Thursday, November 21, 2013

Sometimes I Remember Things Other People Would Probably Try to Forget

Is Boston EVER Quiet?

Boston can be a loud place. It’s not as loud as New York but there are times, during the day if you are right in the middle of it all in Boston Proper, it can be a cacophony of noise. The mixture of people on cell phones, ambulances, homeless people asking for spare change and a barrage of white noise that is indecipherable,  can induce a hell of a headache nonetheless.

That’s why when you are in some of these normally noisy places and you find it to be completely quiet it can be quite unnerving and spooky as well. After the Marathon bombing when the authorities were closing in on the bombers, the entire city was put on lock down. People were told to “shelter in place” and not to come into Boston if you could help it. I had to come to get some work done. Well, if the truth be told I came in because the TV kept telling me not to come in but we had work to do as well. Below you can see some of the pictures I took that day. It was about as close to a horror movie as one could get. I was almost expecting the walking dead to appear from the Granary Burial ground or from beneath the MBTA. But luckily Mother Goose and Sam Adams stayed in their boxes. It was a stark contrast to the mayhem of a few days earlier when no one knew what might blow up next. I walked the streets taking pictures of the emptiness thinking how peaceful it was. I contemplated taking a selfie in the middle of Tremont Street with no clothes on at all but decided that joking around on a somber day like this was probably a bad idea. And it was chilly outside and you know what that can do a guy’s package.

As I stood at the corner of Park Street and Tremont it got me thinking about another time almost twenty years earlier when it was just as empty, desolate and spooky. I was almost in that exact spot.

Some of you may know about the business I've been in for many years. One of the main parts of it is a somewhat unconventional retail business. We sell many things from pushcarts or kiosks. Most of them are outdoors throughout Boston. We do other things now as well but twenty years ago we were relatively new at working for ourselves and I, in particular wasn't anywhere near the street smart maniac that I am now. I had recently left a job where I was in a suit all day. Flash forward to me on the day in question a few months later and I was sitting at a pushcart selling baseball caps.

Two things that day made me an idiot.  The first was that it was the middle of winter, there was a foot of snow on the ground and not one single vendor or even person...or even pigeon or squirrel were outside that day. In retrospect I should never have opened but those were the days BK (before kids) when I was planning on taking another vacation. I hoped it would be a  long one and needed every dime to make it last. The second thing was that I was selling baseball caps. To this day I don’t know why we weren’t selling winter gear like gloves, scarves etc. But it was more than likely because it was a freak snowstorm and the cold New England winter had not completely arrived to bite us on the bottom.

I was all alone. It was a Sunday. No one at all came in to Boston. Occasionally someone would come out of the Green Line station and run down Winter Street but mostly I just sat there on a wooden bar stool next to a beautiful display of caps. Those were the days around the baseball strike so I also carried minor league teams like the Toledo Mudhens, Portland Seadogs and the Durham Bulls. On a good day people ate that stuff up. We were all pissed at the Red Sox for going on strike. This was many years from the 2004 World Series and every Sox fan knew defeat the same way I knew I wasn’t going to be selling a thing on that day. I even had Yankee hats back then. What was I thinking?

In my boredom I began to stare out into the park. The Boston Common is beautiful when it’s covered in a fresh snowfall. I could make out the Frog Pond through the trees and there weren't any skaters on it. The capitol dome gleamed despite the dreary, grey skies above it.

As I stared at the trees something appeared to move on the ground, in the snow. I was firmly entrenched in a daydream and didn't really focus on it at first but when the powdery white snow began to move and form a little cloud I took notice. Something alive was buried under the dusting of snow and it was moving! My first thought was that it must be a dog but it was way too big. It was definitely a human. Apparently someone had laid down on the ground and fallen asleep before the snow fell!  It was hard to tell whether it was a man or woman. They had a blanket over themselves when they sat up so it looked like a green and white ghost but as the snow fell away I could see that it was an extremely dirty person. When he stood up literally a puff of dirt came off him. He had a long beard that was brown, grey and yellow. He had on a hat that looked like it had been on his head for 100 years. It was black but it didn't start out that way.

