Tagged: homelessness

Old John

The men are beginning to line up at the corner. Must be getting on five o’clock, Andre thinks, watching them from his stoop– my stoop, he says to himself, “my stoop,” he says out loud, relishing the sound of the words. They sound not a bit less musical than the first time he said them, almost two whole months ago now. The first time he had said them, he had cried. It’s not unlike looking at a beautiful sculpture, Andre thinks. The first time you see it, you stop in your tracks, but eventually it just becomes part of your walk and you don’t see it any more— unless you look at it.

Andre’s stoop is only three houses down from the corner; he didn’t move far. Far enough, he thinks. From his new stoop he can’t see around the corner to the giant mounted statue of General Whoever-it-was. He’s heard somewhere that you could tell how a general died by how his statue was seated, but he forgets the rules. When he used to stand in line at the shelter with all the rest of them, he’d sometimes look at that statue and dream about getting out of Brooklyn, riding off on a horse all the way out to Long Island, re-enacting revolutionary battles. One time he turned to the man standing behind him. “Who do you think that is on the horse?” he asked. “Fucked if I know,” said the man, “you can go look, but I ain’t saving your fuckin’ spot.” Andre stayed in line.

Watching the line grow, Andre recognizes a face here or there, but no names until old John shows up. Old John’s face is grizzled, his clothes tattered, his skin black as his hair. He walks right past the line, sits down on the ground, his legs crossed like an ayurvedic yogi. He pulls a beat-up piece of cardboard out of his bag, unfolds it, and sits down, his claim staked. Andre smiles. It’s funny how with some guys, with most of the guys Andre knew back then, you hope and pray they don’t come back some day, because it means they made it out, just like in Ben Affleck’s speech in Good Will Hunting. Old John isn’t like that; Andre knows as well as anyone that old John’s never getting out, old John’s never getting his own place, old John’s never sleeping inside until it’s in the Kingdom come. Andre knows just as well that this is how old John wants it. Never did like sleeping indoors; when Andre used to go to the shelter old John would come in around nine, after the beds were all gone, get his ration of soup and bread and go back to eat it outside. No matter rain or shine, hot or cold. When it got cold DHS would ask him to go inside, and he would say no, and they would say come on, old John (Andre was initially surprised when they knew his name, but got less surprised the more that he thought about it), come on, you’ll freeze to death, and he would say, if the Lord wills. If it was only sort of cold they’d let him stay. If it was really cold they’d sometimes arrest him out of pity, and on the one occasion Andre observed this happen, smoking a cigarette on the stairs, he was amazed at the interaction:

“All right, old John, you’re leaving me no choice. I gotta arrest you.”

“I ain’t goin’.”

“Put your hands behind your back.”

“I said,” old John said, “I ain’t goin’.”

“Old John,” the officer said, taking a deep breath, “would you please put your hands behind your back.”

“Well,” old John smiled, “you done asked so nicely.”

The officer handcuffed him and led him to the car, and before they drove off Andre could hear old John saying, “Since we in the car already, think we can lose the cuffs?” And to Andre’s amazement, the officer replied, “Of course, my friend,” and loosened his shackles.

Andre figures every day he sees old John at the shelter is a day old John isn’t dead yet. It’ll happen one day, but not yet. He stands up from his stoop and walks over to the cardboard mat, from which he can see the statue of the general. Surprisingly, a man leaves the line and walks right past Andre down the block, but Andre pays him little mind. He reaches the mat.

“Old John,” he says.

Old John looks up. “Who that?”

“It’s Andre, old John,” he says, and suddenly he is overcome with a wave of apprehension. I shouldn’t have done this, he thinks, I shouldn’t have. He’ll think I’m rubbing it in his face, that I got out and he didn’t–

The old man smiles. “You there, Andre,” he says, “God is great, you still there.”

“How you been, my friend?”

“I live,” old John grins a wide, toothless grin of joy, “days passin’, leaves changin’, I’m a hundred and thirty years old and I ain’t seen none of it yet.”

“Whatchu gonna do this winter?”

“Old me been through a hundred and thirty winters,” says old John, happy as a junkie on his fix.

“Ain’t no reason you can’t make it through this one,” says Andre.

“Ain’t no reason I made it through any of them,” says old John. “Ain’t no reason. Gonna happen how it always happens– I see you in the kingdom.”

Andre catches the eye, in the line, of a man whose name he does not remember, but who (he does remember) had physically engaged him in an altercation stemming from an argument over where loose cigarettes could be found the cheapest. The other man’s eyes narrow and Andre excuses himself. Old John barely notices. As Andre turns around he bumps into the man he passed before, who gives him an unapologetic, indecipherable, but unthreatening grunt.

When Andre arrives back at his stoop, there is a puddle of yellow urine on the second step. At first he hopes it is water, but the smell is unmistakable. God damn, he thinks, “god damn it,” he says out loud, “this is my– fucking– stoop,” but nobody can hear him. From the corner, he hears old John’s unmistakable trickster laugh, the laugh that needed no provocation. He sighs and goes inside to get a bucket of water.