Rainy and dark. I quickly headed from the security gate at the Baxter Music School to my favorite restaurant down the block and across the street, the Buttered Potato. Well, it wasn't really a restaurant, as much as a greasy, unpretentious diner can pass for a restaurant. And it wasn't really my favorite; I just happened to eat there a lot. There were much better places in Eastville, much fancier: the Brass Giraffe, the Chopped Rib, Uncle Chow's Peking Garden…but, being a twenty year old student, I couldn't afford those sort of places often. The Buttered Potato was close to school, and you could get a Hamburger Platter with Fries, Large Coke, and a colossal Ice Cream Sundae for six dollars, including the tip. Most of the time, you would find Baxter Music School students eating in a booth, while maybe some Eastville locals might be sitting alone at the counter, eating and reading the paper, or making small talk with the hardened waitresses. I don't remember what the decor was, because I don't think there was any. Like I said, unpretentious…
Usually, I would park myself in a booth with my trumpet playing, wise cracking roommate, Bill Providence, and his on-again, off-again girlfriend Jane Panomoya, a small, unassuming, but quietly sexy flautist of Filipino descent. The three of us were frequent partners-in-hang. But this time, it was late on a Friday, and I had been practicing hard and lost track of the time. It was pretty late on a Friday to try to figure out what to do besides practice. And no one was around. (This was long before cell phones, so if you didn't know where somebody was, you stayed not knowing where they were for a while…) No doubt there was a party somewhere; I just didn't know where. Don't get me wrong, there were many students at Baxter who were considered practice robots; the Korean kids seemed to live in the practice rooms. And there were hard working American kids as well, however, when the weekend rolled around, it was Miller Time and then some. I remember seeing kids, who were the most pretentious classical music snobs by day, by night passed out on the carpet under a pile of sucked-out beer cans. And as I hurried down the street to the Buttered Potato, I imagined that this was in the works somewhere that night. But that wasn't always my scene, and I was still in music mode, so I figured, let me grab a quiet bite and call it a night, for a change.
So I sat at the counter, which was unusually under-populated. One other solidly middle-aged man with white hair and a tan trenchcoat, who was eating fried eggs, reading the paper, and trying to talk to one of the possibly approaching middle-aged waitresses all at once, was seated at the counter near the front door, near the cash register. I sat closer to the far wall, to insure my solitude. While I wasn't what one might consider anti-social, I did like eating alone now and then; it allowed me to think about music, hear melodies in my head, and just keep inventory of my inner emotions. The other waitress on duty, plumped up and polite, speaking in a typical Eastville accent, asked me what I was having. I had no need to consult the menu. "Hamburger Platter with Fries, Large Coke, and Ice Cream Sundae, please", I confidently stated. I knew the plate would not take long to appear before me, yet I was slightly impatient. I needed to use the time between ordering and chow time wisely, and I had no book, newspaper, or sheet music to study. And mentally, I was drawing a blank. I looked around the diner for a familiar face, or a pretty girl to inconspicuously stare at and get some ideas flowing.
Within seconds, a middle aged black man was sitting next to me at the counter. He seemed to appear from nowhere. He was wearing a big grey wool coat, damp and tattered. His hair was not as grey as the coat, but it was getting there. His odor was pretty rank, though I've witnessed worse smelling men in my years. I wasn't sure if he was homeless, but if he wasn't, then he was surely not in the best of shape. He spoke at first like homeless people tend to do; he spoke, and didn't seem to care if anybody was listening. And nobody was listening; not the middle-aged white haired man, not the two on-duty waitresses. I wasn't really listening either; I was more in a mode of trying to figure out why he sat right next to me- when there were so many other empty places to sit. I wasn't afraid of him, but I was kind of curious. The homeless problem in Eastville was still somewhat of a surprise to me. Having been raised in the nearby suburb of Howard Lake, I never really was exposed to beggars and vagrants until I started at Baxter. Although Howard Lake was pretty racially diverse for a suburb; my street was adjacent to Subsidized Housing, which is a progressive suburban version of The Projects. Some of the kids in the Subsidized Housing were tough, and got into fights and things, but there were no beggars and people at various levels of down-and-out and so forth.
After a minute or so, I started to tune him in, as it seemed like he was talking to me. "Boy, it's rough out here, I'm telling' you," he admitted. " Sometimes, I don’t know how I make it through the day…"
"Yeah, life is hard sometimes", I agreed. We were now in kind of a small-talk-mode, where someone makes a banal, obvious statement and the other agrees, just to fill the silence. But this had a dark undertone; it wasn't like we were talking about the weather, or sports; obviously, this gentleman had problems, problems that were embarrassing for a man twice my age to be admitting to some random white boy sitting at the counter- but problems, nonetheless, that he needed to get off of his chest. I didn't mind listening, but I knew that at some point, my empathy might run dry. After all, I was raised lower middle class; and while we never had the same abundance as many of my friends in the wealthy sections of Howard Lake, I never went hungry, I never lacked clean clothes, and I always had some kind of roof over my head. My instinct was to lend a sympathetic ear to this troubled stranger, but what did I know about " Yeah, life is hard sometimes"? I was a scholarship student at a moderately prestigious music school, and this guy was obviously closer to "being out on the street" than perhaps I would ever be.
