A man discovers his destiny
| Nathan was on the street again. He had spent three weeks in the hospital, and then thirty days more in an assisted living center before he was put outside. The state would only pay for thirty days worth of shelter after a person got out of the ward. The people at the assisted living center said they would take him to any place in the area where he wanted to go. Nathan asked to be taken to the town of Rudley, so they took him to Rudley park. Nathan thought he might as well walk the streets there as anywhere else.
Rudley was a medium sized town, big enough that a person could blend in, but not big enough to be invisible to the cops. Nathan had learned to never get on the bad side of the cops and to never challenge their authority.
Nathan carried a duffle bag with all his worldly possessions in it around the town of Rudley. He had to leave this duffle bag outside when he went to a store, but he figured no one would try to steal his rags anyway.
He spent a little time in the library, and he occassionally took a shower at the public pool. Sometimes he went to AA meetings for the free coffee. The hot weather was some danger to Nathan because the psychotropic medications they made him take at the hospital caused Nathan to be more susceptible to hyperthermia in summer and hypothermia in winter.
Then a woman in AA accused Nathan of "fooling around with the program", and Nathan left the meeting. He would get his coffee elsewhere.
The next day Nathan was checking at the "Friendly House" soup kitchen to see if he was too late for lunch. The place was abandoned, except for one woman in a red Toyota. Nathan decided it wouldn't hurt to ask her if The Friendly House was closed for the day.
As he approached her a cop car suddenly plowed across the grass and dirt parking lot. Three other police cars stopped a little farther off. One of the lawmen pointed his automatic at Nathan and ordered him to get down on his stomach. Nathan felt humiliated by such a command, but he knew better than to argue with a cop with his weapon drawn. The policemen swarmed Nathan when he was down, pinning him to the grass with their knees and drawing up his hands to put handcuffs on him.
"We hear you have been bothering people at the library. What makes you think you've got the right to bug people?" a cop fumed.
"I haven't been to the library for a week. I couldn't have bothered anybody in there," Nathan answered.
Nathan nearly said, "You guys are bothering me," but he thought better of it.
"I hear you have been writing all kinds of weird stuff," another cop said.
"I haven't written anything for months. I think you guys have got the wrong person," Nathan responded.
The policemen lessened the pressure on Nathan's back, giving him the welcome feeling that they were going to let him go. They stood him upright and took the handcuffs off his wrists.
"We'd better not hear about you causing trouble in this town," a cop said.
"You won't," Nathan answered.
The policemen got into their patrol cars and left.
Hating what had just happened to him, Nathan hurried to the park and sat down on a bench in the shade. The shadows of the streetlights and the trees were grew longer as he waited for the sunset. When it was dark he walked to the edge of town and onto the interstate. The small city of Jasper was twenty-seven miles away. There were a couple of bedroom communities between Rudley and Jasper. Nathan stuck out his thumb looking for a ride, but none came. At 2:00 am he entered the residential community of Madison and sat on a bench at an intersection. Antipsychotic medication had drained his thirty-six year old body of a lot of strength, and he was worn out. The street looked ghostly and deserted in the time of deepest night.
Further down the street impersonal buildings, conscious of their rightness and their respectability, stood overlooking the downtown scene. They seemed to say to Nathan, "We fulfill our role in the world. Why can't you?" They looked like giant, stone statues, monuments to all that was normal and good. After Nathan had sat on the bench for about thirty minutes a cop car showed up. The policeman told Nathan to get into his squad car. He took Nathan back to the interstate, past all the exits to Madison, and out of town. Nathan was glad the law man had taken him a few miles down the highway.
As Nathan entered Jasper he saw a road that looked like a more direct way to the day center for the homeless. It didn't look busy, and Nathan figured he could skate through with no one to bother him. Nathan came to some unattractive buildings beside the road that looked more like a concentration camp than a habitation for people. Some public housing facilities were really ugly in their design. As Nathan traveled a little farther he came across some small wooden houses. Some chicanos were getting into their automobiles to go to work. The world was just waking up for the day. As Nathan walked by a house with a couple of hispanic men he gave them a cautious wave with his hand. They waved back. No one bothered Nathan.
