them here tomorrow, he smiled and said could you get me mittens, they keep my hands warmer, i said sure man no problem and i watched him finish his soup and walk off with his bagels and coffee.
The next day i presented him with a pair of blue mittens i had bought. I was still broke but between the grift and the game i was actually starting to save a little money, of course if i lost my job in a month or so i could be looking at the same situation as Robert except i was young and had friends and girls seemed to like me and i figured i could find a warm bed to sleep in every night, hell i'd already done it for a month awhile back. He had a huge smile on his face and he gave me a hug and thanked me and i told him not to worry about it, that it was the least i could do and that maybe he should look into some shelters and the like and that they could help him out, at least give him an address to put down on applications, help him get a job, fuck even a halfway house or something and he smiled and said he was going to look into it, when i left work that afternoon i met him on the corner and handed him a couple of bagels and some coffee, he had on his mittens and he was smiling...
And then i didn't see him for awhile. He was gone. I asked some of the other homeless guys if they knew him or what happened to him but they either didn't know him or hadn't seen him for awhile either. Then in the spring i was walking home contemplating returning to school, grad school, for no other reason than i had nothing better to do and as i turned the corner there he was, passing a bottle of rotgut back to a friend, fucked out of his gourd, looking as if he had been fucked out of his gourd for awhile now, he looked at me bewildered, like for some reason he knew me but couldn't place where and i knew then that the streets had most likely got another one. I just kept walking. A long walk with a lot to think about. Part of me wanted to go back and slap the shit out of him, part of me knew i really knew nothing of his life and the shit he faced every day, hell most people would have given up long ago and really i who was i to criticize? i was no saint when it came to the bottle or the bowl or any number of other things, all i know is that i felt a sadness and that as i walked by him i saw a pair of blue mittens sticking out of his coat pockets.