Officer Alex spends a morning visiting his people at “home”.
I winced as the coffee ran over the Styrofoam cup’s brim and down across my fingers like a white-hot phantom, my feet still moving as I negotiated the well-worn but filthy trail, my breath visible due to the low temperatures and the early morning light. It was dawn in Hooverville.
Discarded pieces of lawn chairs and random pieces of plastic were dwarfed by the veritable sea of 40-ounce beer bottles and 24-ounce beer cans that stretched as far as the eye could see, indicating both a sincere lack of respect for the environment and a passionate love of Steele Reserve malt liquor (“Serious beer for serious bros,” as one reviewer put it. “If you want to bro down and impress the babes that know how to party, drink the high gravity lager.” Note to self.)
I was carrying two cups of joe from the local stop-and-rob and cursing the Waffle House for forcing me to go the cheap route with Kanku’s since they wouldn’t give me a charitable break as other branches had for these mission trips. I went for the free coffee, and being lidless was the price I paid.
“Mission trip” was being somewhat literal. The people who inhabit my district are just that: My people. Sure, some of my people want to sue me, have me fired, certainly curse me and possibly stab and/or shoot me, but it’s a small percentage of the total…doesn’t that sound like any good family? Some of my “family” happened to be homeless, and I liked to keep track of them in life rather than in a frozen death.
They had upgraded since my last visit. The three domed tents had been replaced by a new Coleman three-room unit, and cardboard pallets inside had been replaced by cots. And in the corner there, was that…?
“Teabag, is that a propane grill in there? Are you serious, man?” I asked. Teabag (please, please don’t ask how he earned the name) had been outside looking for plastic and sticks to burn in the communal pit, and looked up with a smile from his foraging. “Hah! That’s right, Officah-Alex, we went big time!” he said with true enthusiasm. “We got central heat now too!”
“You’re going to suffocate if you seal that tent up, brother. Carbon monoxide. I’m serious. Be careful. Better cold than dead, bro!” He smiled at my response, not hearing a word. He walked over and took the coffee out of my hand just as silently, and we sat together outside on a roughhewn log bench. The sound of the busy morning freeway a few hundred yards away was the only sound, and I liked it that way.
“I was going to ask if you needed anything. Business that good?” I asked. “Business” being bumming for cash at the base of an Interstate off ramp—something I ran him off from constantly but that he persisted in doing despite my Ninja-like Bum Senses.
“It’s been real good. My overhead’s pretty low and I’ve had a good run at the office.” We chuckled together at that.
Everybody’s got to be somewhere, the way I see it. Teabag’s real first name was Morris, and like most vagrants he was here by choice. I caught him breaking up a knife fight between two of his co-nonworkers at considerable risk to himself and along with a few other similar instances, grew to consider him a man of character. Sloth-like, but a sloth of excellent repute. It would make me sad to find him dead of exposure or homicide one day, so he became part of my weekly routine. (Because as we all know, Officer Teach’s number-one rule was not to make Officer Teach “sad”.)
We spoke more of the goings-on out here and he gave me tips on who to watch out for. I toasted his cup in appreciation before I left for my next stop—a whore I’d also taken a shine to, but again for completely different reasons than the average person would ever consider, since the average person doesn’t know the first thing about a real card-carrying, filthy-kneed, flip-flop wearing, disease-riddled whore; the kind that wears sadness like an overcoat on a hot summer day. But that was my job, wasn’t it? Dealing with those others didn’t want to see, much less have to think about.
Life is hard when you have to stay out of sight in order to remain out of people’s minds. But—it’s still life, I suppose.
My fingers still throbbed from the burn earlier. Thank God for small favors; Jasmine hates coffee.