He dusted the snow off himself and straightened his coat. It was a dark green trench coat that he wore over what looked like a garbage bag stuffed with burlap. He was wearing it like a shirt. There was a hole for his head and the other holes had dirty burlap poking through. He coughed for a while and I looked away having gotten bored. When I looked back he was staring at me.
At that point I took him all in. He was what I call the hard core homeless. It didn’t look like he had ever taken a bath and there was no way he spent a night in one of Boston’s many shelters. He lived outside and probably knew how to sleep in the snow or anywhere else. He was so dirty looking that ten bars of ivory and a sand blaster wouldn’t have helped. His boots had holes in them but he had stapled cardboard over the holes and wrapped newspaper around his legs over his trousers which were of course black but didn’t start out that way.

He stopped staring at me and began walking towards me. I was thinking to myself that there was no way he was coming over here. Why would he? I turned around and pretended that I was busy. I began arranging baseball hats and straightening things out. I was peripherally keeping a close watch on him and as he got closer it became apparent that he wasn't coming to me but to the wall behind me. At Park Street there is a brick wall where everyone sits. He headed to the far area of the wall and began walking down it towards me. Every few feet he would sit and then get back up as if that spot wasn’t going to work for him. He tried another. Now the wind began to blow and the aroma of this guy wafted over to my nostrils. A loud and forceful gag tried to leap out of my mouth. I put my arm across my mouth quickly and stifled it. As he got closer to me I tried to breathe out of my mouth only. If you could bottle the smell of rotting flesh and mix it with the stench of a million septic tanks you still wouldn’t approach the actuality of what I smelled that day.

He had stopped directly behind me and from what I could see without looking directly at him, he had found the perfect spot. Now it appeared as if he was reaching for something in his coat. No, that wasn’t it. He reached towards the front of his coat and unbuttoned it. Then he was fiddling with his pants. I took a few steps away so I could see what the heck he was up to. The pushcart itself was between he and I but now I could see what he was doing. He had pulled his pants down but his coat was covering him. He then placed one butt cheek on the wall and one off the wall in a weird sort of half sitting half balancing position. It occurred to me what he was doing just as he started doing it.

Have you ever heard the expression “The World is Your Oyster.” well the world was this guys toilet. He was using the wall as a sort of lean to/toilet area and I had a front seat to watching him poop. He let loose a very firm, very large steaming pile of excrement. I didn’t think he had any digestive issues because his stool sample looked quite healthy.

(not actual photo from that day)

To say I was flabbergasted would be somewhat of an understatement. Today's Cappy never would have let the guy even get near him. But yesterdays Cappy had not yet been spoiled by the horrors and cold reality of the lives that some people live.
So I pretended not to notice. The smell instantly got way way worse. He finished up and hiked his pants back up and sat there looking relieved. A few minutes later he stood up.

Now I hoped he would leave. Go back to the tree he lived under and re-bury himself in the snow.
But alas this was not to be. He still craved human interaction apparently because after a five minute coughing and hacking fit he decided to walk around the cart and see what I was up to.
At that moment I was trying to picture what it would be like to poop daily and never wipe.

He sauntered over directly in front of me and watched as I held my breath. He appeared to be looking at the hats. His long yellowish beard had food particles stuck in it. I was noticing crackers or bread crumbs.  He had one greenish tooth and long ropey snot was hanging from his nose. The Tull song Aqualung was playing in my head. I was just wondering how long I could hold my breath. He came closer. I finally said, HEY man! What do you WANT?”

He leaned in and quicker than I would have guessed he was capable of snatched a Harvard hat off the shelf.


He began unbuttoning his coat again and I was frantically looking around for someone to help me. Not one soul was there.

He reached into the filth and came out with what looked like a pouch of some kind. He pulled a HUGE wad of bills out of it. I noticed at this point that every single bill in his hand was a HUNDRED. This guy had thousands of dollars on him. He peeled one off and gave it to me.

I gave him back 88 dollars careful not to touch him.  “Do you want me to put it in a bag?” I asked
He ignored me and after putting his money back into the mess from whence it came pulled off the black, soiled hat he was wearing.  He tossed it into the trash. He propped the new, clean Harvard hat on top of the grayish, yellowish, brownish hair and left the area. He walked back off into the trees and promptly disappeared.

I realized that day that there was a lot of assumptions I  was making about people and about life and that I was mostly wrong in my conclusions. I have no idea what his story was nor did I ever see him again but I had a nice big pile of human poop behind me as a visual aid for when I told his story to others.

It’s amazing how the quietest of times can bring on the loudest of lessons. I never looked at the homeless the same again after that day. I realized that until someone proves themselves a bad person I would give them the benefit of the doubt.

I also leave a roll of toilet paper in the park once in a while just to do my part to help.

Spare some Chaaaaange?