Unlike me, Joshua had made his decisions. I still pandered to ambitions of fame and fortune one apartment unit at a time.
I met him while working on a crack house where Joshua was the “grounds keeper”. The landlord, a consortium of upper floor downtown lawyers, had retained an agent in order to keep their hands clean.
“The dope dealers have commandeered the common bathrooms on both floors for their meth labs,” the agent explained, “we need you to put a sink and faucet in the kitchen…The deal is that they will keep their drug making out of the bathtubs if there’s a functioning sink in the kitchen. Will you do it?”
“Yes.” having never worked on a crack house and intrigued by the ethical duplicity: accessory to drug-dealing or harbinger of hygiene and public sanitation.
One does not have to toil long around disadvantaged properties before one becomes a hero. The fact that I returned to the jobsite servicing call after call earned me those deferences and privileges that only the lowliest can confer.
Eyes idled by disability or disease kept a watch out for their relief check and over my truck. Cigarettes become currency with which to buy the transport of tools, material, or tear-out haul-off. Holiday time brought forth gifts from whatever they had: headgear blown off, run over, and found by the side of the road, confections baked from remants and scrapings even if it did require deviance from the recipe, greeting cards with cross-outs.
Chemically enhanced disputes could turn violent and bloody; however, surrounded by not ever enough, tenants protected and shared their meager resources. One of which they considered me.
Joshua’s arrangement with “the management” was that provided he policed the litter, did not drink during daylight hours, and limited damage from disputes; he got shelter from the night’s lootings, drive-by shootings, and chill. A magnum of beer, a pimento cheese sandwich, a Hershey bar, and a package of cigarettes constitued “board”. If no vacancy were available, he passed out in an interior hallway ’til morning.
“Oh, I feel bad,” Joshua allowed more than complained as I drove up, “I feel real bad.”
I could see that he was not kidding. I had never seen him in such bad shape. Bad trembling from lack of alcohol, his hair matted, and he had pissed himself. He was my age, around thirty-something.
“Dammit! I forgot to leave a little beer in the bottom of my bottle for the morning. You know how it is you start drinking and you cannot stop and I always remember to leave just a little bit to chase the shakes away in the morning. Last night, we had a bit of a party and I forgot.”
“Get in the truck.”
“You know,” he fumbles with the door latch until I have to reach over and let him in, “…thanks…” he interrupts himself, “You know, if you got a dog to watch your truck, you wouldn’t have to worry about the aluminum bandits taking your ladders.”
“Aluminum bandits and junkies are scared to death of dog bites. You ought to get a dog.” Which is how and why I got Doris Faye, but that is a different story.
Joshua and I drove to the nearest convenience store which was only a few blocks away. I asked, “Ever thought about stopping drinking?” my sobriety was about a decade old at the time.
“Was sober. Learned a trade. Had a job.” he explains about how some mob of mindless do-gooders pulled him more than once out of the gutters, “for fear I’d drown in a rainstorm. They came and took me to a nice clean apartment, got me into rehab, and trained me for a job as a welder. I earned good money, too. They were real nice people. But I went back to drinking.
“Once the State took me in, dried me out, and gave me a job with the Parks Department planting trees. Thanks, by the way.”
“It was taxpayer money.” he smiled a bunch of gums.
“What happened to that job?”
“Not showing up for work. Too drunk…Look, I’m a drunk. I like being a drunk. I like the arrangement I have right now. If I need a hot bath, three squares, and a medical examination; I just piss on a cop car as they drive by. It’s real handy. Cops are real nice.”
I had to respect his decision because he was more satisfied with his choices than I was with mine. We pulled into the convenience store parking lot where I handed him a five spot and told him to get whatever he needs.
“Can’t go in there.” he dismisses scratching a face where a sharp razor had only been a dream.
“Stole too much.”
“OK,” I turn off the truck, “What do you drink? What do you smoke?”
“Can’t drink on the job.”
“You’re not on the job right now are you? You about to shake yourself apart with the DT’s, aren’t you?” I joked with the broken man.
“A Magnum of Colt. Can I have two? And a pack of Marlboro Reds. Thanks!” he calls out following my back.
“Can you eat anything?” I ask.
“Not now, but can I have a tuna salad sandwich for later?”
“Please!” he called after me to cover anyfaux pas.
“Long as you don’t go trading it.”
I bring back the order and start the truck.
“Can’t go ’til I finish this Magnum.”
“If you do, you’ll be drunk on the job.”
“OK, just give me a little bit. In a cup. You got a cup? You have to keep the rest until evening. I can’t be trusted.”
Into my thermos cup I poured a measure of beer and held it to his lips. By the time we got back to the jobsite, he could light his own cigarette.
