Burton

Burton — they call him Burd at home for short — is dressed in a black stocking cap and a dark canvas coat.  That’s not what you notice about him at first.  What you notice about Burton is the white beard wrapped around his gaunt face.  It fits with his tall, thin frame, slightly stooped.  The beard isn’t combed, but it is well-groomed.  Burton has a face filled with character and hardship.  By his appearance, you’d think him more at home on a fishing vessel than where he actually is.

When he speaks to you — and he wants to speak to you — you notice his sparkling blue eyes.

Yet what’s most noticeable when you stop to speak to Burton — and you can’t help but stop — is the overwhelming odor of stale urine around him.  When you live on the street, finding a public bathroom isn’t always your top priority, and even then, not everyone is willing to let you do what you’ve got to do.  Things happen.

“Do you think I can make it in this program?,” he asks me.  He is looking for some reassurance. 

Burd and I are both in the cafeteria of a homeless shelter, each for entirely different reasons.  I can’t answer his questions, and I apologize for not being the person that can help.  That doesn’t bother him any more than the odor does.

“I’m not from here either,” he says, looking me in the eye over the top of his cup of coffee, two spoons of powdered creamer. “I’m from way up north.”

That information fits better with his appearance.  How far north?  New York?  Maine?  Canada?

“Ever hear of Dahlonega?”

I have.  In fact, my daughter is in school there now, I tell him.  Just 60 miles away from Atlanta, it’s not very far north at all, unless you’re walking.  I tell him I used to live in Cumming, a half hour south of his hometown.  At this, he decides we are practically neighbors.

“I lost everything in 2015,” he volunteers.  “My wife left me.  She took our kids and our house.  She took everything.  I’ve been on my own since then.  I was a mean drunk.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” I tell him, and I am.  I know the pain of divorce too well.  Does anybody ever really recover?

“I’ve never taken any drugs,” he feels compelled to tell me.  “I’m not an addict.”

That’s good, I tell him.  I’m not sure what else to say.  In truth, it matters not if I say anything.  This is a man that needs to be heard, acknowledged.

“I haven’t been here too long, but I’ve already seen more drug stuff than I think I should have to see.” 

It’s apparent that he doesn’t much care for addicts.

“Alcohol though, that was my problem.  I started drinking in 1990.  In 2015 my wife told me she’d had enough, and that was all.”

“I was a mean drunk,” he repeats to no one in particular.

He was a truck-driver by trade he tells me, and that’s what led to his downfall in a round-about way.

“I was smoking marijuana,” he says.  “Then, in 1990, they started doing random drug tests for truck drivers.  I had to quit smoking pot if I wanted to keep my job, so I started drinkin’.  I never missed marijuana after that.”

He drove a concrete truck, for a while. 

“After three years they discovered I had the wrong class of license, so they made me drive a tractor-trailer instead.  That wasn’t as much fun, because I was going to the same place and back day after day.  There and back, day after day.  I did that for 17 years.  But drivin’ ready-mix, I was always goin’ someplace new.”

He has aspirations.  There’s life in those eyes, an energy, a pride that remains unbowed.  Hope.

“I’d like to get Social Security,” he says. 

He has injured a leg, and walking can be difficult.

“I’m hoping to get disability payments.  That’s why I’m here in Atlanta.  I think I’ve worked enough.”

The Social Security Administration is three blocks away.

“I’m 58,” he tells me.  He looks 10 years older, easy.  Life and the booze have both been hard.

“I hear they’ll let you draw Social Security, and still work some.  That’s what I’d like to do.”

I don’t think you can be both substantially disabled enough for Social Security and yet gainfully employed, but it’s not my place to tell him that.  I wonder aloud what he’d like to do.

“Truck drivin’,” he says.  “I’m still a truck driver.  I need to get my license back this year because it expires next year, and I’d have to start over and take the test again.”  If he could get his disability payment it would give him the margin needed to get his license back.

I’m called away for a moment, and there’s disappointment in his eyes.  “I’ll be back in a minute,” I tell him.  “Hang tight.”

He does, and when I return his face lights up again.  I’ve offered him really nothing more than my attention.  I’ve had very little to say, and no answers for any of his occasional questions.

Nevertheless “I’m glad you’re back,” he says.  “I was enjoying our conversation.”

“I was too,” I assure him.

We talk just a minute or two more about what kind of a truck driving job he could get, but then roll call for the program attendees starts, and he needs to talk to the leader.  We say our goodbyes and I tell him I hope to see him again soon.  He excuses himself and limps to the front of the room.  As I look back over my shoulder I see him remove his stocking cap and bunch it up in his hands as he approaches the man with whom he needs to speak, a sign of his nervousness.  It’s the last I see of him.

