Tales from the Wandering
Stories based on the lives of the homeless in Boston
Spotting Your Own Skin
For the better part of the next ten years, the Black Smoke stayed within orbit around a variety of couches and TV screens in the tristate area. In the beginning, he’d pour out of the room and onto the street to meet friends waiting outside.
The floating mass went to bars and was fed drinks from compatriots and strangers alike since drifting smoke can’t hold a glass. Rising up from an unfamiliar mattress, he’d gather his loose ends and return home.
An old Greyhound bus pulled him towards Boston one night puttering, a ride only distinguished by the cyclical disparity between cities and trees, with either fog or smog or the tail of his own wake sputtering behind them down the freeway. At that time, the Black Smoke didn’t recognize he’d be leaving New York City for good. Plumes seeped under the crack of the doorway to his girlfriend’s apartment when he arrived; she stood behind the door, a little round, her hair done up in a bun intending to look casual, the smoke oozing onto the tips of her toes. She let him in and he stayed there for four years without ever really leaving.
What is life when it moves slow? What is getting up and going to the bathroom when sunk inside that leather couch; what is just keeping your dirty underwear on; what if you feel better tomorrow; what is working from home; what is losing your job; what is losing yourself; what is it to wear a shirt with spaghetti sauce stains; what is it to make your own bad luck; what is watching sitcoms all day and not laughing once; what is literally spending two full days to fill one laundry bag with dirty clothes? What is a girlfriend asking if something, anything, will happen soon; what is silence? How can you choose to be aimless? When did you decide to be homeless?
The Black Smoke stretched out on a cot struggling to keep himself intact, his smoke jettisoned in different directions. He dissipates over a plastic mattress in an auditorium style room with composite plastic floors. Three rows of bunk-beds go back about 15 or 16 deep. It’s May and it’s raining, ten days straight since the start of the month. Through the concrete doorway it’s still falling. It’s early so the shelter’s near empty. Only a few souls are kept still on their beds.
Into the doorway walks a petite bald man, shaking in his over-sized slicker. Pools of water careen off his jacket and mar the floor. His smile is hoisted like a brazen flag, always loudest in the midst of the rushing wind. As his body shivers, his big toe rattles with it. It’s poking out through a hole in his ragged tennis shoes.
The old man’s name is Pops. The Black Smoke knows this because everyone knows this. Everyone knows Pops. For better or worse they’ve never spoken before. Pops slugs his sloshing shoes to his cot squishing as he goes. He sheds his jacket. He rests but doesn’t lay down— the U.S. Veteran with the all-American smile.
The Black Smoke heaves up from the cot. He floats into the hallway to find an abandoned desk cascading with upturned papers. A plastic phone sits on top. He picks up the receiver and rings a friend to ask a favor. It’s the first time he’s used his hands in years.
The Black Smoke stretches out on his cot considering the day. Pops rests on his back a few bunks down, suspenders running parallel up his sunken chest. Through the concrete doorway, after two days, the rain’s still falling.
A black man, bulky in his polo shirt, bends down to hand the Black Smoke a package. He’s soft in voice, “Package for you.” The Black Smoke, confused, receives it. Three days earlier than he thought. Strange. Fortuitous. For once.
Ripping the dripping cardboard open is easy. In the large box, he find three smaller ones, each incrementally bigger than the last. He pulls out a manila note:
Hope these do the trick. – Fran
The Black Smoke rises. He gathers up the shoe boxes in his arms. Shifting and swirling, the cloud slides bedside. Pops looks up from his plastic mattress and smiles that pie tin grin. He lays the boxes to rest on the gruff blanket. Pops scoots towards them, carefully raising one lid. They’re Nike’s, new, and bright too, only the way a shoe can shine.
Pops rises to his feet. He squints with glossy eyes, the fumes stinging. He reaches into the smoke. It’s hard to see. His hands slip through the vail. He wraps his arms around the rock inside. Steam hisses. Smoke clears. A man stands at the center, smiling.
This fiction is based on the true story of Gary Johnston (aka John Doe). A chef without a kitchen and a guitarist without a guitar, Gary spends his time writing for Spare Change Newspaper, helping the Mitzvah Circle, assisting homeless men and women in finding humanitarian resources and organizing free barbecues for the homeless. He authors a blog called “Homeless in Boston” which follows his personal trials as a homeless man in the Boston area and is currently nominated for CBS’ “Most Valuable Blogger Award” for 2011 (http://bostonhomeless.blogspot.com/). Although they now live in different shelters, he and Pops remain close friends. After ten years of depression, Gary attributes his awakening to a hole worn through the top of an old man’s sneaker.