There’s a gentleman I used to chat with on occasion in the building I lived in. When I first met him, I was getting into the elevator in the lobby as he came whizzing downstairs behind me. I turned to look to see who it was and I was a little shocked at his appearance. But, only a little. Sometimes a homeless person or two from the area found their way into the building. It has a large basement that’s accessible from a back door near the alley behind it. They get in and sleep near the boiler, turn tricks or smoke rocks with their friends in the laundry room. After a few encounters with him, I realized he wasn’t sneaking in. He was letting himself in with keys and going to the same floor I lived on.
He definitely looked homeless. And even a bit scary. His
wild, stringy, hair and rotting, teeth gave him the appearance of a
withered, screaming skull wondering San Francisco’s Tenderloin. He always wore
the same thing: A dark, down jacket with cargo pants and sandals. But even with
his somewhat shocking appearance, visiting with him was always a pleasure. No
one in the building besides me would have anything to do with him. But with me,
he was always well spoken and engaging.
Sunday, December 02, 2012
Saturday, November 05, 2011
My family never made a big deal about Thanksgiving. My father and mother would fire up the grill regularly with their friends, regardless of the time of year, so the idea of everyone getting together and cooking a lot of food on a Thursday in November just didn’t seem that special to us.
Even so, when I find myself alone on that particular day, I do feel as though I should be somewhere eating lots of food with others. And that is how I found myself in San Francisco last year — walking around with my hands in my pockets, trying not to look like someone who knows they should be at home eating canned cranberry sauce with loved ones.
Near my apartment in the Tenderloin, by a construction site where a new building was being put up, I spotted a young couple smashing thick electrical cords with bricks. They were both blonde, tan and rather healthy looking. They didn’t look hard and dirty like most of the street kids in the area, which told me they must be new in town. As I approached them, the young guy looked up at me while his girlfriend kept hammering away.
“Hey, what’s up? Dude, if you help us out, we’ll split the money with you after we take the copper from these to the recycling plant. They offer bank for this stuff!” I noticed he was missing all of his front teeth. Not that uncommon in my area of the city, but particularly sad in this instance; he was rather cute. “So what do you say? It’s Thanksgiving, man. Let’s cash this stuff in and feast!” We both smiled and chuckled a bit, as he handed me a brick. I took it in my hand, got down on my knees and started pounding. What the hell? Why not?
“We need to get this wrapped up fast. She grabbed this from the construction site. It’s hot. If the cops see us, we’ll get nailed. So hurry!” the cute guy said.
I picked up the pace as his girlfriend turned to me and smiled. She was missing one of her front teeth as well, which made her look like a sweet, blond-haired jack-o-lantern. I noticed her reach up and adjust a hearing aid in her left ear. It made a slight, feedback sound each time she hit the wires. The guy noticed me looking at her. “Yeah, she’s partially deaf. Her hearing aid goes off all the time. It’s broken or something. Her name’s Carrie, I’m Todd.” I introduced myself and we all got to work.
After a few minutes of pounding, I noticed their pile of copper was far bigger than mine. I felt bad and started working faster. Then Todd looked up and over me; his eyes widened in fear. “Shit, the cops! Let’s get out of here!” Carrie was still pounding as Todd and I each grabbed one of her arms and ran into the construction site. We hid behind a large stack of drywall and waited. Carrie’s hearing aid was still whistling and popping from the sprint. Todd placed his hand over her ear to muffle the sounds then put a finger to her lips, whispering to her, “Shhhh.” I was panicked. I couldn’t see where the police were but could hear the dispatcher coming from their radio.
“We have a 211 in progress. Polk and Eddy.”
As we sat quiet and listened to the police call in, we heard someone shouting. I turned and saw a large, black woman at a bus stop, holding plastic KFC bags and waving at us to come over. Todd knew who she was. “Oh, right on! It’s Mama! We got to get over there. She’ll help us out!” He motioned for me to hold Carrie’s hand and follow him. Her hearing aid was screeching feedback as we ran. We were just a few yards from the bus stop when I could see the woman clearly. She wore a vintage olive green dress; all made-up like the Mad Men girls, with two bags of KFC — she’d also forgotten to shave her arms and chest.
