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Down and Out


Harry Buschman

"It's not much to look at, is it?" Maggie said, "Every bit of what's in there comes from the bodegas along Tenth Avenue. Ends of baloney, cheese rinds, chicken necks and the throwaway soup they made yesterday. Sometimes they'll give us a dented can of tomatoes."

She looked up at me defensively. "They're good people, Wally, really they are. They know we're not lookin' for money.  What would we do with money? What would you do if you had money?"

"I'd go back on the booze, Maggie, you know that. What would you do?"

I shouldn't have asked her that question. I knew what she would do with  money. Heroin. Heroin was on her back.

She shrugged sadly, then tasted the spoon. She added a few shakes of salt. "I got nothin' to buy, Wally. Money can't buy me what I need -- I need to begin all over again. Money can't buy me the time I need to start over -- money's poison."

We knew each other, Maggie and me. Both of us knew the other's weakness -- we knew we had taken a lot of wrong turns back on the road, and until we could 'get back to where we once belonged' - is that the way the song goes?

I met Maggie that afternoon, over on Ninth Avenue. I hadn't seen her in  almost a year. She looked the same. You don't age much when you're down and  out. You're put together with dirt and rags to begin with; in fact that's how we know each other -- by the way we wear our dirt and rags. We're human beings mind you, we're homeless by choice, and we don't panhandle -- unless it's absolutely necessary.

It's mainly that we've seen better days and we have no expectation of seeing better days ahead.

For a start, we can't get work. Who'd hire us? What can we do? Look at me for instance. I just came out of St. Vincent DePaul so I'm better dressed than usual. I'm wearing somebody else's brown corduroy pants, I have a clothesline belt and a red and black plaid hunter's shirt. My shoes are pretty good -- blue and white Nike's with cushioned insoles so I don't need to wear socks.

They gave me a baseball cap, too -- a brand new Mets baseball cap. What I'm driving at is, I can't walk into a job interview looking like this, can I? I can't even get a dishwasher job at a diner. I used to be a teacher, a high school teacher. I've been down and out too long and I need a new start. I don't want your money. That's what Maggie meant -- money can't buy us time to start over.

When I met her this afternoon, she was pushing a shopping cart loaded with carrot tops, squashed tomatoes and plastic sacks filled with odd shreds of meat. I had no idea what she was up to. So I called to her. "Maggie old girl! It's Wally! Remember me?"

She let her cart roll to a stop and looked around. We embraced each other like children coming back to school after summer vacation. "Wally! Wally! 'Course I do. Where you been, love? I thought for sure you'd gone on ahead."

It took most of the afternoon to tell her where I'd been and what I'd been up to over on the East Side. She asked me about "Stash," the Russian immigrant  who came over when the Berlin wall was pulled down. She asked me about  "Lefty," the one-armed harmonica player. Both of them had "gone on ahead" over the past winter. They were, perhaps, two of the only human beings we both remembered in that booby hatch over on the East Side.

They did not die easily; Stash was knifed in a dispute over the rights to first dibs in the Oyster Bar dumpster, and Lefty was pushed into the path of a Madison Avenue bus. They wouldn't let me into Bellevue to see Stash. I didn't know his name and neither did they. Lefty was D.O.A., so there wasn't much sense trying to see him. For all I know he's still in the icebox downtown.

None of us had last names, we were known by monikers -- no one knew Stash or Lefty by any other names. It's a part of bumming; we try to keep our identity a secret -- an ultimate privacy that we carry with us to our final resting place, wherever the hell that might be. Maggie and I called each other by our real names because .... well .... because we wanted to know each other.

If you're not down and out -- if you're not one of us, it's hard for me to explain the difference between the East Side and the West Side. The East Side is okay in summer. You're outdoors a lot. There are parks over there -- the U.N., Tudor City. You can duck into Grand Central and make a few bucks for supper and then duck back out again. But when winter comes .... let me tell you, the East Side's not where you want to be.

The east wind comes in across the river and goes through your second-hand clothes like a knife through water. It's then that the down-and-outers turn on each other; they're more dangerous in the winter. They will kill you for a warm place in the subway -- for a spot within striking distance of a lunch room garbage can.

I didn't have to remind Maggie. She knew. In the summer we spent many  pleasant afternoons in the cool shade of the Willy "B" (Williamsburg Bridge) or dangling our feet in the water at Con Ed's coal dock. But it was no place for a woman on her own. There was no community, you might say. It was every man for himself. The stronger you were, the better chance you had to survive.

I think I loved her a little back then. Enough to know I couldn't take care of her, and that if she stayed with me her chances were worse than they would have been if she was alone. We backed away from each other -- there's no place for love in the life of a bum, love's a gloomy prospect for the down and out. We don't take well to responsibility, and you can't raise a family in the streets.

