Homeless Jim bought me a pack of Cadillacs today. Caddies, refer to premium cigarettes... Newports, Camels, Marlboros and the like. He pitied me in my affluence. My financial circumstances are stressful by my standards, though Jim probably wouldn’t agree. He smelled bad. He called a little squatting spot a place of his own for a week or two, but somehow he lost it. Jim tells me that social security requires a physical address to send a check. A P.O. box is unacceptable. I think Jim’s progress at obtaining disability income runs into a stone wall, here. This hurdle confounds him. Jim needs a lump sum of 300-400 dollars to get his foot in the door and rent some slum property, but he has no slum to send the check to. Hmmm. Direct deposit comes to mind….
I first met Jim last summer, and he has survived the winter. He truly lives Hand to Mouth. I should mention that Jim is dying, I think. The Hole in his face was my first clue. The cancer distorts the whole side of his head, giving it a caved in appearance. One eye twists askew, peering downward and to the outside, oozing pus perpetually. It’s not pretty, and coupled with the smell, it really cuts down on Jim’s attractiveness as an employee. He employs himself, tackling odd jobs, and sometimes gets ripped off. I’m afraid to let Jim know where I live, and this shames me, a little.
Of course Jim panhandles, which I find strange. Here in Warner Robins, my roots go back over thirty years. Growing up as an Air Force Brat on the Base, I never saw panhandling, and I’m pretty sure I never saw it in town. Twenty years ago I saw panhandlers in Little Five Points, when I ran away to Atlanta after flunking out of college. So, I am not shocked (much), but this takes place 5 blocks from my House. Going out for a stroll can bring me across the trail of a homeless guy before I finish a small Hemmingway. It’s kind of new to me.
Anyway, I am favorable disposed toward panhandlers. God is good, and today a home of my own awaits my evening return, but this was not always the case. I remember leaner times, and usually will contribute a buck or two for the Cause when approached. The first night I met Jim I got an inner nudge, a wordless articulation of compassion for this stranger.
I have this little light inside me, you see. It swirls and it twirls. It flits about, focusing on one thing or another. Sometimes it locks in on something like a pit bull, and explodes with brilliance. It terrified me this night. I think it wanted me to take Jim to my house and let him shower, wash his clothes. Spend the night. Have ten hours as a normal American.
Yeah. I’m pretty sure that’s what it wanted. Instead, I emptied my change into his hands. I had probably broken a hundred for some gasoline, and a carton of smokes. Some Marlboros.
Jim probably cleared 15 bucks, plus my last open pack of cigarettes, and a brand new pack from the fresh carton. Oh, Glory. I lavished these gifts casually with a secret shame at my fear, but this windfall made Jim cry. We both went on our way, after a few words on…theology, and economics. I had a hard time thinking of Jim for a day or two, but I got over it. It seems I can do that for a little while.
So Jim and I have engaged in this dance. I am suspicious and freaked out, and I try to catch him in a lie. He is destitute for the most part, and tries to catch me with a few bucks in my pocket. Jim succeeds more often than I do. He has my phone number, and sometimes calls and asks for a ride, or a little money (I have called my buddy Scott and kept him on the phone while dropping money off to Jim… just in case he cut my throat, or popped a cap in my ass.) The hole in his face has to be stopped up with a paste in order for him to swallow properly, and he can’t enjoy anything like coffee or ice cream. Everything must be lukewarm. I guess it’s very painful otherwise.
I will cough up nine bucks and change for his paste prescription or other medication and occasionally get him something to eat. I will also speak to Jim with irritation, if he calls when studies press upon me, or my wallet is empty. The little light inside me can be eclipsed…by a selfish prick, it seems... but I digress.
Today, Jim and I made eye contact across Watson Boulevard. I made a left, waved and then saw Jim turn in my direction. Damn. Looking in the rearview, I became worried that Jim might be able to triangulate my neighborhood location if I continued, so I made a U- turn and waited. I have no money. My financial aid is a month late, I missed my house payment, the water will be shut off Thursday, and my power on the 14th. I’m holding, though. I got one cigarette, my last one.
You would have to be a lifelong smoker to completely understand. As addictions go, smoking is unique. Cigarettes are legal, and the addictive behavior happens in public, it’s easy to forget the strength it has over you. Until you’re broke. (Imagine trying to kick a cocaine habit if you saw crack every time you stopped for a cup of coffee, or walked by a public building, or picked your kids up from school.) I had been starving the monkey on my back for two days. At this point the occasional cigarette I came across simply whetted my appetite; I existed in a state of constant deprivation, and an underlying feeling of piss-off from the steroids they put me on Saturday.
Jim asked me for a cigarette. I declined, and it hurt. I got frustrated. I was embarrassed. I had never denied Jim a cigarette, so he knew something was up. He reluctantly asked for a ride, I agreed, and we headed up town. Jim listened to me bitch, and took the other half of the cigarette. When we arrived at Jim’s destination, his job had been given to a nephew. Too bad, so sad.
We rode back down Watson Boulevard and Jim directed me into a parking lot. He produced a handful of singles, went inside the store, and bought cigarettes. He bought himself some cheap, shitty cigarettes, and he bought me what I smoke. They cost nearly twice as much. He bought me some Caddies.
He bought me some Marlboros.
Jim is homeless. He and I live in totally different economies. Four dollars and eighty-five cents, for me is merely a more pleasant evening, with my legal drug. I can write my paper, study my psychology, be warm and civil to people I bump up against. I’ll spend the whole night without losing my temper. For Jim, four dollars and eighty-five cents is 6 Checker Burgers on Sunday special. Jim gave up a day of eatin’, and I’m afraid to let him come take a shower....
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