Saturday, March 29, 2014

Boys in The Alley

“He King with half the East at heel is marched from land of morning;
Their fighters drink the rivers up, their shafts benight the air, And he that stands will die for nought, and home there's no returning. The Spartans on the sea-wet rock sat down and combed their hair.” ~ A.E. Housman

We bought the old Victorian cottage with the knowledge that it would be something that needed complete rehabbing but we loved it so much and I always relished the prospect of taking on the kind of challenge it presented.  Before we could start the fun stuff, we had to get the basic infrastructure under control. With the help of a lot of other people we got the roof, electrical, plumbing, and furnace taken care of.  One other major thing we needed to do was to address the nearly dilapidated and sinking detached garage.  I asked my childhood friend, Wayne, what he thought we could do to save it.  He looked around, sighed a lot and asked, “When are you going to be out of town next? I know some guys with matches.”  I rolled my eyes and said, “Seriously, Wayne.”  He said, “It’s really not that bad.  You need to jack up the one corner and it needs a new roof.  I can help you get what you need.”  My father-in-law, Mike, helped me to jack up the building and re-concrete the pilings all around. When it got warm, my brother-in-law, Dan, Melissa’s husband, and I set about laying down a new roof.  It was while we were working on that project that I first encountered the “boys.”

They came rambling up the alley as Dan and I took a break inside the garage to get out of the sun. They looked like some weird urban pirate band.  There were four of them.  One was a small guy with glasses that looked like they were made in the fifties…one lens was cracked; one was a tall man with long hair and a full shaggy beard where you could almost not see his face; one had a scar on his cheek and walked with a limp, and one, who seemed to be the leader, was a big, barrel-chested man with a ruddy-red face wearing a red bandana on his head.  They stopped for a minute. The red-faced man said, “So you’re putting a roof on this tired gal.” I told him we were. He said, “Well, at least you’re not drinking while you do it, like your neighbor.”  He pointed across the back alley at a tall building of flats.  Dan and I got up and looked.  We saw a man on a very tall leaning ladder trying to paint the outside window frames four floors up.   There was a girl also trying to climb the ladder with something in her hand. All of a sudden he started shouting. “Debbie, what the hell are you doing?!”  She called, “I’m just trying to bring you another beer Billy!”  He yelled “Debbie, are you trying to kill us?  Hand it to me through the window.”   I looked at Dan and he looked at me.  The lead pirate laughed. “Every year they try to do this and every year those windows get smaller and smaller.”  I had to laugh at that.  The boys all laughed too, wished us well, and moved on to where they were going.  Where they were going was Miller’s Tap and Liquor Store.

This all happened more than 22 years ago.  It was way before the neighborhood was fully gentrified.  My understanding now is that Miller’s is now a pretty cool local joint but back then it was a seedy little place where you really didn’t want to touch anything unless it was unopened and came out of the beer cooler.  Whenever I bought something there I immediately went home or somewhere else to wash my hands.

As we settled into our new house we started meeting some of our neighbors and finding our way around. One the people we met was an older man who lived in a little house across the street from us.  He was a widower who occupied his time taking care of his stamp of a yard out front and taking care of the brick apartment building next to him that he owned.  His name was Henry but everyone called him “Thumbs” because he had none.  He knew that he was called that and seemed to embrace it as a nickname.  He was a curmudgeon and always seemed angry at something.  He was also very good at giving unwanted advice.
One day when I was trying to figure out what to do with the “owl eyes” that had infected the miniscule grass I had in front of my house (our larger yard was in back), he came over to “help,” which meant him telling me everything I was doing wrong.  As we got to talking I mentioned that I had met the boys and that I wondered what they were all about. He sighed. He said, “I assume you bought this place as an investment.”  I said, “That and to live in.” He chuckled and said, “Listen. Those boys are nice enough fellows but steer clear of them.” I asked why.  He said, “Those guys exist for one thing and one thing only and that is to drink.  They will do whatever they can, beg, steal and sell, or who knows what, to get money so they go to Miller’s, open to close, to drink. I’m not saying don’t be nice when you run into them, just don’t play their game.  It’s not good for us and it’s certainly not good for them.  It’s like feeding the squirrels. They’ll never go to a better place if you enable them to keep doing what they’re doing.” I nodded my head in agreement.  “Good. Not everyone around here gets that. Don’t feed the squirrels, because if you do they’ll never leave.”