"Why don't you come along with me?" She asked. "There's about forty-five of us over here at the old ferry slip. Winter's comin' Wally, it's awful cold bein' alone -- even over here on the West Side."

The "Ferry Slippers," she called them. They were living together like Fagan's pickpockets in the old ferry slip on 53rd Street.

I took over the pushing of her shopping cart, and together we headed west down 53rd Street to the ferry slip. I wasn't familiar with the barrio, and I was surprised to see how warm and friendly the people were. I had grown used to the loneliness and hostility of the streets on the East Side andbeing accepted as a fellow human being was new to me.

"There's forty five of us here, Wally. They'll be comin' in soon, expectin' dinner." She had taken the pins out of her hair, and it all came back to me again -- she was one hell of an attractive woman.

"You wouldn't believe it, Wally, but we have electricity. Our own electricity -- would you believe it?" She threw her head back and laughed up into the dark recesses of the old terminal. "Gas, too," she smiled, "I'm cookin' on an oven that a lot of uptown ladies would love to have."

"How did you manage that?"

"Everybody pulls his own weight. There's a guy here who wired us up to the West Side Highway breakers. Another guy traced the gas line out beyond the meter and tapped into it. Takes all kinds." She looked me up and down. "You'd fit in, Wally, you really would. You don't have to be special -- just pitch in. Everybody's got something they can do better than anybody else."

I did not have great expectations. "There's nothing I can do that other people can't do better, that's why my wife walked out on me. Don't get me started, Maggie." There's a thousand reasons for failure -- taken one at a time, they don't seem important, but add them all together and they make all
the sense in the world.

"I've been alone so long, Maggie .... I don't know how to be with people any more."

"Help me," she said. "Help me lift this pot off the stove." It must have weighed 75 pounds. We put it in the center of a long redwood dining table where the ferry slip lunch room used to be. "There," she said, and wiped her hands on her apron. "My part's done. See what I mean? That's my contribution -- my part. You know what your part could be?"

"I can't cook, Maggie."

"You used to be an English teacher, didn't you? You told me last summer you taught high school back in Akron." It came as a shock to me that she should remember that. It was something I didn't want to remember. High school English! Eight years of it! Not one of the kids could put a sentence together, and not one of them had parents that gave a damn if they could or not.

Then the drinking began .... frustration, I guess -- but maybe that's just one of my thousand excuses. In any case, it was something that told me I was a failure as a teacher, a failure as a husband and, as I stood there in front of Maggie's pot of stew, I was convinced that I was a failure as a bum
as well.

"I was a lousy English teacher, Maggie. Nobody knows that better than me."

"We're in the Barrio. You know what it's like for the folks who live here? 'Pequeno,' Wally -- that's what it feels like to them." She folded her arms and looked at me like a teacher. "Small, Wally. That's how they feel. Small. It's the English, don't you see -- they've got no idea what's going on.  Everybody cheats them."

"I don't know what's going on either."

"I never saw a man as negative as you! You're right, you have been alone too long." I helped her set out two rows of plates on the wooden tables. "You're disappointing me, Wally."

Her 'Ferry Slippers' began drifting in. They were dressed in motley, and to all appearances they looked just as jerry-rigged as the bums on the East Side, but there was a difference. There was a lift to their walk -- they didn't shuffle the way bums normally do. I could see there was something about this little flock of down and outers that set them apart from the crowd over on the East Side. They brought things with them; one had a box of Cuban cigars, another had a shopping bag filled with ski mittens. A man with a gray beard had a shopping bag crammed with French bread.

They had earned these things by helping people in the Barrio: loading trucks, sweeping floors, acting as crossing guards for the children walking to school. They were hungry and jovial, like men home from a physically tiring day in theshops and fields. I looked at Maggie and felt a rush of guilt. I could see why she was disappointed in me.

"I guess I need an education, Maggie. Put up with me a little." She put her  hand on my shoulder and walked me to the end of the table.

"This here's Wally. A friend of mine from the East Side. Wally's okay, he's an English professor ...." That brought a few laughs. "Okay, okay -- seriously -- don't that ring a bell with you guys? What's the one thing these Latinos need more than anything else, huh?"

"Fewer kids!" From a man in a fur hat.

"An airline ticket to Puerto Rico!" From a man in a double-breasted gray  overcoat.

Everybody had a say in it. I could remember, years ago, town meetings back home -- open meetings with the PTA. We would thrash things out. Fists would be shaken, husbands and wives on opposite sides of an issue would eventually shut up and see a point other than their own. They realized that life in a  civilized society can only exist if both sides bend a little. But it takes a bit of bending .... there must be someone to bring the sides together.