A week later, I’m in that cafeteria again.  I look for Burd.  I’d like to know how he’s doing.

I’ll never know.  Burd isn’t there.  He’s not there the week after, or even the week after that.  He never returns.  Nobody knows where he went or why he didn’t come back.

When you live on the street, you do what you’ve got to do. Things happen. 

Hanging With the Ladies

I went away to college, once.  New town.  New people.  New experiences.  New terrors.  I was the skinny, shy kid.  I didn’t make friends easily.

It didn’t help that the college I was going to had the previous year only catered to upperclassmen, Juniors and Seniors.  This was the first semester that the school had admitted Freshmen, and I was among them.  There were not many of us.

I was nervous about meeting my new roommate.  I needn’t have worried.  When my parents dropped me off, he wasn’t there.  Gone home to visit relatives for two weeks.  I was a stranger, living with someone else’s things.  If you don’t want a stranger to go through your belongings, you definitely want to be there when they move in.  Before he’d returned to school, I knew my roommate’s favorite music (heavy metal), the medications he was taking (aspirin and muscle relaxers), his last semester’s grades (he was not a great student), and his underwear size (Hanes, 32).  He was 10 years older than me, according to his expired driver’s license.  And balding.

So that first week was a pretty lonely week for me.  Strange place, stranger situation.

“You’ve got to get out more,” I told myself.  “You need to meet some people.”

“Nobody wants to meet me,” I said.  A week alone will make you start talking to yourself.

“You don’t know that,” I countered.  “Besides, if you keep talking to yourself, you’re going to go batty.”

“What will I go do?” I wondered aloud.

“There’s a fraternity rush party,” I answered.  “You saw the signs for it.  There will be a lot of people there, and they’ll definitely want to get to know you if they’re looking for new members.”

“But I don’t know what to say to strangers,” I told myself.  “I’m not good at conversation.”

“You’re doing fine with me,” I said, and I meant it.  “Besides, if you’ll just look them in the eyes and give them a firm handshake, they’ll interpret that as confidence.  Confidence is the key to getting people to like you.”

I had a point.  “Okay, why not,” I agreed.  “I’ll go along and see how it goes.”

Now, I was not a party person.  Never was.  I hadn’t ever been around anyone who drank, much less tasted alcohol.  At 18, I had up until that point led a pretty sheltered existence.  “That needs to change,” I told myself.  “You need to loosen up.  Remember: confidence!”

There was a group of fraternity guys at the party, and a few girls.  I think they’d expected a bigger turnout.  There were five of us that were not fraternity members, me the only Freshman among them.    The fraternity guys made a point, every one of them, of meeting each of us, probing us about our future plans, asking about our drinking habits and other important details relevant to fraternity life.  It was clear we were all under scrutiny.  Still, I followed the advice I’d been given, and shook hands and looked into people’s eyes in as confident and manly a way as possible.  There was alcohol there, but I politely declined.  I was not yet ready to get that loose.

My advice about confidence paid off.  I managed to get through the evening intact, met a lot of new people — even a couple of the girls — and was suddenly feeling pretty good about myself.  I not only had human contact, but I’d done a pretty good job of being conversational.  Just as I was beginning to really get comfortable, the Campus Police showed up, and shut the party down.  There was an 11 o’clock curfew for alcohol on the campus.

“No big deal,” one of the fraternity guys told me.  “That just means it’s time to go to Dickie’s.”  Dickie’s was a bar, conveniently located a short distance from the campus.  “You comin’?”

I was not inclined to go.  “Confidence,” I reminded myself.  “Uh, sure I’ll come,” I answered, and before I knew it, I was in someone else’s car headed down the highway.  Only then did I wonder if the driver was in a good enough condition to drive.  About 20 of us went, including the four potential pledges.

Dickie’s was clearly the spot of choice because of its proximity to the school.  It was a dark, musty place with neon beer signs on the wall and the smell of stale beer throughout, or was that urine?.  There was music, and it was loud.  I could barely hear anything else, except the gentle cries of my eardrums.   There place was filled with other college students.  About 10 of us were pressed together into a large booth, me squarely in the center of the group.

“So I notice you don’t drink much,’ one of the guys screamed to me, over the music.   He was a large man, with a big belly and a thick, full beard.

“No, not at all, really,” I responded, and I was suddenly ashamed not to be a drinker.  “Confidence!” I reminded myself, trying to bolster my own.

“But I don’t mind if you drink,” I said.  “In fact, the less I drink, the more there is for you.”

