Everyone called him “shroom.” Must be short for mushroom, but I don’t know. He would stand at the bus stop at Cherry and Church. Everyday, until recently, I’d see him whenever I went out for a walk. He wore a black coat, more like a cape, the only coat I ever saw him wear. He had a leather hat and reflective sunglasses.
I’d nod and he’d nod. Got a “whassup” every once in a while. He’d just stand there looking back and forth. I asked one day what he saw, “everything,” he said, without explanation. Never got a sentence out of him, though I tried. Not that he was unkind or unfriendly. I just wasn’t one of his crew or into his business.
When you see a person over and over, you feel like you know him. Taking photos the way I do requires a relationship, even if it doesn’t involve the exchange of personal information. People express themselves to photographers through appearance and gesture. The interactions lack actual intimacy, despite putting the three of us, him, me and the camera, in close proximity. So, it’s odd that I would have any feeling about his death or the loss of another person whom I know from the street.
If you wonder what he died of, I was told long ago that he had lung problems, exacerbated by who knows what. He smoked. They all smoke, even if it isn’t healthy. A reliable source said that’s what killed him.
Had never seen the guy before. He sat with a traditionally messaged sign on the wrong side of the street, on the heavily trafficked corner across from Ben and Jerry’s where no one sits. Bright shoes. Big camp back pack. Hardly someone who doesn’t want to be noticed.
With the wind, snow and cold, I couldn’t go out. We must have emerged at the same time after two weeks in hibernation. First guy I saw after stepping out of my car into long missed but not forgotten sun. He stood behind the fence at Rite Aid, one of the City’s dingiest spots. Had to ask about the tattoo. “Got it in Las Vegas. It’s a coverup. Lost a bet that three girls that I was running could make more money in a night than another guys. The payoff was the tattoo: Lost in Vegas. And a telephone number. My girls took the money, bought drugs and spent the night getting high. Couldn’t get them to work. So, I lost. Got the tattoo and left. Then I got it covered up.”
Lenny struggles. Has social skills and smarts. Family in the area. Knows what he has to do, except for battling the demons. Got into a program. Got a job levelling tables. Still needs to ask for more help. Courteous to a fault. Has his life on his back.
OK, she and Robert have a place while the weather feels frigid. Living at the Econo Lodge, they receive 28 days lodging, but have to move out for a day, assumedly because if they stay for a month, statatory tenants rights would accrue. So, they got to move their stuff for a day and then get approval to move back. She still has AIDS and the agency suporting her is still looking for more permanent housing. Robert’s OK. He worked his sign in South Burlington near the ramp, hoping the cops wouldn’t make him move.
So, I know him as Caveman. Easy monicker, like mine, based on the surname. Recently found a spiritual name. He says his mother was Jewish. Parents sat shiva when she married a Catholic. He took on a biblical name, one that denotes he is one of the people. Me, I am a Kohane, a word that doesn’t mean anything to him, Jewishly speaking.
These guys on the street act in several plays. Not many of us has the courage to even live one. 71 years old and starting to look it.
He tells me we used to hang out in the same places in the Village in the 70’s. His friends and I went to New York Law School together. Now, he lives on the streets. Moving to Waterbury on Wednesday into a sober house. Wants to make a movie about street life.
Says he’s been on the street, travelling for 12 years. Has his faith and a Mother. She doesn’t tell him the truth, but his faith does. Never wants for anything. Lives day to day. Doesn’t want help, but asks for money.
They come and go. New ones every week. How do they find Burlington. Noway here from there. He says he’s been here before, but I have never seen him. Where he came from? He said everywhere and nowhere. Where’s he going? Doesn’t know. Will work for cash. Now, that’s smart. No taxes. Doesn’t have to contribute to Social Security. What would he do? Who would hire him? Carries a duffle and a garbage bag. And he has his sign.
So, she has dates which cause distress. A birthday and an anniversary when her Dad died. Comforted for a while at the Salvation Army, someone dropped a dime, causing the Army to cast her out. She’s back on the street again. She wants a relationship that lasts, fueled by love. She searches for self worth. She knows she can do it. But she doesn’t know how. Where will she stay? At what cost?
Just one way out of the Courthouse. Always a good day when you can leave through a front door. The rest of life’s problems could be simple, but they are not.
Amanda’s carrying the burden of her father’s sickness and trying to stay clean and sober. She looks great and sounds positive.
Larkin has a place and a relationship. Both need furnishing and care. He’s got a good heart.
Molly has programs to attend and needs teeth. She is so happy to have her life back, too. Larkin protected her when they lived in the woods.
Brian says he spent time in jail for a crime he didn’t commit. He’s out. Now, he needs a life. Hasn’t gotten help. He’s not sure he needs it. Who knows.
Karl would be lost without the street. “Hey Duck, take this photo.” Never saw the people before. Young woman is a poet. She recited a poem she made up. He cut her off. Ending his physical therapy for hip repair. Has to get around with a chair. Vision going. How long he stays in his apartment is up in the air. Asked me if I knew of a place to live. Me? Why would anyone ask me about a place to live? People all jive him, without knowing what goes on. They play him, not taking the time to look beneath the shell. He acts like he’s Donald Trump, firing people. From what job? Who knows? Lives in another world, one where poets live. He will be more lost without a place to live. I told him to go to the hearing, deal with the bullshit and keep his apartment. Always have to show up. And it may mean missing a day on the streets. He’s got a pad full of problems and poems.
Chief came by to wish Paul a Merry Christmas.
“Did you see Rita Markle? COTS would not have taken him in if he was drunk. I told Tim and Wayne that he was dying. His lips were blue. He couldn’t stand or breathe…”
Chief and Jason built the memorial. Someone stole the sign and the Buddah. Paul’s friend from the store across the street gave them the sticks to make the cross.
Paul sat on Cherry St after he woke up, whatever time or day it happened to be or when he wasn’t in jail (criminal trespass and open containers) or at the hospital (car accident, beatings, or falls). People walked by. Some gave him money. Some gave him food. He was always courteous. People who don’t know each other have lost something in their lives without really knowing what it was or how to replace it.
Autumn bought votives and candles.
She wanted to take him home, but he wouldn’t get clean.
Very sad, both said, and not fair.