In addition to Maggie's talents as a stew cook, she was a great moderator. I sat by her side at the head of the table that evening and kept my mouth shut. It would be wonderful to spend the winter here, to eat regularly, to have  friends. Was there anything left in me as a teacher?

Grudgingly at first, and eventually with a sigh of resignation, the "Ferry Slippers" accepted me. My only qualification was a knowledge of English and eight years of struggle to bring English-speaking High School students to the point where they might understand each other.

"If he can bring in his share, it's okay with me." This from the man in the double-breasted coat.

The fur-hatted man shrugged. "What do I know -- if he can teach them to read English, it's okay by me, too."

It started out with Ramirez. He owned a grocery bodega on 53rd, and the IRS was hassling him for back taxes. The IRS assumes everyone speaks and writes white man's English. They have no idea that the threatening letters they send some people are opened, looked at blankly, and innocently thrown away.

It was a stroke of luck I happened to be there when he got his subpoena. He didn't know what it was! He'd been getting letters from the IRS all year and didn't know what they were.

Garcia, the butcher, was in trouble with the Board of Health for displaying some of his rough cuts of meat on the sidewalk -- "In Ponce, always, this is the way we do that." I read him the terse notice and suggested that he better comply. "For sure. No problem -- you understand, Senor Wally, I read Espagnol -- how do I know what Uncle Yankee don't want me to do in the street?"

By the end of November, the Latino storekeepers on the West Side would be waiting for me at eight a.m. every morning. Each of them, in a minor or a major way, was in trouble. Like aliens trying to adapt to an unfriendly planet, they were anxious to comply, but didn't know how. I brought back more food than anyone. DeVivo at the "Superbo Electronico" actually gave me a repossessed color television set for setting up a catered party for his  daughter at Our Sacred Lady of Venezuela Catholic Church.

The Latinos and the down-and-outers from the old ferry slip were like a  compatible species in a hostile environment. We got along, and neither of us, it seemed, could get along without the other.

It was the Wednesday before Thanksgiving and Garcia's grocery window was decorated with a paper turkey. It was his second Thanksgiving in America.

"You been good to us, man. I don't know how to tell you, but without you guys over at the slip .... I don't know .... I don't think we make it here in this country." He stuffed something in the outer pocket of my jacket. "Take it, Senor, buy yourself something. It's Thanksgiving for you .... take it for my thanksgiving present, por favor."

My arms were full of bags. Yams, dried beans, and a dozen roses for Maggie,  "for the lady down at the slip." From the look on Garcia's face I had an idea what he stuffed in my outer pocket and when I got out in the street I put my bags down and fished it out. Two twenty dollar bills. Money! For forty bucks I could get two bottles of gin and four bottles of wine -- I could be drunk right through the weekend if I didn't drink too fast.

Well, why not? What good is money? It's paper -- it's nothing! Until it buys something, it's nothing. My throat was suddenly dry -- the drunkard's excuse! I could no longer hear the sounds in the street. Teenagers playing touch football, trucks, music from the windows, Iglesias, Estafan, the sirens of the city -- fire -- police -- ambulance -- I was deaf to them all. I had forty bucks in my kick. Me and forty bucks could lose ourselves in a sea of bliss for four days. If Christ had a thirst like mine and forty dollars in His poke -- wouldn't He? Like me, He could let the world go by for a day or two and catch up with it later -- it would still be there.

Across the street was "Rodriguez Vino & Spiritos."

I put the bags on the sidewalk and stepped into the street -- almost into the path of the 53rd Street bus. I stepped back up on the curb again quickly and took a deep breath.

"Hey, Gringo! These here bags belong to you?" A boy of ten or so was standing by the bags.

"Yeah -- sure. I just put them down for a minute." I gathered the bags  together and the roses caught my eye. They were for Maggie -- nice thing for Garcia to do. Gee, I almost left them on the sidewalk and ran off to buy  booze. I lifted the heavy bag of yams again -- careful to put the roses on top. I looked across the street at "Rodriguez Vino & Spiritos." In the fading light of this November afternoon it seemed to beckon me. It was the money, the damn forty bucks! So long as that money burned a hole in my pocket, I could never get away.

"Hey, kid -- nino, come here a minute." I fished the money out of my pocket with my free hand and handed it to the kid. "Happy Thanksgiving, kid -- promise me you'll bring it home to your mother."

"Jesus, mister -- this is forty bucks."

"I know. It's worth more than that to me."

Broke again! Down and out! I picked up the other bags and headed west for the slip. How light they were -- how sweet the roses.

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