|Our first attempt at a book cover for Easy Street.|
It was full dark but the city was all lit up. A medium pizza of eight slices was going for two-eighty just up the street. Amy insisted on pitching in and Duke, breaking off on his own mission, said he’d pick up some beer. They found themselves back at Mark’s pad as Duke insisted on calling it.
Mark rolled his eyes at that one, as he and Amy shared an intimate little dance in the kitchen.
Duke was perched on the window ledge, examining the worst of Mark’s two chairs.
“Hmn.” Every joint was loose and the one spindle kept falling out.
There didn’t seem to be too much he could do about that and so he set it aside again.
Amy came out with a plate for him.
“Three each for the boys and two for me.”
Duke had found some cheap brew on sale and had bought a six-pack.
Mark came out with bottles and a nod for Duke.
“There’s still that blueberry pie in there too.”
“Ah, shit, yeah. I forgot about that.”
“What’s up with that Maude, anyways?”
For the moment, everything was groovy.
Mark had volunteered. Being alone for a few minutes gave him time to think. Duke had proffered more beer money, hiding out from Maude as he put it. The store was a few blocks away and Amy and Duke were fast becoming friends of a sort. Duke was a lifelong bachelor, after all. Not being particularly smart, he’d walked right into it. When Mark left, they were just beginning the questionnaire.
He was just moseying along, not paying much attention.
“Hey, man. What’s in the bag?”
The bright blade flashed in front of his eyes.
“Hey. I know you. You’re in five-oh-three.”
The kid’s mouth opened.
“Yep. Number five-oh-three, ninety-nine Easy Street. Yeah—I would say so. Shit.”
Mark stood his ground and the knife went away.
“Sorry, man. Just forget about it, okay?” Apparently homicide was too much for him.
Not for five or ten bucks and a bag of groceries.
“Sure. No problem.”
The kid turned, wordlessly walking away down the cul-de-sac.
That one led nowhere, but there was always straight up. Mark sure as hell wasn’t going after him.
Kids these days. What are you going to do about it.
Mark wondered whether he should get himself a knife, or if that was just an over-reaction. It was his mistake to cut through. Coming out onto a main street, it was thronged with people and he felt safe again.
There was a big difference between night and day. The pot made you too mellow—and that made you a little too careless. Throw in a couple of beers and you had yourself a pretty good buzz. The noise picked up and he had to momentarily jostle his way upstream.
People were carrying signs, all busy going someplace else. There must be a happening somewhere.
Stop the war.
He wondered about people’s heads sometimes.
A few cardboard signs weren’t going to stop anything.
The weather the next day was bright and warm. Mark was feeling good so he got right into action.
Mark had transferred on the bus, waited with hundreds of other people at bus stops, and fought his way through crowds of pedestrians. When you were in a hurry, you noticed things, such as the number of people who turned ninety degrees and bolted across your bow for no particular reason. It was hard to believe fat people could move so quickly. With their instincts aroused, perhaps they had sensed pork chops on sale or something, they were pretty darned quick.
There was no real accounting for certain types of human behaviour.
Finding the place was simple enough. He chalked it up as a small victory. Getting in the double doors and finding a crowd of three hundred, many of them with small children, half of them clearly destitute or retarded or homeless by the look of them, wasn’t quite what he was expecting. But then, he’d had no idea of what to expect.
There were a dozen wickets but only three of them were open. That much was eminently predictable.
One public employee was going up and down the line-ups, asking people something. If only he could hear what they were saying.
As one might expect in such cases, they would never make it this far, not in a million years.
He wouldn’t mind asking a question or two. Sure enough, the lady glanced up at a wall-clock, turned and headed back behind the partition.
If only he had a clue.
The lady in front of him had swollen ankles, and knee-high stockings that didn’t quite make it to the bottom of the dress, in her particular case, unfashionably above the knee. Burdened with bags, a purse, clothes, bottles and a bassinette for the smaller of two children, she was looking at a pretty long wait.
“You got your number?” She held up a small tear-off ticket.
She nodded at the next line.
“You’ve got to get your number. They’ll call you.”
Someone was yelling even as she spoke.
“Number one-eighty-seven. One-eighty-seven...”
In the short time he’d been there, four more people had come in. Knowing more than him obviously, three of them had joined the back of the proper line. The fourth one was headed that way.
