A cross-country travelogue featuring an old Audi and Nina Simone.
A recently evicted man gets help on the street while waiting for the mail.
It was a Thursday. This was before the internet, online banking, all that crap. It was the early 90’s, I was 24, and I was afraid to answer my phone. Afraid to open the mailbox. I knew there was nothing but past due notices in there and nothing but collectors on the phone. But my brother said he could come through for me. No bullshit. He put a check for a couple grand in the mail and I was waiting to intercept the mailman. I’d deal with the bills and the calls when there was something I could do about it. Hopefully before Friday. My landlord said Monday was my absolute last day.
“You better put cash in my hand Monday morning or you’re out!”
I sat on a bench a few doors down from my apartment. It was in a park, but one of those parks that was really just a bit of dirt the city couldn’t do anything else with so they planted a few trees, put in a bench, and told the neighborhood, “See? Look how we take care of you.” The view was of the traffic on 8th Avenue and the smell was nothing but exhaust.
“You’re on my bench.”
He looked homeless to me so I got up. I didn’t want to get into it with a crazed street person. As soon as I was on my feet though he laughed. Like a completely normal person I thought. He told me I was easy to scare.
“You’re prickly, and skittish. Sit down. What’s the matter kid?”
I sat back down where I’d been at one end of the bench. Morris sat at the other end, but turned towards me and crossed his leg, looked as comfortable as he would have been in an Eames Chair. I guessed he was about 40. He had a thick salt and pepper beard that adsorbed most of his neck and extended impossibly high up his cheeks.
“Nothing. Just waiting for the mail.”
I gave Morris my full attention finally. What he’d been waiting for I guess. He still looked homeless to me, but I could tell that the clothes were good quality, just worn to death. He was in olive dress slacks, a hand-woven brown belt branded Oaxaca, Mexico several times around, a denim button down left mostly open, and a pair of old school hiking boots with red laces.
“I lost my job a few months ago.”
“How bad you in?”
I didn’t want to talk to a stranger about my problems so I got up again. Morris laughed again.
“Is it my bench you don’t like or my company?”
I’d hard an apartment in Park Slope the year before with a stoop and would have given anything for that. But where I was then it was just a wall of doors spilling out onto the sidewalk. The last thing I wanted to do was open my mailbox. I sat back down with him. He introduced himself.
“Tell you what Tony. I’ll take care of your money problems if you spend the day out here with me.”
This time I stayed on my feet when I got up. That sort of crazy was enough to brave the mail. Morris laughed again and told me to think about it.
“Thanks for the offer Morris.”
“I’m on my bench everyday, so if you change your mind, come on out.”
It was pressed so tightly in that most of it was mangled. All of it was redundant, repeated mailings of bills. I’d held them all off as long as possible. This was the week I’d lose water, heat, electric, and they’d start the eviction process. At least it was empty now.
Maybe I shouldn’t have worried about eviction. My apartment already looked like I was in the process of moving out. I’d sold all my furniture and most of my books. I was surviving on a jar of peanut butter and cheap bread. I could have left with a backpack and a suitcase of books and the place would’ve been vacant except for the mattress on the floor.
I had a decent view though, of the bench. I stared down at Morris, watching for the mailman, and fell asleep with my head propped on the fire escape.
I headed down to the bench, only now I was looking out for him and the mailman. The mailman showed up first, but still no check from my brother. I went in an called him. glad the phone worked for one more day.
“I sent it man. I swear I sent it close to a week ago.”
“Where’d you send it?”
“What do you mean? I sent it to your place. The Slope right?”
“Shit Michael, I moved out of there last year!”
He said he was sorry and offered to express mail me another, but it was already late in the afternoon Friday. He was home and lived in the middle of flipping nowhere Nebraska. The soonest he could express something would still get it here Tuesday. I’d be out on my ass Monday if I didn’t plop some cash in my landlord’s hands. I told Michael to wire it as soon as he could, that I’d likely be on the street for a while.
“How do you wire money again?”
I didn’t know either. I only really knew the expression. I gave up. Grabbed my backpack of clothes and left the books. When I got to the street again I saw Morris. He looked at my backpack and waved me over.
“You get the boot already?”
“I will by Monday.”
“Money didn’t come?”
“So I guess you can spend the day with me now.”
I was too goddam tired to get up. I had nothing of value. Just a bag of dirty clothes and an attitude.
“What exactly you got in mind Morris?”
He told me a story then, about a brother of his own, about parents there were never there, about being a hard-working guy once. I asked him what happened.
“Yeah, you lose your job? How long have you been homeless?”
He laughed again.
“I’m not homeless.” He followed my gaze to his clothes, all the same items as the day before. “Oh, I get you. I clean up real nice Tony.”
Before I could ask another question he offered to buy me breakfast, pointed to a diner close by. I told him I really didn’t have a dime.
“I heard you Tony,” he said laughing, “Do you need me to pay up front?”
He never seemed so crazy as to scare people with the looks of him, just made you curious. You knew there was a story there it was just easiest to believe it was a homeless, drug-addled one. Easier to think he was probably fringe. Keep walking. But where was I going to go? I followed him to the diner and decided on the walk over I didn’t care if he was broke too. I’d eat and dash. If they nabbed me, locked me up, well, it’d be a roof over my head.
We had eggs. 6 apiece. Sunny and runny. We mopped it all up with a stack of toast. Rye. When the check came I tried to look cool, but eyed the door. I startled the waitress. I felt a single trickle of sweat run down my back and then Morris pulls a wad of bills out of his hiking boot.
“Keep it,” then he looked at me, “you want a coffee for the road?” and no answer, no time to, before, “two coffees too,” while giving her another bill to cover them. “Cream and sugar?” I nodded. “Just cream for me.”
He didn’t have enough to keep me in my apartment. Not on him at least. But he had plenty on him. Just in that boot. For all I know he had little stashes of cash all over him. He also wasn’t homeless. He ran an SRO across town,
“So close to the East River you can spit in it if you want.”
He put me up. For what wound up being 3 months. I got a job the second week I was there and saved enough money to get my own place again. In Brooklyn this time. An old friend from Nebraska took a job in the city and we were roommates. It was almost a year before I thought to visit Morris again.
He wasn’t at the SRO anymore. for weeks I was an ungrateful ass, in my head. I missed the guy. I never found out what was so special about that bench to him. If I believed in anything I’d call him an angel, but I’m not one of god’s children. Sometimes you just get lucky. Sometimes there’s a Morris.