By Alan Carl Nicoll
Copyright 2017 by Alan Carl Nicoll, All Rights Reserved
I spent a bundle yesterday on going to see Justice League, treating my one current friend, he’s unemployed, and buying “toys” from Amazon (for me), but if I eat at home alone, it looks like Progresso® pea soup for Thanksgiving. So I go out, planning to make the long walk to Carl’s Jr.® for dinner, despite no Wi-Fi—I’d checked, and they were open. I need the walking because my legs have gotten weak this year, but I’d take the bus if they ran on major holidays here. Prediabetes, according to my neurologist. Medicare. God Bless Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Even so, the diagnosis cost me $300, with a bit owed yet.
Willie is old, fat, black, with a walker, probably an alcoholic, and he hangs out at the corner though he’s no longer homeless, he told me months ago. I don’t know where he lives. I’ve got my old radio with me for Willie, hoping I’ll see him.
He’s there and I give him the radio that I’d promised him, and I had added $40 in cash, discreetly part of the bundled radio and ear buds. I normally give him $5 maybe three times a month, and have been doing this since last winter, but I got paid yesterday, Social Security (God Bless Franklin Delano Roosevelt) and have $600-odd coming as a refund on a book order that I cancelled because they hadn’t delivered it (the Taschen edition of Van Gogh’s Letters, six hardcovers, I’ve been wanting it for ten years), so I’ve got $1,600 disposable this month and most of the $200 from the ATM yesterday still in my wallet.
I tell Willie that the ear buds will last about three days, “If you don’t use them.” And there’s a little extra in there. I mention my plans for dinner, thinking that I’ll ask if he wants anything from Carl’s. Anyway, either I have a bright idea, or somebody else does, of going to the casino across the street for dinner—not only closer, but better. I’ve never been there, but it’s been my experience that casinos are good places to eat. So I ask Willie if he wants to go with me.
He says no, “But Jody will.” Jody was the name of my aunt Irmgard’s yappy little dog, but this Jody is a tiny old lady, I think she might be homeless, looks even older than my seventy, with a very beat-up walker, sitting next to Willie though I’d hardly looked at her at that point, intentionally, because I don’t want another mini-dependent. I try not to engage too much with the locals other than Willie, and even he gets just crumbs.
So I’m hesitant, but I’m cornered. I had just been thinking earlier that day about Willie and what to give him beside the radio, and about the other down-and-outers in the neighborhood who ask me for money. I always give something if I can, how much depending on what they ask for and how needy I judge them to be and their vibes, but $2 is pretty automatic. I want to give more, and I don’t want to give more. I get $1800 a month (after Medicare Part B), and my rent for a fairly ratty one bedroom is $800 a month. My other expenses are quite low because I don’t have a car, totaling less than $100, plus food. So I have about $600 a month disposable. I am “comfortable” in a poor neighborhood. Not as poor as the “Kerntown” neighborhood on Baker St. between the railroad tracks where I spent my first night out of prison, but poor enough.
Most months I give less than $20 to panhandlers. If I drove a car I’d never be panhandled. How much should I devote to “good works”? By buying luxuries, I am condemning children in Africa to death; I buy my toys with their blood. For most of my life I’ve been troubled by this question, and I finally came up with “the 10% solution.” I should give ten percent, like “good Christians” do. I’m an atheist and sometimes call myself a humanist, can I do less than a “good Christian”? (I sorta hate “good Christians,” —Roy Moore?—shame on me, though many of them are the salt of the dying earth.) And can I give just money, or should it be 10% of my life also? You know the answer. Now, is that 10% of my free time, or of my entire day? Free time.
But the most important part of the “ten percent solution” is to make a commitment. And this I have never done. So I waffle and I eat out and I spend $640 on six books while I have 450 books I haven’t read, this is how I live, and others are homeless on Thanksgiving and Christmas and all the time—a very few by choice, some because of drugs or alcohol, and many just by bad luck. If my stepfather hadn’t died while I was in prison, I myself would have been homeless when I got out, at least for the first night (the money I got—$30—from the Bureau of Prisons didn’t even cover the cab ride to the bus station). As it was, I’d had $6,000 in the bank and Social Security on the way. I was lucky that I did not end up homeless, because people convicted of sex crimes don’t deserve any better, our society has decided. The scrap heap is good enough for us.