Nathan started to recognize of few of the buildings on his way to the "Home for a While" day center in Jasper. Just as the respectable world of the working class was beginning its day, the unrespectable class of vermin, low lifes and predators was bedding down. The early morning hours were the best time to pass through skid row. As Nathan turned onto Bradley Street he could see dark figures leaving the Salvation Army. They got a breakfast of a small bowl of oatmeal and a little tub of yogurt there, if they were lucky. Then they left for the employment agency. These guys who wanted to work would more than likely sit in the government job center until twelve o'clock, when they would go to the Hope Kitchen for a baloney sandwich and some soup. Then some of them would take the bus to the plasma center where they would donate their blood for money.
Nathan grabbed a quick meal at the hope center. After that, he entered the day center and got himself a few cups of coffee. Then he left the place without turning back. Things were better for the homeless in Monarch.
Nathan got onto Denison Street and stuck out his thumb. He didn't get any rides. By the time he was out of the city it was dark. Jasper was spread out. There were a couple of suburbs he had to go through to get to the turn off to the highway that would take him to Monarch. By the time it was late at night Nathan was in a sleepy residential neighborhood. The people were resting in soft beds uncaring about Nathan's presence. He was so tired he could stumble only two-hundred feet before he had to lay down and rest, using his duffle bag as a pillow. The heat had drained him. He'd walk a short while, then lay down, then walk another short while, and lay down again. Finally he walked across the interstate to a suite of office buildings, where he found a nice, cool foyer of a building in which he could spend the night. In the morning a man in a suit opened the building, and Nathan quickly left. The rest did him good.
Our young traveler had gone through this area in the distant past, and he tried to remember all the places where people had stopped for him. That was still a matter of luck. There were times he had stood beside the interstate for several hours while he stuck out his thumb looking for a ride, with all kinds of automobiles whizzing past, and still no one stopped. The interstates were not always the best places to hitch hike.
Nathan decided to take a short cut on the way to Monarch on a road he had never traveled before. The two lane highway looked deserted, like it felt no obligation to fulfill its purpose of carrying people to their destinations. Nathan had heard that old saying "short cuts make long delays", and it was possible to get stranded on some back road for days, but he decided to take the risk. After sticking out his thumb for a couple of hours a nice old man driving a green Impala pulled over. The old man took Nathan to a tiny town named "Bradford" about twenty miles from Monarch. A restaurant named "The Wagon Wheel" made of brown wooden planks sat next to the road. The place looked western in appearance, like the name implied. Nathan had a few dollars in his pocket, so he decided to get some fresh brewed coffee and a hamburger. Nathan had some instant coffee in his duffle bag, but he preferred freshly brewed java when he could get it.
The sky was getting darker, and Nathan considered laying down for the night. He decided to go into Bradford to check the place out instead. There was a small factory in the town, but Nathan doubted if it was hiring. The town didn't have a grocery store that he could see. Just a small, country convenience store. Eating out of those places could be expensive. When it got completely dark Nathan walked back to the restaurant. He laid down on the porch of the Wagon Wheel partially covered by his sleeping bag, using his duffle bag as a pillow.
Nathan never really slept when he was on the road. He didn't need to. He had drank seven cups of coffee in the Wagon Wheel. He was also feeling the joy of antipsychotic medication leaving his system. Life on that kind of medication could be bleak.
The next morning a cop told Nathan that the Wagon Wheel was opening for business and he couldn't lay there any more. Nathan cheerfully repacked his bag and ambled onto deserted road. The morning was still cool as Nathan began to sing to himself "The Yaw'll Come Back Saloon", a saucy doggerel sung by the Oak Ridge Boys. About mid morning Nathan saw some camper trailers at a small campground beside the road. He spotted a hose watering the grass next to a woman who wore a hat to shade herself from the sun. Nathan approached her and asked if he could drink some of the water from the hose, and she said he could. There was a dirty paper cup on the ground. After drinking his fill from the hose our young traveler picked up the cup and dumped some instant coffee into it. Then he held his finger over a hole in the bottom, put in some water, stirred it with a stick, and drank the black liquid. The woman laughed at Nathan and said that coffee must be good to him. The young man thanked her and went back to the highway.