"I'm telling you, sometimes you don't even realize how good you have it 'til it all goes down the drain," the man continued. "I actually had a good thing going for years; wife,kid,job,car,house. Not bad for a guy born and raised on West Avenue." (He was referring to possibly the worst neighborhood in Eastville. West Avenue was one of those areas that people were always saying that "Oh, you can't go there." I always wondered what that really meant, because obviously, people go there all the time: people that live there…) "I had a pretty good life, and I was happier than I really knew. But I was in denial, deep in denial….", the man trailed off, and looked upwards, as if watching the replay of his tragic downfall. I was starting to feel uneasy, as we journeyed from chit chat into testimonial territory rather quickly.
"Uh, what were you in denial about?" I was pretty direct, considering I didn't even know this guys name.
"I had a drug problem," the man stated, with little shame. "Heroin…" His voice on that word was soft but intense, and it was the first time he actually looked at me directly. " I thought I could manage. I thought I could hide it. Nobody knew, cause I could get high and function. Seriously. I would get high and then go to work. For a while… But then I started nodding out and missing work. Lost my job, of course. I couldn't face my family. Plus, I was still strung out. So I started pawning stuff to pay the dope man. Then I sold the car. My wife's bank accounts, I drained. She eventually figured out what was going on….I didn't even care, I was gone…She took my daughter and moved out to Northbrook. Yep, I really fucked my whole life up."
He paused and looked around the diner. I felt that I should say something. "That's a sad story…" Something blocked me from being overly sympathetic. After all, I didn't know this guy, and even with his admission of fucking up his whole life, he seemed pretty stoic, as if he still had dignity. It was a sad story, but neither one of us was crying; we were handling it like men.
"Yep, but I'm clean now, been clean for 6 months. I even see my daughter sometimes. I know I'll never get my wife back, but my daughter….I'm telling you, people take family for granted. People don't know how far they can fall. Drugs, gambling, it's all out there trying to get you. I go to meetings, to keep myself out of trouble. I don't go to certain neighborhoods…" He took a deep breath. "It's hard, hard to stay on the straight-and-narrow, I'll tell you what…" I was still kind of amazed at how this man was revealing his whole world to me so casually.
“Yep, I’m cool, now,” he went on, “but this damn economy! I wish I could find a job. Nobody’s hiring right now. Especially a guy like me…”
“What do you mean?” I was still pretty bold, surprising myself. I thought maybe he meant because he was black, or because he was an ex-junkie. Although I mused that you wouldn’t have to put “Ex-Junkie” on a job application.
“Well, I was picked up for possession. Only once. Since I had no priors, and fortune was smiling on me when I went before the judge, I got a suspended sentence. But still…” While the story was spiraling downward, I was inwardly marveling at the fact that here I was, a suburban white kid, relatively straight- laced, rubbing elbows with convicted heroin users. I wasn’t making light of this man’s plight; I just thought it was probably not what my mother expected when she drove me to the Baxter Music School auditions. Sure, most of my classmates and teachers were from the right side of the tracks. But this was life in Eastville, perhaps most big cities: the disparity. Ever since the Conservatives took over the government, and ran their less-means-more crock of dogshit economic policy game on the hapless citizens of a once great nation, the disparity only expanded.
As I said, I did not know many folks like this down-and-out Eastvillian, but I saw folks like this every day walking around the city. And if one reads the paper, or watches the news, you see these people and their issues. The drugs, the gangs, the murders, the homeless. Most people want to act like these people and their issues don’t exist. What I could never understand is that, in this country, when there was a war or a perceived national crisis, we were all supposed to rally around the flag, and say, “we’re all in this together.” But what about these citizens? Why aren’t we rallying around the flag to help our troubled brothers and sister citizens?
I was jarred from my mental morality monologue by the clack bang of the Hamburger Platter with Fries, Large Coke, and Ice Cream Sundae being shoved in front of me by one of the near middle aged waitresses behind the counter. I was starving, yes, but somehow, no longer hungry. Well, I wasn’t sure. I was quiet. The down-and-out Eastvillian sitting next to me was also suddenly quiet as he stared at my dinner; he had the stare of a lion whose prey has just come into view. I wanted to eat, but I felt like I should show some manners to this man, who was a total stranger, yet he had revealed more of himself to me than most of my schoolmates ever had.
“I’m sorry….what is your name?”
“…Jerome. Jerome Watson.”
“I’m George. Nice to meet you......” . There was still something not right about this situation, and it hung in the air like a mosquito buzzing in your ear on a hot summer night. “ Do you want to order something?”
“……uh….what do you want?”
“I’ll have what you’re having…..”
Somehow, I was relieved. Jerome and I didn’t talk much after that had been cleared up. And when his food came, we both ate in relative silence. I thought nothing of the bill; I had cash from my work as a jazz pianist, and food like this couldn’t be expensive. I wondered if Jerome enjoyed his food, or if he was too preoccupied with his Greek Tragedy of a life. I finished eating, and though I was in no rush, felt as though I should leave, as if on a blind date going wrong. As I got up to pay the bill, I was at a loss for words. Jerome was eating and staring into the distance (which was actually the kitchen). I mumbled something stupid like, “Take Care,” and moved towards the counter, cash and check in hand. Jerome didn’t really thank me for the meal, and how could he? Yes, I heard his story, but to me, it was only a story. It might as well have been fiction. And who knows how much of it was true, and maybe there was more to the story, maybe chapters with more tragic turns and twists. I felt somehow good about helping a hungry person eat, but, as I paid the waitress and walked out of the Buttered Potato, I wondered what Jerome would do tomorrow.