Mark shuffled over and attached himself to the back of that queue, which to be fair seemed to be moving at least. The front doors opened and more humanity adrift dragged knapsacks, suitcases, children and drooling grandparents into the mix. Of course they couldn’t just let you tear off our own number—too many cheats, apparently, and so they had to have a worker with nothing to do but tear off tickets and hand them to people. It struck Mark that people might tear off ten tickets at a time, holding spots in the line for people that weren’t even there.
“Thank you.” He was already up beside her again.
The lady looked at him incuriously.
“Sure, no problem.” Bending painfully, she lifted the bassinette, the kid sleeping peacefully inside, and dragged it two feet further ahead as her line shifted.
Unexpectedly she turned and smiled.
“Yes. I think you might be right.” There was just the hint of the islands in her accent.
Mark had worked, traveled, played and lived for weeks at a time with an ensemble group that included blacks. There were some pretty strong Caribbean and South American influences in jazz these days.
His easy nature had somehow conveyed itself to her, in a town that was as bigoted as anywhere else and cruel for no reason at all sometimes.
It was a big city and it took all kinds to make a world.
Maybe it was just indifferent.
He nodded as his own lineup lurched in the general direction of the grim, matronly worker behind her battered kiosk. That one would look right at home under a hairnet, gutting fish on a line somewhere. She would take grim satisfaction in such work.
Someone in the line to his right spoke, turning and giving him a quick look. He had expressive, dark eyes, with clear whites all around, an intelligent-looking man with a bad head twitch.
“It’s not usually this bad. It’s Friday, and if people don’t get in, it’s another two days of waiting.” A short man with huge shoulders, big arms and spindly little legs, at least this one owned a watch. “We’re looking at an hour, an hour and a half, anyways.”
“It’s not like I have any other appointments.”
That one drew a laugh or two.
“Are you looking for work?” This guy was also in the next line.
Tall and cadaverous, he had a frizzy red afro and a jean jacket with the sleeves cut off and stuff drawn on the back of it in coloured ink. Mark couldn’t quite make out what message was enshrined there. Some sort of skull with feathered wings going off and up to left and right. It was all Mark could tell without further study, which, ultimately, didn’t seem all that worth it. One man’s pride and joy was another’s shitty coat with a badly-drawn design.
“Yeah—of course I am.” There wasn’t much point in going on, although the line lurched ahead once more.
Someone came out and yelled another number, and you wanted to pay attention—apparently someone had missed the call. Someone else had been called ahead of them, or thought they should have been. There was a labourious examination of tickets, with quite the cussing-match going on at the head of line one as they sorted it out in front of the bored attendant. Someone had to back down, usually the nicer one, and sure enough the louder lady got her way. Theoretically she might have been sent to the end of the line. This line, to get another number.
“So what do you do, sir?”
That was terribly polite. This guy had the big nose and the rheumy eyes of a wino.
What, is there something different about me?
Maybe they know each other.
“Ah—I play the trumpet.”
More laughs, and admiring looks, as if he was really a comedian rather than a musician.
All one could do was to smile and bask in it.
Maybe they just recognized each other—not exactly the same thing as knowing them. They were all in the same boat. It was written all over them if one cared to look.
He’d always had a streak of empathy, more as he grew older. But at times like this, a man suddenly realized just how lucky he was. Some of these people, and he was one of them now, but some of them didn’t stand a chance in hell. Not a chance. You could tell just by looking at them.
Not with a schnozz like that, Buddy.
“Huh?” Mark’s mouth opened at this most unexpected of sallies. “I’m Mark Jones—”
The blind guy in the next line gave a start and those big black glasses swung to nail him right in the gizzard.
“Did you say Mark Jones?” That round, chin-up sort of a face, head cocked to listen, really listen, lit up. “You know, I got Hometown Doggie, but the thing’s scratched and I hardly play it anymore. Damn shame, too, ‘cause that is one good tune—and the horn is fan-fucking-tastic.”
The guy tapped his white cane on the ground as if to emphasize each word and syllable. He’d been to the Nam, or at least looked the part. His army jacket was tattered and worn, sagging in the pockets from whatever heavy load he had in there.
“I mean that, I really do. I dance to it, you know—all of it, all the real good ones, anyways.”
Mark was blushing, which somehow proved his claim.
“Well, uh, thank you.” The line moved again, and they all went with it, a wave of humanity moving in pulses.
Mark tried not to smile, but it got away from him. The man was certainly entitled to an opinion...who the heck am I to argue.