Jody wants to go to dinner, so I carry her little brown paper bag, saying, “This won’t get me in trouble, will it?” I’m sometimes a Good Samaritan, but I try not to be stupid—if I go to prison again for a parole violation, it will be the end of me.
“No.” So we walk over to the casino. I can hear about one word in four that Jody says, she talks so softly and is indifferent to the noise of traffic, and she says very little anyway. Like many old people and homeless, she talks without caring much whether she can be heard.
Security guards by the half-dozen at the door. They look huge. We can’t bring in the bag, though we can leave it at the desk. Jody dumps it in the trash.
We sit at a table in the Blackjack Lounge. I ask her if she wants a drink, and she says, “A Coke.®”
“Okay, but I meant like a beer or wine.”
“Rosé.” I usually have to ask her once or twice or three times what she said, even indoors, she speaks so softly. Most often, it doesn’t look like she’s expecting a reply, so I don’t stress over the things I don’t hear. Same-same with Willie.
I ask the bartenderess for menus, two Cokes® and a glass of rosé. No rosé. She rattles off the names of what they have, I go back and ask Jody, yada yada, finally get that settled, cabernet.
We both decide on the buffet, which has a traditional turkey dinner, really good as it turns out, juicy turkey like Ma never managed, though I miss corn on the cob. Plastic plates and utensils. There are no veggies at all, and I think about Ma’s green bean casserole, something that was very popular at one time but always disgusted me—mushroom soup and fried onions or something. She died about fifteen years ago, everybody in my life is ancient or dead except the boy. And he’s not in my life.
We chat a bit, and in telling her about my family, I tell her about the ten years in prison and the wife dying, the son with her hated relatives. Jody asks why prison, and I say, “You sure you want to know?” and I tell her. Possession of child pornography, downloading the wrong files from the Internet, public defender who was no help, etc., ten years. (I don’t mention the twenty years of supervised release. I’ll never make it.) It doesn’t seem to faze her. We finish dinner. I say, “I cleaned my plate.” She did pretty well on hers that had looked like too much.
She wants a cigarette, so I get her a pack, Marlboros®, and order an amaretto as well, my go-to, special-occasion, after dinner drink. The bartenderess seems uncertain—a shot? I say a snifter, a globe-like thing, plus hand gestures. She gets the right kind of glass. I give her my debit card. The dinners were complimentary! Awesome, but now I feel bad about it because it is, after all, a casino, the free food is there for the players, not the freeloaders. But when I find out how much the cigarettes cost, I don’t feel so bad for them any more: $9.00!
Jody can’t smoke inside (I knew but I checked), so we don’t linger long. She thanks me, and I say that this is better than Carl’s Jr. and thank her. I scarf down a minislice of apple pie (good) and we leave. Golden West Casino on Union Avenue has excellent food on Thanksgiving, at least, and I’d guess at any time. I’m happy to give them a plug, the staff were very professional, courteous, and helpful.
I take Jody back to the corner where I had picked her up, she thanking me along the way and talking a lot this time. I tell her next Thanksgiving I’ll round up half a dozen homeless and take them over, but it’s a joke. That would kill the proverbial goose. She tells me she won’t tell anybody about my being in prison.
Willie is listening to the radio. Now what to do with Jody?
Figuring out her story is an exercise in patience, so what I sorta got was garbled. Her daughter, who had died of bone cancer, or somebody else, had left her there, with a promise to pick her up later. Willie says she’s been at the methadone clinic across the street all day. I give her my flip phone to call her dead daughter, or somebody, but she has trouble. I try calling the daughter, or somebody, get a machine, hand her the phone, and she leaves a message. So far so good.
It’s about 5:45 and I want to see if Rachel Maddow was going to be on, silly of me I know now, but what to do with Jody? I say I’m going home, but I’ll be back at 9:00 to see if she’s been picked up. When I get home it’s 67 degrees outside.
I’m watching the temperature and the time, Maddow lets me down by not working on Thanksgiving Day, so at about 6:20 I grab my little blanket that they call a “throw” and head out again. She’s still there, doesn’t want the blanket. Anyway, while I was gone she had called again and left another message.
I wait and hem and haw, my feet hurt. Other people, younger, are hanging around the corner. Willie is saying, “You can’t leave her with these gang bangers.” How did she become my responsibility? I don’t want to pay for a cab, I’m thinking $40 minimum, maybe $60 to get Jody to Oildale. I want her dead sister to show up. But I’m cornered again and it’s time to get this over with. I go back home to get my forgotten wallet, and return to Jody, the crowd is gone. I call Bakersfield Taxi. Can they send a cab to Union and Adams?
