Tuesday, August 03, 2004

Robert Johnson 2: Sammy and Doc

The other problem my landlord had, other than the armed crackheads across the street, was homeless people. There was literally an alley that ran behind my apartment building, and in that alley congregated bums. Transients. Dirty, crazy winos. And since there was a convenient patch of weeds and a bit of a concrete wall back there, close to the Royal, there congregated a very specific group of bums.

These bums were the lowest of the low, I think. There was a crowd of guys who hung out under a big mulberry tree across the street, behind 4 B's Food Mart (I'm not making this up), but I think those guys actually had homes, and would just hole up under the tree to smoke whatever drugs they could find and drink cheap wine. Pretty much the same crew, only my side of 23rd Street had fallen a little farther down in the social heirarchy.

In any event, the landlord spent a lot of time calling the cops on those guys, and I had a sort of love/hate relationship with them. I'm a big believer in helping out those less fortunate, so if one of them came up to me and tried--at least tried--to convince me he needed some money, I'd do it. I don't feel like I owe it to anyone, but if you would at least try and be mildly entertaining, I was perfectly cool for you.

I'm not talking "Bumfights" entertaining, either. I'm talking about harmonica playing. I'm talking about storytelling. I'm talking about, at the very least, being cool. I had a kind of running gun battle with a great big indian fellow who felt like he deserved everything anyone could give him, and more, and any cash he got went straight to the manufacturers of Thunderbird wine. Or maybe even Cisco--he was a pretty rough looking cat. I never would give him money, though. When he'd approach me (which was fairly often, since I made the trip to the Royal at least once a day), I'd ask him what the money was for. Invariably, he'd tell me "so I can get something to eat." I'd then go buy him a pack o' baloney, some bread, and some cheese (and myself a sixpack), pull my six out of the sack, and give him the food. This didn't go over well.

He was always the worst of the bunch. At one point he passed out across the driveway, or the access area between my concrete backyard and the alley. I didn't want to touch the guy, but we had to go somewhere, so Dan has the mental picture of me leaning over, screaming expletives at this poor homeless man, who was futilely pawing at the air as if to ward me off. I was just trying to help, you understand--anyone else would probably have run him over.

But I didn't have too many problems with anyone else. In fact, most of them recognized me as a soft touch, and treated me accordingly. This is how we originally met Sammy.

Sammy was a dead ringer for Sammy Davis Jr, except he had a really bad limp. He was a hustler, but hadn't been on the street for so long that his mind was soft. The first time I met him, he followed me from the Royal up into my back yard, which was absolutely VERBOTEN if you wanted any money from me (or, if the landlord saw you, if you wanted to stay out of jail). I explained this to the guy, and he actually APOLOGIZED--and I never saw him come up inside again, until I invited him.

Sammy's schtick was to tell me/us neighborhood gossip. My soon-to-be exgirlfriend LOVED the man, and whenever he caught her outside she'd listen to his stories until the other homeless guys started homing in on her. And in return, we gave him whatever we could (because remember, we were broke as fuck too--but maybe that's why we didn't mind them, because they reminded us of how good we really had it).

I probably saw Sammy half a dozen times over the course of the year, so I knew him pretty well (I mean, for a panhandler and his mark) by the time I booted my girlfriend out of the house. Once that happened, all the stories he told me were about how much she still loved me, and how wonderful a woman she was. Which she is, mind you--and I say that without a trace of irony.

Anyway, she moved out and moved across the street, into the 4-B's territory, and we spent the summer in a kind of uneasy standoff. I tried to stay drunk and absent as much as possible, and she...well, I don't know what she did. But by the time winter well and truly hit, I was broke, and I completely withdrew from everything and everyone. My place was warm and cozy, once you stapled blankets over all the windows, and I was feeling pretty sorry for myself (it was a rough breakup, I'm telling you), and I even started to write a little--which really didn't help matters, and in fact it's all been long erased. I think it has, anyway--Daniel-san might surprise me, though.

I was also reading a lot, and re-discovered my love of John Steinbeck.

Ladies and gentlemen, I knew my relationship was doomed to fail when I realized Liz didn't like Steinbeck. He's kind of a litmus test, I think--people who don't like Steinbeck...I can be friends with them, but there's something wrong with them in a way I can't really express without offending my friends who don't like Steinbeck. And before you protest, if you don't like Steinbeck because you had to read the fucking _Grapes of Wrath_ in the 8th grade (which, back when Oklahoma required you to be able to read before you graduated, was pretty well SOP for schools in this state, for reasons that should be obvious if you think about it), that's OK. You have to go re-read him, and find his writing sentimental or shallow, before I lump you in with those cold-hearted east coasters.

Read _Cannery Row_, kids. That's the one to start with. Unless you're a union organizer, or a fan of sprawling multigenerational tales a la James Michener, in which case you should start out with _In Dubious Battle_ or _East of Eden_, respectively. You also can't cheat and watch movies, although the movie titled "Cannery Row" is pretty good.

In any event, I was rereading _Cannery Row_ for like the 11th time, and beginning to identify with Doc, one of the major characters. Doc was a marine biologist, in the book, and was based a great deal on a friend of Steinbeck's named Dr Ed Ricketts, who was a marine biologist in real life. Doc was a lonely man (like I was), and next door to his place was a sort of vacant lot wherein resided a motley bunch of winos (like I had). Furthermore, across the street was a grocery store/protobodega run by a bunch of asians (again, like I had). Doc, in the story, would trek across the street every night and buy two quarts of beer, which he would drink while cooking his dinner over a bunsen burner or something. As you guys know, I drink a lot of beer, too, and since I spent a lot of time feeling both artistic AND sorry for myself, I soon started making that trek across the alley every night, bringing back two quarts of Budweiser in a paper bag.

That was my dinner many nights--until wintertime, when I'd go on payday and buy myself a bottle of Weller's bourbon.

I figured out early on that I was capable of drinking nearly a liter of bourbon in a week. nearly, but not quite. So, given that I'd buy a new bottle every Wednesday, but not open it til I'd finished the old one. In time, this weekly leftover grew to about half a bottle, and sometime in late March, when it started to warm up, I resumed my nightly treks to the Royal for beers. Since money was better, I kept buying the bourbon.


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