“Now that’s what I’m talking about,” said the fat man.  “I like this kid.”

Clearly my confidence was paying off.  First the party, then out to a bar, and now they say they like me.  I was turning over a new leaf.

The waitress came to take our orders.  She went down the table one by one, and after each, she asked to see an ID.  When she got to me, I ordered my usual, a Coke.

“I need to see your ID, hon,” she demanded.

“I’m just having a Coke,” I said.  “No alcohol.”

“Doesn’t matter, hon,” she said.  “State law says you have to be 21 to be in a bar.  Where’s your ID?”

I was 18.  I knew that.  But still, I pulled out my license anyway, the one that was a special color to help identify minors.  “I’m just here to hang out with my new friends,” I protested.  “I’m not drinking.  I don’t even drink.  I don’t want to drink.”  It hit me that none of the guys present was under 21, and I was clearly the only minor there.

By this time, several other students in the place had noticed what was transpiring, and they were watching intently.  My confidence began to fade.

“Sorry hon,” she said.  “You got to go.”

Except she didn’t just say it.  She shouted it over the music, so she could be heard.  However, just as she called me “hon” for the third time, the band abruptly finished their song, so we were suddenly in a much quieter room, and her shouted announcement of “YOU GOT TO GO” was heard by every student in the place.  All eyes were on me.  So much for confidence.  I wanted to crawl under the table.

“You can’t do that,” I told myself.  “Be cool.  Stay confident.  Go out with your head held high.”

So I got up.  With everyone staring, I got up and started to exit the bar.  That meant making half of our tightly packed group slide out of the booth so I could get past them.  Still, I’d kept reminding myself to be confident all night, and it had largely worked.  I’d made new friends, been new places, had new experiences.  This was no time to quit being confident!  Even if I had to leave, I was going out with style.  Embarrassed, but not defeated, I shouted my goodbyes to the group and said I’d see them at the next party.

“Come back when you’re old enough, little boy,” someone else in the bar shouted, and the table around them broke out in laughter.  I didn’t let it bother me.  I was being confident.

Dickie’s was dark.  Really dark.  When I’d come in, I followed the crowd I was with.  I didn’t really think about which direction the door was in.  I pushed against the heavy wooden door and was in a brightly lit vestibule, another door in front of me.  I didn’t recall two doors.

“Hey, kid, that’s the –” someone behind me shouted, and there was more laughter that suddenly got quieter as the first door swung back closed.

I hadn’t been paying attention.  I had walked into the bathroom, by mistake, and some of the drunker patrons in the bar had gotten a laugh out of it.  I was embarrassed and felt a surge of panic, but I had to have confidence, I reminded myself.  I gathered my wits about me, and thought things through.  “They don’t know I didn’t have to go to the bathroom,” I thought.  “I can take my time, go back outside, and then leave by the right door.  This will be okay.”  I pushed on through the vestibule’s second door, and walked  in to the bathroom.

I washed my hands, and splashed some water on my face, eating up some time.  The sound of the running water made me suddenly realize that I had to pee, and so I shut off the sink, dried my hands, and turned around to find the urinal.

There was no urinal.  Instead, I suddenly noticed that there were only stalls in this bathroom.  There were also odd stainless steel machines on the wall, each of which took quarters, and each of which sold only one thing.  I had no idea what these machines were and wondered why they’d be in the men’s room.  And then it finally hit me.

I was in the ladies’ room.  Not only had I been too young and been thrown out of a bar in front of all of my new friends, and not only had I accidentally taken the wrong door and ended up in the bathroom with the entire joint watching, but I’d ended up in the LADIES’ ROOM.  My heart was in my stomach.  There was no way out.  I briefly considered living there, permanently.

“Okay,” I told myself.  “This is bad.  This is really bad.  You’ve got to get out of here.”

I took a deep breath.

“Maybe no one noticed,” I told myself.  “I just need to walk out, head held high, and head for the exit.  It’s all I’ve got.  Confidence, right?”

I took another deep breath and let it out.  I needed to go, before someone else came in.  “Here goes nothing.”

The moment the door opened, I could hear the applause and the laughter.  The entire joint somehow saw what I’d done.  They knew of my mistake.

“Door’s that way, hon,” the waitress pointed.

“It’s the one under the ‘EXIT’ sign,” the first heckler hollered, to more rounds of laughter from his table.  The fraternity guys I’d come with were pretending not to know me.

I hiked back to the dorms, and for the rest of the evening, went through my roommate’s things.

 

 

(Originally written April, 1990; Revised March, 2013)