The guy says forty minute wait, they’re busy. I say, go ahead, send the cab, I’m going to try another company, if they can get here sooner I’ll call back and cancel. I try the other number in my speed dial (I plugged these numbers in several months ago but had never used them). Downtown Taxi speaks only Spanish, I guess. I might have thought Arabic, but each time he says something he ends it with “cinco.” I call back Bakersfield Taxi to confirm that I need a cab. They tell me that I never called them before! I check my call history, no, it was Bakersfield Taxi that I had called.
I argue with him, etc., and another person is put on the phone. He assures me that a taxi will be there in forty minutes. Frustrated, I tell him, “Don’t disappoint me.” Okay. I hang up. I’m looking at a forty minute wait, maybe, with no place to sit but the curb, and it’s getting colder. I tell Willie that there must be someone who regulates taxi companies in Bakersfield. He says that Yellow Cab was great, you never wait more than ten minutes. Puzzling out his words and meanings is a full-time job.
This corner gets a lot of foot traffic. A couple of hot prostitutes work this area. There was gunplay at the Playfair Market here a couple of weeks ago. A friend of Willie’s wanders nearby, his arm in a cast, and says to try the casino, they usually have a cab there. Great idea. I walk over to the casino, there’s no cab, but they’ll call Scotty. Scotty says twenty minutes.
I return to the Blackjack Lounge to wait. It’s 7:02. I call Bakersfield Taxi to cancel the cab; confusion, I got the second guy again, but he says okay. I wait. Three employees at a gaming table—“three card poker,” whatever that is—are rapt by a commercial on the big screen TV, something I’ve seen a hundred times. That’s what you call boredom.
I study the table I’m sitting at, looks like a small version of Texas Hold’em. Twenty minutes go by. What is Jody thinking, that I bailed on her? Twenty-five. I return to the front desk, some confusion, my guy is leaving, going off shift I suppose. Other guy, who has a chrome-dome like an egg, says they’ll try another number, he says something about Uber, my guy calls the other number, they say fifteen to twenty minutes. Bald guy says never mind, I guess he calls Scotty, I’m confused, but then he says that Scotty is “almost there.” I go outside to wait. Security at the door is down to two bodies. Meaning guards. Before I can say I’m waiting for a taxi, Scotty arrives. Fifteen seconds since I left the front desk.
Scotty is Hispanic—!—and middle-aged, looks kind, seems okay, so we go across to Jody. Before she gets in I ask him how much to take her to Oildale, to her street, he says $25. I take out my wallet and fish among the bigger bills (twenties) and Scotty warns me twice about hiding my cash. There is a pedestrian nearby. So I give Scotty $40, smiles all around, I fumble Jody’s walker into the cab, and sayonara Jody.
Willie has a foil-wrapped plate of food on his walker. From his family. We live in a solitary-confinement society. He gives me a hug and talks too long in his slurred and unintelligible way, alcohol breath. He says he was in prison; I never knew that. Why does he tell me that now? I tell him, “I don’t always have money, most days I couldn’t have done this, I got two hundred yesterday at the ATM, but if something like this comes up again, come get me, you know where I live,” etc., and I come home.
Whew. How do I feel about all this? Pretty damn good. What did it cost? With the $40 I was giving Willie anyway, it cost me about $105 and the radio, which had been sitting in my closet for a year. I’ve paid more and gotten less. It’s one time that I made my ten percent contribution.
Lin Yutang in his wonderful The Importance of Living (The John Day Company, 1937) said, “If the early Chinese people had any chivalry, it was manifested not toward women and children, but toward old people. That feeling of chivalry found clear expression in Mencius in some such saying as, ‘The people with gray hair should not be seen carrying burdens on the street,’ which was expressed as the final goal of good government.” (p. 193) I guess we don’t have good government. Sometimes I think that Bakersfield hates poor people.
I remember one Thanksgiving five decades ago, riding in the back seat of my parents’ car on the way to a moderately expensive restaurant, and seeing someone eating from a street trash can. I felt sick, thinking about the expensive all-you-can-eat meal I was going to in a restaurant with cloth napkins, and what this person was doing. I contemplated radical niceness that could be done. By the time we got to the restaurant, I think my appetite had returned and my memory had swallowed the scene without a thought left behind. I was young. Tonight it came back. This one’s better. This one will be good for years.