Thursday, November 18, 2010

A Cold Day


Not much on the steps this morning. Some containers of Starbucks pastries scattered on the sidewalk in front. I am throwing them away and look and see Tracy at the corner. All wrapped up in the blanket I gave him yesterday. Under the scaffolding. “Tracy, “ I call out. He sees me and walks over.

“Pastor, so we became friends, right?” I say “yes.” “So I need to ask you something, ok? Can we go inside? I’m freezin my ass off out here.”

“Sure, let’s go into my office.” So we go inside. Sit down. He’s still wrapped up in his blanket. “So could I get back into a church? I was a believer, I...” I tell him of our plans to come back in. How he’d be welcome. He tells me how he could get some men together, do some work, help out. How he built three churches in Los Angeles. I tell him about the upcoming crafts fair. How there might be some work.

“Say,you wouldn’t have a piano or guitar? I’d like to play for you.” And he tells me of his life in music. Says Billy Preston taught him to play keyboard. “Wait a minute,” I say, “how’d you meet him.”
‘Well, it was Eric Clapton..”

“Come on”

“Well, yeah, it all goes back to Johnny Winter. Do you know him?”

“Yes, amazing guitar player, albino with long white hair...”

“Well he’s from Dayton, that’s where I grew up.” I tell him my brothers’ wife’s from Dayton. From the Appalachia neighborhoods. A brier.

“Yeah, that’s what they called us, briers...”

And I tell him about Eric Clapton in Tulsa when I was there. There to clean up. Get sober. And Leon Russell. The Shelter studio.

“Leon, oh my God...Tulsa, I played the Palomino Lounge once. Or maybe that was Los Angeles.Dunno. I was wild, crazy, young. It was the ’70’s, y’know? We’d smoke dope, drink, play all night..”

“OK, oil company, pentecostal preacher, music....”

“Yeah, well I never toured or nothin. But when they came to town, I’d play with em. Every night. Work all day, play all night. Then church on Sunday. I was filled with the Holy Spirit. Loved the girls. Well, women actually.” I ask him if he could get it together to play in front of people again. I imagine him playing with Amanda and the P&G crowd. Could I keep him sober long enough?

And piece by piece his story comes out. His brother who died. How it still hurts more than he can say. “How’d he die?” “Oh, it doesn’t matter anymore.” His father who raced hot rods. His name,Bob, just like me. Never beat him but made him sand cars as a punishment. Then left home and abandoned him. He reaches into his pocket, pulls out an empty vodka bottle. His hand is shaking. He looks at the empty bottle. “Shit. I need to come inside...”

We talk about how he said his mother in law would always take him in. So if he had a ticket to go back to LA, if she’d take him in, would he go? “Yeah, in a minute..let’s call her now...” he looks through his pockets. “Lost the number...”

I look at my watch. It’s car moving time. I tell him I’ve got to leave. But that I’ll be back. He asks if he can stay while I’m gone. I pause. Think. Consider all the possibilities. OK, I’ll take the chance.

I look over my shoulder, “Don’t let anyone else in, ok?”

“You can count on me.”

I’m thinking about Tracy. Forget where my car is. Find it five minutes late. Just as its being hooked up to a tow truck. Damn, never saw the hydrant. “Hey, that’s my car.” “You’re too late.” “I’m here. The car’ s here. You’re here..”

“Listen to what I’m telling you, it’s too late. Don’t worry, it’ll be safe,” says the tow truck guy. But that’s not the point, it’s the hundreds of dollars, the hours of time, locating the pound...I give in and accept it.

Back at the church. “I’m gonna die here.”

“No you’re not. Not gonna happen.” Been there. Done that. I remember Arthur Cafiero. How he joined us on the steps when we rang bells whenever someone was executed. How he’d come in and sing with us. His last good day. How he’d lost control. Become incontinent. His shame. It was quit drinking or die. How he froze to death after three failed attempts to get him inside that night. How the New York Times covered his funeral. Photo and all. And how the Post called me a bleeding heart killer. Buried him in the church cemetery in the Bronx. No, Tracy, you don’t die here.

I tell him I’m calling the outreach folks from Goddard-Riverside. They’re slow in coming. He’s shaking. “I need a cigarette.” I think about it. What the hell. I tell him I’m going out for coffee, that I’d take care of him. I head to the convenience store. Buy two coffees with cream and sugar. And a pack of Marlboro lights.

When I come back, he’s gone. I panic. Quick look around the church. Run outside. “Tracy,” I yell. Had the Goddard folks come and taken him away?

Then I see him around the corner. “Tracy..” He sees me. “I was looking for cigarettes..” I pull out the pack. “I told you I’d take care of you...”

We go back to the steps. I give him the pack. He fumbles with the matches. I take the cigarettes. To light one. And decide to smoke one with him. it’s been along time. We stand and smoke, he looks at me. “Hey, for a pastor, you’re not a bad guy. You’re a real human being.” ‘Thanks, I appreciate that.”

We go back inside. “Listen, can we go down to the front of the church and pray?” Just then the Goddard folks show up. A small young woman, dark with long black hair. A Latino guy in a baseball cap. I’m looking at her teal fingernails. “I’m worried about your shaking...” she says. Thinks its DT’s. “We’ve got to make some calls.”

“So we’ll go down and pray while you do that,” I say. So we go down. Sit in the front pew. Looking up at the Tiffany backlit Jesus. “Can’t believe we smoked on the church steps..” he says. “There’s worse sins,” i say. “There are. I’ve done em all. Well, cept for killing someone..”

I start to pray. “Oh, God, i thank you for this time with Tracy...”

“No. Don’t do that,” he says, “You’re not thankful. I’m a piece of shit..”

“No, you’re not .You’re a child of God. A sinner, just like me, just like all of us.. Loved by God, just like all of us”

“Let me do this,” he says. And he looks up at Jesus, tears streaming down his face. “I am so sorry..” I rub his shoulder, tell him it’s ok.

“You take good care of people,” he says.

“Well, not so good as i like, I haven’t done a very good job at that.”

We drink our coffee.

The woman with the teal nails tells me he’s the responsibility of another agency, Common Ground. He’s been missing from his room. They’ve been looking for him. They’ll be here in half an hour.

He wants to smoke, we go back to the steps. “Listen” he says, “you’re not fuckin with me,are you?”

“I mean some people,say they want to do something for you but they’re just fuckin with you. Will you stay with me?”

“I’m not fuckin with you, Tracy, I’ll stay.”

“You’re bettern a pastor, you’re a good man.” Not always, I think.

He asks foe one more favor. To arm wrestle. I agree. We lock up. And for what seems like minutes we're in stalemate, using all our strength with no movement. I try to push his arm over he takes my momentum and turns it back on me. He laughs as he wins.

Finally the Common Ground folks show up. Another young guy and a young woman with her blonde hair pulled back. “Tracy,” she says. “Hey, I’ve been missin” you he says. “Yeah,”she says. “I’m a Kentucky girl, remember?”

“I”m freezin to death,” he says, “can you take me some place warm?” “Sure,” the guy says, “I’ll fire up the heater in the van right now..” “it’ll be warm?” “Right now,” he says. They’ll be taking him to the hospital. They help him off the steps. He’s shaking, wobbling. One under each arm, me in the back. He looks over his shoulder. “I won’t forget you,” he says. And they enter the van.

I’m shaking as I walk up the street. It’s a cold day.

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