The morning sun had become stifling, and Nathan hadn't seen a single car drive by. He walked until about mid afternoon, when he saw a small church beside the road. It looked friendly enough, and though Nathan wasn't a religious man, he figured they wouldn't begrudge him some water from the faucets he saw on the building and some shade he saw under the trees next to the church. Nathan knew he had to keep himself hydrated. He also figured he shouldn't push himself too hard in this hundred degree weather. After about an hour a woman showed up and unlocked the back door. When she saw Nathan she asked him if he wanted to join the congregation in a church service that night. Nathan made an excuse about being in Monarch soon, and thanked her anyway. He left with a good feeling about the people in that church, and he almost wished he wasn't an agnostic.
It had gotten dark by the time Nathan came to the community of Highland, about five miles from Monarch. Nathan could see a cloverleaf intersection, and he wanted to make sure he took the right road. He entered a convenience store. A young man who looked about twenty-two years old worked at the cash register. The guy had an insolent air about him.
"Do you know which road goes into Monarch," Nathan asked the person.
"Go to a road three miles that way. Walk two miles to the intersection. Then walk five miles until you come to a hill. Walk over the hill, and somebody will give you directions there," the clerk responded.
Nathan hated snide people. If he wasn't so tired he might have made some kind of a snide remark back, but a person had to be careful about getting into tiffs with assinine store clerks when he was on the road. The cops were always one hundred per cent behind the clerk, no matter what the circumstances were. Nathan walked to the cloverleaf and got onto the highway that would take him into Monarch.
Nathan had traveled a couple of miles with his thumb out when a pickup pulled over. A couple of young men sat in the cab. Nathan was glad he'd be able to get off his aching feet for a while. The guys had these small grins on their faces that told Nathan he might need to watch out, but Nathan was so tired he was glad to get any kind of a ride at all. The driver was a big guy who probably outweighed Nathan by fifty pounds. He was solidly built. The guy in the passenger seat was small, but he had the cockiness that a small guy who is sure of himself sometimes has.The guy sitting in the passenger seat got out of the cab so Nathan would have to sit between them.
"Get in," the smaller guy said.
Nathan tossed his duffle bag into the back of the vehicle and climbed into the cab. There was a pregnant silence while Nathan tried to think of something to say.
"Are you going beyond Monarch?" Nathan queried.
"Not for a while. We've got business to take care of in Monarch," the driver said.
Nathan knew better than to ask what that business was.
"I was a little worried I might get mugged when I went through a Spanish neighborhood yesterday, but the people were friendly enough," Nathan ventured.
"It can be dangerous traveling the interstate at night. Don't get off the highway and go into the neighborhoods no matter what. There are gangs in a lot of them, and they'll kill you for a joke. People don't care what happens along the interstate at night, as long as they get to go back to their warm, cozy homes. No one knows, and no one cares. Who would miss you?" the guy in the passenger seat said as he made an exaggerated shrug with his shoulders.
"Yes. I've been seeing that," Nathan responded.
"The word 'neighborhood' used to mean a place where you were safe, but now it means a place where you better hold onto your ass, because you might get mugged," the driver stated.
"Have you got any money on you?" the other guy in the cab asked.
"I've got a couple of dollars. You guys can have it if you want it."
"Let's have it," the driver stated.
Nathan didn't feel too abused when he handed over his money. It was worth it to get off the highway.
They drove into a neighborhood Nathan had lived in before while he lived in Monarch. They drove aimlessly for a while, then they let Nathan out. As he got his duffle bag Nathan looked around for signs of trouble. The area looked safe, but Nathan wanted to get out of that neighborhood because in a place like that you could think you were okay and things could suddenly go wrong. He saw a couple of hookers a few blocks away as he left.
Nathan spent the night resting in a park. The next day he entered the labor hall. The place was full of men dressed in jeans, boots, and hard hats. The men all sat in rows of fiberglass chairs in the cavernous room. Nathan listened to their conversations with interest. "There ain't no shame in my game," a black man said. The man behind the desk was handing out work tickets at a furious pace. Nathan was worried that he still had antipsychotic medication in his system that would make him susceptible to heat stroke, but he needed a few dollars, and he'd probably be okay. They called out our young traveler with a couple of other guys to do some roofing. Nathan worked all day standing on black tar paper in the hot sun. He didn't get sick from it. After the work day had ended our young traveler went back to the labor hall to get paid. He decided to sit in one of their chairs for a while to rest up after they paid him. A few layers of skin on the back of Nathan's heel had been torn off in all the walking he had done. As Nathan sat there he experienced some intense pain, but not the kind of pain that would get the better of him and make him depressed, unless it got worse. As Nathan sat in his chair he saw an old homeless man wearing a red baseball cap walk past him on the street. For some reason he drew Nathan's attention. He turned, and looked directly at Nathan with an unmistakable look of recognition. Nathan wondered who he was and why he looked at Nathan that way.