As I sized up her drag, she waved us over and began to scold my two new friends as she led us around to the other side of the bus stop, presumably to keep out of sight of the cops. “Now look here, I don’t know what you two are up to, but with the cops around, it can’t be good!” She was visibly irritated with them and tried in vain to keep her voice sweet as she laid into them. She too was missing almost all of her front teeth, which gave her a lisp. So the angrier she got, the more spit shot out from her mouth and onto the bags of chicken she held. We stood quiet for a moment as Mama looked around for the police. “Well, I think you all got lucky this time. They’re gone,” she said. “Why don’t you two bring your friend upstairs for some Colonel. We’ll have a lovely, little chicken dinner for Turkey Day!” She giggled at me and raised the bags of food up underneath her chest, creating a large, round bosom. “My name is Monique, sweetheart. You can call me Mama.” I introduced myself and she led us away, following her in single file like a row of ducklings.
Mama lived in a small studio apartment above a garage. It was right out of Victor Victoria: Lots of old art deco lamps, heavy wooden furniture and chaise lounges. Magazine clippings of Ava Gardner and Sophia Loren were framed and hung everywhere the wall could take a nail. She laid the KFC on a small card table in the middle of the room when the kids reappeared from the small kitchen in the back with place settings. Todd hadn’t said a word since she rescued us. The atmosphere was quiet and unnerving. Mama pulled up chairs and invited me to sit with her while Todd and Carrie set the table.
“Tell me something about yourself. You seem out of your skin. Things not going well for you during the holidays this year?” she asked.
“I’m okay,” I told her. “I’ve got my problems, that’s for sure. The city hasn’t really cut me a break since I got here.” She perked up, smiled and touched my hand. “With all the services for folks being cut left and right, it’s something awful, but I have no fear. God will provide. He always does. You know, I have a story.
“When I was very young, I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. This was before LBJ, so there was no Medicare — we were on our own, baby. My folks let it go as long as we could until my legs started to get rubbery. Someone told them to take me to this old lady outside of town that might be able to help. So we drove to her house and she came outside to meet us, as if she knew we were coming. She was holding a bottle of bees. Bees!
“My folks held me down on the hood of our car and she pulled out one bee at a time with her bare hands and got the damn things to sting me. I was screaming and crying. I went there twice a week to get stung for a quite a while, then you know what? One day I woke up, got out of bed and started getting ready for school. It was 15 minutes or so that I realized I was okay. I was normal again! My legs worked just fine! I ran down the hall to tell my momma and she started bawling. That woman’s bees cured me! Every time I hear they’re going to cut my benefits or when my feet get numb in the mornings, I just keep reminding myself of that wonderful day.” As she told me her story, I could see by the far-off look in her eyes that she was making the whole thing up. Perhaps it was just for my benefit. It was a very sweet story; it made me feel appreciative.
The table was set and we all sat down to eat. I love KFC and she had pretty much everything they offered. Todd and Carrie sat silent while Momma told me her take on the state of the world, her singing career and the man that got away. Like most queens she’d seen it all, and her company ended up being just what I needed. Some minutes later, the conversation turned back to me. “So what’s your deal? Why you walking around the TL on Thanksgiving?”
I hate talking about myself, so just rolled my eyes and shrugged my shoulders. She broke in with some final wisdom.
“Look son, no matter how bad it gets, there’s always something to be thankful for. Look at me! I’m old, my feet are going and no man wants to take me to a movie. But ya know what? The good Lord left me this...” She opened her mouth and pointed to her single, front tooth and laughed. “He left me this, so I could eat the corn on the cob for Thanksgiving.”
Posted by Kurt Thomas at 1:06 PM