“Hey, I remember that one.” The guy with the afro was impressed.
“Was that you, Buddy?” The blind guy had this disbelieving grin. “I mean seriously? Motha-fawk...”
“Ah, yeah, uh. I did the horn on that one. And a few other songs.” None of them had ever really made it big, a couple of weeks of airplay in the bigger cities and then their one big song just died, taking the B-side and another couple of singles with it. “I’m not working right now, though.”
Jazz wasn’t so cool anymore, and people were listening to other things these days. Rock was going nuts and country enjoying a resurgence, at least in the number of stations on the air. Bible music was a constant standby, if only a person could stand listening to it. Then there was the real hillbilly stuff, and then there was the saccharine sweetness of the more popular crooners. Which was harsh. Maybe they were just inoffensive. Mom and Pop could listen to Perry Como without getting uptight.
There were no strong emotions, nothing there except a sappy romaticism. It was safe to say that Mark had never seen the attraction. It did it for some folks and that was just the truth about music.
Mark stood there and endured their curiosity.
“Holy, shit, man. Wow.”
One man, with naked stumps sticking out where his lower legs had once been, sat in a wheelchair nearer to the front of the line.
Blind people, deaf people, retarded people, crazy people, bag ladies, dope addicts, life-long criminals, or maybe just losers—they were all there—and so was Mark Jones, violent, paranoid, delusional, dangerous and out of control. Yes, he was a real mental case: a horn player, out of work and down on his luck. It was just one more sensation for this group. And yet he was good, too. That was what was so unbelievable. And if it could happen to him...a fucking dude like that, why, it could happen to anybody.
Just as it had happened to them.
It helped to get them through their day, something to marvel at.
What are you doing here?
Compared to some of these people, he was almost too well dressed. He was almost too intelligent-looking. He could honestly say that about himself. And yet it had all come down to this.
Some guy in the lineup plays the horn and they’d even heard that one song. They would forget just as quickly, and for him it was perhaps better that way. Nice thing about the hospital—no one had ever heard of him, or if so, they had forgottten it in the busy-ness of their own drama.
Please forget me as quickly as possible.
If only he wasn’t so sane. It might be easier if you were really nuts, and just sort of accepted yourself. It might be better if you just accepted your lot in life and basically gave up any hope of ever having anything better, to just let go and let the current sweep you away. The real trouble was when you wanted or expected something better out of life.
That was the real problem.
Some of us just want too much—and it all cost money or something, and that was what made the world go around.
The price of a free lunch was your dignity, and maybe more besides. It cost you your independence and made you dependent on a system that ultimately, didn’t much care what happened to you in the end.
They gave you a number and you became a statistic.
The fact was, if he had any choice at all, he never would have gone there—he never would have been able to bring himself to do it. It was just something that had to be accepted, at least in the short term. Hell, even the cops had told him to go there.
To some, begging must have seemed natural. Their lives were pre-ordained: this was fate at work and this was who they were destined to be.
What makes me so special?
What right do I have to contradict the word, or the will of God, for crying out loud?
And yet he always had, hadn’t he?
All those churches, all those services. Clearly they, at least, saw a need.
There were the food banks, the soup kitchens, the various hand-outs, socks and coats and drop-in centres and running to and fro—lining up here and there to get what was coming to you. A free turkey at Thanksgiving and Christmas and twenty-pound blocks of cheese from the government.
A free coffee here, a warming centre or cooling centre there. A homeless shelter, a woman’s shelter, shelters for runaway kids. A church basement in the middle of the night, cots lined up in rows and the smell of unwashed human bodies. People coughing, people talking in their sleep and people lying awake wondering what might happen to them and where they might turn next.
In that sense, it was a lot like ancient Rome. Bread and circuses, nothing left unaccounted-for.
The state had all the power. The state took responsibility for everything, and administered it badly.
If nothing else, it was going to be educational. He wondered just how much weight Detective O’Hara’s name really carried in such a place, in such a situation.
We are all products of our environment. Mark Jones understood what that meant a little better now.
At least he knew what he was talking about now.
Maybe he didn’t have a hope in hell either. Of all those people, he probably had the best chance of all.
At least he had lived another way, once upon a time.
Things really could be different.
(End of Part Twelve.)
Thanks for reading.
Here’s a link to Louis Shalako on iTunes. There’s always something for free from Louis.