The next day Nathan went to the laundromat and washed all his dirty clothes. While Nathan waited for his clothes to dry he got out a scrap of paper and wrote this:
Who knows if it is the law of the jungle,
The law of the land,
The law of God,
Or the law of man,
When you come to terms,
And you fall or stand,
When you are walking and asking,
Walking and asking,
Upon the land,
You can always walk,
So your asking price will stand,
You can sell your soul,
To make your asking price
But who will you then lay down with,
While you walk upon the land?
How far do you have to walk
And who is asking, and who is buying
And what kind of asking
Is each person trying?
Maybe it is the people who are safe and warm,
While they rest upon the land,
Who are doing the highest asking,
And who knows if their asking price
Will fall or stand,
When they are walking and asking,
Walking and asking
In a different land.
Nathan journeyed around Monarch for a while. Gay looking men lounged in open air cafes with a smug self assurance. Nathan wished he had their self confidence, but he could never be gay. He wasn't made that way.
There was a park by the river where young girls skated on the sidewalk and people were having a good time. Nathan entered a populated area of the park and sat down on the far end of a bench that a woman was sitting on. Nathan kept a respectful distance, but when he got up he mumbled, "Thanks for the sit down, lady." Then he walked on. There was a pedestrian bridge across the river, and Nathan decided to check out the opposite bank. He caught a glimpse of the old homeless man with the red baseball cap on the path ahead. He turned around and looked at Nathan with the same look of recognition he had given Nathan outside the labor hall.
Nathan crossed the bridge and checked out the scenery. Young girls whizzed past on roller blades and everyone was enjoying the nice weather. Nathan saw a young man standing next to an upside down bicycle, trying to attach a pedal to it. Nathan decided to approach him.
"It looks like you've got your hands full. I guess bikes break down sometimes, too, but they're still better than cars. Something is always going wrong with cars, and it costs you money every time," Nathan said to the guy.
"Are you from around here?" the guy asked, begrudging Nathan a response.
"I've lived here before, but that was some time back. I've come from Rudley, and I intend to get a little money in my pocket from working out of the labor hall, and then I'll get an apartment and get off the street."
"Are you some kind of drifter?" the guy inquired.
"I guess you could say that, but I am trying to settle down," Nathan answered.
"You see that woman you just looked at? She's married. You're getting a shot of mace, and, oh boy, that shit can be so bad if you get it in the morning with a hangover," the guy fumed.
Nathan hurried away from the guy not knowing what to think. He walked back over the bridge and onto the streets. He wondered if someone was going to suddenly pop out of nowhere and spray him with pepper spray. He hadn't done anything wrong. He didn't know what the guy was talking about when he said that Nathan had looked at a married woman. He decided to go to the day shelter. As he walked towards the place of rest for the bums on skid row he thought he saw a woman angrily step back from him. Was that how he was supposed to get maced? He finally dismissed the threat the guy had made as the psychotic rambling of an unstable mind.
There were numerous chairs in the enormous day center, with a few rectangular tables in the middle of them. There were both women and men in the place. The women usually had babies or young children they had to care for. The kids didn't get far from their mothers as they engaged in imaginary games and tried to enjoy themselves. Nathan saw a young woman holding a baby high over her head. It looked light, and balanced. There were also bigger babies who the women hoisted with a little more strain. Children laughed and shouted, creating background noise in the room. Rugged looking men sat silently in chairs against the wall. Nathan wondered what their problems were and how long they would stay on the street. Nathan saw a guy who was unmistakably gay holding up his hand with the thumb poking out, rotating his thumb up and down like an ancient Roman emperor deciding the fate of a gladiator. Nathan briefly wondered if that gesture had anything to do with him. There was a giant coffee urn and a mass of stale donuts in a plastic bag sitting on the shelf next to the coffee. Nathan searched the donuts for one that wasn't dried out. He found a couple of small, fresh donuts out of the huge mass. The taste of the sugar in the donuts dissolving in his mouth was delicious.
