Jeff arrived in Michigan physically safe and sound and no sooner did his car pull into Mac’s driveway than he was handed an address and was told that there was a part-time job for him at a diner in the city. “You’ll like Charlie. He’s a standup guy. I know it may not be what you’re used to, but it’s something.”
Unfamiliarity and unease cloaked the environment that Jeff had to awkwardly succumb. He took a shower, and out of duty drank the coffee and ate the eggs and bacon put in front of him. He mumbled a forced, “Thanks.”
The sprawling grounds owned by his brother were natural and beautiful. Mac always loved a forest type look; primeval, rugged and untouched. He had hacked a trail through the fifty acres and it became his refuge. In Jeff’s messed up brain, he thought he should be envious of Mac’s home, but instead he felt nothing. He was in limbo without a rudder. It didn’t inspire him; it didn’t put him in awe of anything, and it didn’t even welcome him as intended. Numb to the core, Mac’s was a shelter from the elements and Jeff’s place to be with his big brother, but the material aspects of Mac’s home were as if they didn’t exist. Material things were dangerous. Material things could be lost in an instant dragging with them everything that truly mattered. Jeff’s eyes moistened as he bitterly remembered the pets he was forced to leave behind along with a piece of his soul.
“It’s only temporary. Don’t worry. Things will turn around for you.” Mac smiled his big brother’s half smile of encouragement.
“You don’t know that, Mac. For the first time in my life, I’m scared shitless.” The coffee cup shook in Jeff’s hands as he fought back tears. “At a time in life when I should be slowing down and enjoying myself, I am alone and broke. The economy has not been good for construction work, especially for older workers.”
“Well, you have the job at the diner, and you have a place to stay here until things pick up. And little brother, you are not alone. You have me. Speaking of the diner, don’t you have an appointment?”
“Yes, yes I do. I’ll get going.” Poor Mac. He was the kind of big brother that offered his guidance, yet was stuck between sibling and parent. The problem was, he could be the exalted king of big brothers and it wouldn’t help. Jeff was dazed and ashamed and depressed and nothing Mac tried to do was going to help. He just hoped this glitch in his life wouldn’t estrange him from the only family he had left.
In sight of the diner, a scuffle was taking place. A disheveled man appeared to have gotten himself thrown out by one of the employees.
“Get the hell out of here, you bum!”
“Come on, man. Just a little cup o’ coffee. Ha’f you no hu… humanity?”
“Humanity, shmamity… sober up somewhere else. Become a paying customer and then we’ll talk. But for now, get your smelly ass outta here.”
The banished man could have been anyone. He could have been Jeff in a couple of months. Did he have a name? The way he was treated was inhuman, as if he were garbage cluttering up the street in front of the business.
“What are you looking at, bub?”
“Sorry, um, my name is Jeff Townsend and I have an appointment with Charlie Deveraux.”
“Yeah. I’m Charlie. You must be Mac’s brother. Great guy Mac is. Come on in and we can talk and set up your work schedule. Don’t mind him. Just walk past him and he’ll go away.”
Jeff looked deep into those eyes staring up at him; thick with pain, untrusting, groveling with the hope that someone’s compassion might arrest, though briefly, the desolation that was his life. A chill touched Jeff’s spine with the fear that one day that could be him.
From inside the warm and comfortable diner, Barry Baldwin looked on this all too familiar scene from his regular seat squirreled away in a secure corner booth. He always felt sympathy for the growing homeless population in Harbor’s Eve, Michigan; the city he called home for over forty years. It could happen to anyone in this economy. Even his job as a mid-level manager at Kinko’s was threatened. He had to watch his every step and the employees under him just recently had their hours cut back. It seemed business owners were afraid of the Affordable Care Act and thought it was necessary for their survival to cut full time employees to part-time. Of course, because Barry was salaried this increased his workload and the number of hours at the store.
Through the diner window, Cubby Neuchester, a cop that frequented Charlie’s could be seen outside coming to the rescue of the ragged fellow Charlie had just accosted. He helped him to his feet and sent him on his way. As Cubby came through the door, he spotted Barry and made a beeline over to the booth where he was sitting.
Barry nodded, “Cubby? Have a seat.”
“Man, this job is getting harder and harder. People are abandoning their homes and apartments. Some have no place to go. I didn’t become a cop to harass people who can’t help what’s happening to them.”
“Yeah. Think what will happen when winter rolls around. Where do they go, Cubby? You can’t help but feel for them, you know?”
“This guy that just left was a History professor at Western Michigan. Can you believe that? He lost his wife and kids in a boating accident and just never got it back together. His pacifier of choice is booze. It’s the ones that are druggies, or drunks or have the mental heebie-jeebies that never seem to find their way back.” Cubby rubbed his fatigued eyes. “Guys like the Professor; they are the saddest.”
“You mean no one tried to help this guy?” Charlie started Jeff’s training immediately and he couldn’t help but overhear and interject his surprise while topping off Barry’s coffee cup.
