Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Robert Johnson 4: Story of Robert

Turns out Sammy's real name was Robert Johnson, and he had been homeless for about a year. Previously, he had been an x ray technician. He had a wife, and a little girl, and sang solo in his church choir.

The he was shot in a robbery. The bullet did some damage to his hip, so he developed a pretty bad limp. The limp embarrassed him, and apparently embarrassed his wife even more. According to Robert, she began to sleep around on him.

He began drinking too much, and ultimately lost his job after supervisor smelled liquor on him during work. Things began to spiral out of control at home, and at church. He was either ejected from the choir or from the entire church.

Robert also started having brushes with the law. He called the cops on himself after tying his wife to their bed and setting the mattress on fire. He couldn't understand why they arrested him. "Hell," he said, "I didn't hurt nobody. I call 'em as soon as I lit them newspapers." I think the bed burning thing was the final straw--he was divorced soon after, and she got everything (which might be justified--don't get me wrong. I'm telling this like Robert told it to me, remember). With no job, no church, and no wife, he was on the streets instantly, and had been there ever since.

We sat in silence for a few minutes, alternating swigs out of the bottle. Then he said "man, but things are turnin' aroun' for me. They got a new low rent housing project over on 30th and Shartel, and they say I got a real good chance of getting in, if I can get cleaned up and get a job. I just need some money to get off the street for a bit, get my hair cut, shit like that."

How did I feel? I felt like I'd been a shithead for my whole life. Here I was, sitting in an apartment drinking good whiskey and writing bad poetry about how terrible life was because I couldn't find a woman who met my specs, when outside was an entire crew of guys who couldn't even get fed every day. They had problems, yeah, but listening to Robert, I knew I was feeling sorry for myself. And that's something I can't countenance, yo.

I got up, went inside, and got my bottle full of change. We sat out in the parking lot and counted it out in the dark (it was almost all quarters, back then--I had a separate one for my small change). It was close to fifty bucks. He began to cry.

I didn't know what to do, so I spent the minutes it took to compose himself drinking bourbon, which was getting down to the bottom a lot quicker than we wanted. Finally, his eyes still shining a little in the dark, he told me that he'd pay me back somehow, when he got on his feet. He didn't have a damn thing now, he said, but he wanted to sing me a song, like he used to in church, to thank me.

It had never occurred to me...but he sang me a song, right out there in the dark, in a garage that smelt of dried up grass clippings and motor oil and cat piss. It was a song I hadn't heard before, called "Please Come To Boston." I don't know who originally sang it, but I know, six months later, that I heard it played on the jukebox at Edna's Bar and Grill, and I think I may have shed a tear or two.

David Allan Coe does a cover of it, and it's a weird cover song for him. Every time I hear it (I won't buy it on CD--I just go into Edna's), I think that life can't possibly be as bad as I think.

Anyway, after the song, the bourbon was finished. We shook hands like equals, and I thanked him sincerely for both the song and sharing my birthday with me. He looked me in the eye and thanked me for the whiskey, and told me that he'd pay me back next time he saw me--he was going to get cleaned up tomorrow morning, once he got un-drunk. We parted, if not friends, at least with a little better understanding of how things were. I felt good, and after my shower, I slept like a child until sunup, when I woke before the alarm clock went off--but not too much before the alarm clock.

I had a headache, but I didn't mind. I was living a pretty good life, after all. I worked hard, I payed my bills, I bought pretty much what I wanted. I had a car and a roof over my head. I dressed, brushed my teeth, and started my car. Hit the radio button, and my finger went into the dashboard.

Sometime after I'd gone to sleep, Robert had come back and stolen my stereo.


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