As Nathan left the day center he saw the man with the red baseball cap moving away from him, down the street. Nathan felt a magnetic pull towards him, and he wondered what was going on with this guy. There was some kind of bond between Nathan and this person, but Nathan didn't know what it was.
Nathan walked past the huge Roman Catholic Church. A family of eight Mexicans stood on the front porch of this place, looking weary. Though he didn't believe in God, Nathan couldn't deny the comfort religion could provide.
The next day our young traveler decided to take the bus to the army surplus store so he could look for a good army mat to sleep on. He approached the transit hub and found the right route to take. There were people of different races in the place, all conscious of their respectability and unaware of our young man. Nathan would have to take a bus to Abby Street, then change to a bus that would let him off at an easy walking distance to the army surplus stores.
When Nathan got onto the bus it was surprisingly full, for ten o'clock in the morning. People sat quietly in the vehicle minding their own business. There were times that guys of Nathan's type would take this self absorbtion as an indication that the people were looking down on them. That could prompt some of these guys to get up and start bothering people, but the authorities had cracked down on that kind of behavior. If a person did that even once he was banned from public transit for a year.
Nathan went to the army surplus store and bought himself a good sleeping mat. It would make resting much easier for Nathan, but he knew he had to sleep lightly. Sometimes a crazy homeless person would come upon another homeless person sleeping out of sight from the public and beat him to death. That happened sometimes on the street. Sleeping in an abandoned house wasn't safe, because people couldn't see what was going on in there. Nathan thought it was better to sleep out in the open, in a park, or some place like that.
A man a few years older than Nathan with a self important air was at the bus stop where Nathan had to make his connection. Nathan ventured to speak with him. The guy seemed to be looking at Nathan's sleeping mat.
"It's not a bad time of year to be sleeping outside, except for the mosquitoes," Nathan ventured.
"Have you been sleeping on the street?" the man asked.
"Yes I have. I've been traveling, and I will probably stay here and work out of the labor halls until I can earn enough for a nice, efficiency apartment."
As the downtown bus pulled up to the curb the man stepped away from Nathan and said, "Go to the Salvation Army, sinner, and lay down in the bed you made for yourself there."
He turned his back on Nathan as he got on the bus. He seemed like a frustrated man who didn't get the kind of respect he thought he deserved. Nathan did not like this guy.
As Nathan sat down on the bus he glanced out the window and saw a hearse, followed by a single car with its headlights on. It entered an intersection about three-hundred feet ahead. The light had turned red, but the hearse honked its horn, and both vehicles passed through the waiting automobiles.
When Nathan went back to the river park he looked for a good, safe place where he could bed down for the night. He sat down on a bench. Then the man with the red baseball cap came up and sat down beside him. He waited a moment, and then addressed a few words to Nathan.
"You know, I've been watching you," the older man said to our young traveler.
"I thought you were," Nathan answered.
"I've seen you walking on Bell Street, then on Hauser Street, then across the river, and then to the day center. I've been watching you a lot."
"Why?" Nathan asked again.
"Because I see in you the exact way I was twenty years ago. When I was your age I started walking. I'd walk to the bus station. Then to the day center. Then to the library. Then to the laundromat. I spent my entire day walking. I've done that for over twenty years now, and you're starting off just like I did. You're getting the hang of it. I see you've bought an army sleeping mat so you can sleep a little better at night. You're learning how to stay out of the mental hospital. I see that you mostly stay away from the crazy tramps on skid row. I see that you work only when you need a few dollars. You might travel from city to city, but these downtown neighborhoods are all very similar. There are the same soup kitchens. There is the same rude woman at the soup kitchens. There are the same respectable people who won't acknowledge you. There is the bus station. There is the library. There is the day center. There are the labor halls. There are the laundromats. You will walk from place to place everywhere you go. You know not to leave the interstate and go into the neighborhoods. You know your best bet lies in the cities. You know to keep your eyes open and your mouth shut. You'll do fine as a walker. You have many years of walking ahead of you.
Nathan sat silently for a few minutes, and the mysterious man left. Then Nathan stood up and walked down the walking trail looking for a good place to spend the night.