On Woodburn Avenue behind Talbert House the No. 11 bus stops on its way into Downtown Cincinnati. While I waited in the shadow of St. Francis De Salles spire then pealing 10 o’clock AM, Barron stood in the drive. Other than being black instead of white, clean instead of dirty, clothes pressed but worn, older and well-nourished, schizophrenic instead of alcoholic, he reminded me of Joshua.
A very intense but respectful conversation occupied Barron’s attention visible only to him just above his head as if to a net judge at Wimbledon. At regular intervals, he would touch his chest with the first two fingers on their way to his lips where they received a kiss before finishing with a pull of imaginary forelocks in a gesture of respect. I was early, or the bus was late; I investigated.
“…now at the hour of our death.” was the end of his sentence before I interrupted.
“What’s up?” I ask engagingly.
“Talking to the Virgin.” he answers as a matter of fact, “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee, blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus…We meet every morning about this time.” He only glances a me. “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen.”
“Doesn’t she have a new veil?” I asked after Our Lady.
“No, that’s just a darker one. You probably haven’t seen it before. It’s Friday. She wears the darker one of Fridays because of Her Son dying on a Friday.” before he begins again, “Hail Mary…”
“I had a Visitation from the Virgin once…” I began before he interrupted himself to listen. “It was shortly after my mother died. I had a lot of responsibility for the first time in my life. I didn’t know what to do. During a fitful night’s sleep, she came to me sat on the side of the bed, lit a cigarette, and told me not to worry.”
“Who was it?”
“Why? Because she smoked?”
“No.” he looked up at the cloudless sky and held up one finger, the international sign of “wait a minute.” “It was not Her because you did not smell roses.”
“But she had a blue veil.”
“Not in the dark she didn’t. You could not have seen it in the dark. And, I know you did not turn on the light with a Mary sitting on you bed. It was either Magdelene, or you’re lying. I bet it was Magdalene. Did you smell roses?”
“Magdalene.” he concluded before returning to “Hail, Mary, Mother of God…”
“Maybe so.” I begin to walk back to the bus stop.
“Holy Mary, Mother of God,…” he begins again, “…Amen.” before turning back to me. “Why are you going downtown?”
“I need to go to the library and then workout at the Y.”
With “What do you think about this street car business?”, he began a discussion about the importance of mass transit between the University of Cincinnati and the Central Business District. The expense of laying the track, moving utilities, and convincing the public to ride always punctuated with deferential snippets of the Rosary directed with eyes upcast. Our discussion continued while I looked up Woodburn for my arriving bus and he kept an eye on his Virgin. When the No. 11 came, I offered him to go ahead.
“No, thanks, I’m going across on 31. God bless you. Take care. Nice talking to you.” Barron smiled a sincere but toothless smile before returning to his devotions.
Like Barron she was Black, but unlike him, she was a girl. Like Joshua she was alcoholic, but like me she was sober. She wore her McDonald’s uniform a bit too tight on account of redeeming too many employee benefits, her hair pulled back to a tight bun over which pinched a visor. Her overlarge black-framed glasses pushed up on a wide fat nose.
“Please remember to silence your phones and anything else that makes noise,” she read while scanning the room in search of potential violators at which she could scowl.
“That means you, Tom.” I jokingly called attention to a friend who really hates being called out in public even in fun.
“And remember we are not to have any cross-talk.” she continued reading like a marm.
To which Tom rejoins: “That means you, Alexander.”
“WE ARE NOT GOING TO HAVE ANY CROSS TALK IN THIS AA MEETING! AND I MEAN IT!” Her voice became gutteral and non-human in its emphasis. Her large arms began to flail upon the table. She seemed to be set upon by a demon.
I hadn’t seen a fit like hers since John S. Armstong Elementary when Dan Moody (né Everett, but his mom remarried) quipped to Mrs. Smiley (an unfortunate last name), the School Librarian: “cow”.
It didn’t seem so offensive against the behavior she exhibited to our fourth grade class, Miss Carr’s homeroom; however, his comment hit too close to some neurosis she was harboring and exacerbated it. We were dismissed for the day. More of a reward than a punishment.
Back at the AA meeting, we all sit transfixed at the display of emotional melt-down now unfolding. An uncomfortable silence suffocated the room. She tried to regain her composure with a despotic suggestion to open the meeting with The Serenity Prayer.
There would be no “Happy, Joyous, and Free” at that meeting.
By contrast, at another AA meeting at another time, weeks later, another woman, of another race but of similar age, in another room several miles north of town but in similar disorder, a mother, simply turned to the reader and suggested, “Just start.” she waves from her desk, “They’ll quiet down…Just start.”
He started. The room piped down. She handled the chaos with understanding and aplomb, “Just start. They’ll shut up.”
Kohl came to live with us two days prior.