At first I didn’t understand what Thumbs was trying to say with his last comment until one early morning before work when I was making breakfast in the kitchen and I heard laughing in the alley.  I looked out the window and saw the boys along with another one of our neighbors standing in a circle passing a bottle around. It was in the depth of winter but my neighbor was wearing shorts and sandals.  I watched them as they shared sips until it was all was gone. The neighbor went back to his house and the boys went to Miller’s back door to wait until he opened.  As I sat down with Karen, I thought to myself, “Crap. This is what Thumbs meant.”

I ran across the boys a lot after that. I would see them on the street or in the alley when I was working on the house. I am fairly sure they stole the iron claw-foot bathtub my wife’s brother, Michael, and I put in the backyard when we were restoring the garden level rooms of the house.  We just laughed because we were going to donate it somewhere anyway and it took them only five minutes to boost it over the fence and carry it away to the metal dealer who paid cash.  They were probably in good with Miller for about a week or two after that.

During the second summer we lived the old house, Karen went to visit her parents. I stayed behind to do some plastering on the old lathe walls. Late in the afternoon I took a break and walked over to the Village Tap for a beer. Scott, the owner, who was an architect and also a neighbor of mine, was behind the bar.  We had a good conversation and somehow it turned to the boys. I said, “I don’t want my family to grow up with a bunch of winos on the alley but there is a part of me that has some compassion for them.”  I continued. “I don’t know where they go at night when the bar is closed. I don’t know if they have homes.”  Scott drying glasses, said, “I know what they do in the summer. They find places that are cool. They go sleep in bus stations, under bridges or they ride the trains all around the city until someone wakes them up and tells them to get off.”  I shook my head. “What about winter though, Scott?” I asked.  He smiled. ”You know Henry across the street don’t you?” I nodded. “OK. On your way home go visit Henry. Ask him to show you his garage. There’s your answer.”

After I left Village Tap I saw Thumbs in his yard watering the grass. At first I was reluctant to approach him but I did. I told him about the discussion Scott and I had. He said, “Come through the gate on the alley side and I will show you.” I always thought it was strange that Henry had a garage because to my knowledge he didn’t have a car. I used to see him walk everywhere with a wheeled cart for his groceries. He took keys off his belt, opened the side door to the garage, and flipped a light switch on. Henry’s garage was amazing. The first thing that caught my eye was a big sign on the wall that said “NO ALCOHOL… NO DRUGS… NO WEAPONS…PEACE” On all of the other walls were military flags, shelved knickknacks, and pictures of Henry and comrades from World War II. There were also about a half a dozen cots with blankets, a small sidebar, and a cooler. He didn’t say anything as I walked around looking at things.  I turned to him. I asked, “Henry…why?” He looked at the ground. “Were you ever in the military, Tom?” I shook my head.  I said “No, but I worked very closely with the Navy during graduate school as part of a grant. I have the utmost respect.” He said, “Good. So you kind of get the ethic, right?”  I nodded.  He said, “No soldier left behind.You nod a lot. Don't nod off now.” Suddenly a lot of things started dawning on me. I didn’t know what to say, so I just said, “Thank you, Henry,” and I left. 

Every time after that, when I saw Henry, I said the same thing, "Thank you." I also said it to all the boys in the alley.

[I try not to be political in my blog posts but this is an issue I care about deeply because I have friends and family who have served or are still serving. I think it is criminal that as a country we can spend billions of dollars uprooting families to send people overseas to serve but then we talk about cutting the benefits for those same people when they come home. Please talk to your representatives.]