“Sure, they tried. But, if the heart can’t heal then they just find their way back to the bottle or the needle or whatever else floats their boat. And most of the time, they just can’t get over what’s eatin’ ‘em.”
“Hello, by the way. My name is Jeff Townsend.”
“So, you just started, huh?” Cubby examined Jeff with a cop’s eye.
“Yeah. Lost my job in Connecticut and just moved here to live with my brother for a while.”
“Hey buddy. You gonna bring that coffee?” Another customer yelled at Jeff from across the diner.
“Sorry, gotta go.”
“Wow. That’s harsh.” Barry took a big bite of his BLT and swallowed hard. “But, not all of them are like the Professor. What about them? I mean, like Jeff here. He just lost a job and I heard someone say last week at work that people are losing hours so they can’t make ends meet, so they can’t pay the rent and they get booted.”
“It’s true. Most live with family or friends until they get back on their feet, others go to shelters… look, man… you’re ruining my dinner. Let’s change the subject.”
The diner was alive with the rich smell of coffee, glasses clinking, conversation and laughter, while Jeff was learning how to serve plates full of food without tripping or worse, slopping them into the laps of Charlie’s customers. Becoming a titan of food service was never his ambition and he realized now that it was not a willing effort on his part – this desocialization of one’s self. It separated him from his education and training that in the end redefined him. Hard work, money, and sacrifice went into becoming an architectural draftsman. The ultimate goal was fulfillment. In a twist of fate, he was faced with one purpose, only one, and that was survival. Yet another big pill to swallow; all of those finely tuned abilities, all of the knowledge and experience that reflected years of polishing and honing a profession were… poof… unserviceable.
“Hey, buddy. Need some more coffee over here.” Over the bustle of hungry people, Jeff hurried with a coffee pot in tow. “Yeah, no. That’s decaf, boy. Don’t want that.”
When did he go from Mr. Townsend to boy? His status in the world took a dive. He no longer recognized his role or identity. Just get through the day. Think later.
After his shift, Jeff left the diner in deep thought about the man called the Professor, and walked into an evening accompanied by a brisk chill in the air. There was no doubt that the change of seasons threatened a fading summer. Jeff walked in the direction of his parked car, dodging cold bursts of wind as it jacked his uncovered head. He spotted the Professor across the street, huddled up in the corner of a building doing his best to shield his body from the unfriendly night. He saw Jeff cross the street toward him and hustled away in the opposite direction. Jeff didn’t know what it was that compelled him to follow the poor old man, except the impulsive need to discover what might have happened to him if it weren’t for the love of a brother.
The thought of following someone never entered Jeff’s mind before, so it was odd that his pursuit could be interpreted as threatening by another and as he turned the corner where the Professor disappeared, his body was slammed against the bricks of the building. Two men stopped him from entering into an area where a homeless community gathered under a viaduct.
“State your business here, jackass.” A man with a scruffy face and dirty hands held him tight fisted against the wall.
“Whoa! Wait man. I don’t mean any harm.”
They looked him over. Every nerve in Jeff’s body should have been screaming in fear, but all he could feel was pity and anguish for the lives under that bridge.
“Well, what do you want then?” The other man was younger and less aggressive.
“I, uh… I was worried about the Professor. Just needed to make sure he was going to be okay.”
“How do you know the Professor? You have him in school or something?” By this time the older guardian of the underpass had relaxed his stance and released Jeff.
“No, I ran into him at Charlie’s Diner and just… uh… geez, you know… wanted to check up on him.”
“Oh, I get it. You’re a tourist come to see the homeless people in their natural habitat. Get the hell out of here, man. We don’t need this kind of shit. It’s hard enough out here in the elements without having to deal with gawkers and such. If you want to do something, bring food and water, otherwise leave us be.”
“But, what about the Professor?” Jeff wanted them to see that he meant no harm and that he cast no judgment.
Offended, they turned and walked away from him and a graveled voice yelled back, “Don’t worry. We take care of our own.”
Stomach quivering, partly due to the unexpected aggression of the gatekeepers, but more so because of the panorama of hopelessness under the viaduct, Jeff could not pry himself away. Shielded by the brick cornerstone of the same building he had become familiar with just minutes earlier, he studied the activities of the homeless encampment. There was laughter and chatter and the smell of cooking from someone frying something on a makeshift grill. He held his breath, and observed how each person cared for the other. The ethos developed from mutual respect of circumstance and knowing whatever life blip that brought them there to that place was viewed with complete neutrality and it was neither considered bad nor did it have to be explained. It just was what it was – life being life and sometimes just one trip was enough to hurl you into oblivion. Twenty-four hours, and another twenty-four hours, and another and then another was the goal, like an inch worm moving forward just to stay alive. Leaving them seemed wrong, but Jeff’s life wasn’t their life… yet. If things didn’t go well, it could be.