King of the Homeless

I’m sitting in my car in the parking lot at The Purity, waiting while Gary shops.

On Franklin Street, a group walks towards me. Like Van Gogh’s Potato Eaters, they’re dressed in earth tones. Individually, they would go unnoticed in the landscape. But collectively, the six command attention. They walk the sidewalk with a purpose. At my car, they part, half of the group streaming to the right and half to the left. As they pass, I feel their power.

The leader is tall—six and a half feet—with hair the color of sand and a complexion to match. There’s a woman who stands out because she doesn’t look homeless. She has short black hair topped with a small navy and white paisley scarf styled in 60’s fashion—over the head and tied in the back. She also wears glasses—black rimmed, trendy glasses. Her jeans and canvas jacket are clean. She might be an undercover anthropologist or imbedded journalist.

The group sets up formation in a straight line, running parallel to the front of The Purity building.

“Do you have eighty-six cents?” the woman asks the leader.

“No.” His voice is a deep growl. If a German Shepard guard dog could talk, he would sound like this.

“I need a bottle and I’m eighty-six cents short.”

“I only had enough for my bottle today. Don’t got no more.”

This concerns me. Where’s he going to get the money for tomorrow’s bottle?

“Come on, just give me a dollar.”

“No.”

This woman could have graduated from a small Ivy League college and be heir to a fortune. What’s she doing with these people? Why is she begging for eighty-six cents?

Suddenly, the leader yells, “Toby!”

A short, bowling pin of a guy wobbles towards my car. His tangled hair is sun streaked and his deep red face could use an application of aloe Vera cream. He wears a small backpack, his thumbs linked through the front straps.

The leader yells, “Toby, you go back right now and apologize for calling that woman back there a f—ing c—t.”

Toby stops. The expression on his face is utter confusion. Perhaps he’s thinking: it’s July, it’s Saturday, it’s tourist season. There are people on the street, possibly children, who have never heard the “F” word, let alone the “C” word.

“I told you to get back there and apologize for calling that woman a f—ing c—t. She’s good people. Turn around. Go!”

Toby slowly pivots and totters away from the store.

“Goddamned Toby, calling that woman a f—ing c—t.”

This sets off a series of goddamned Toby grumbling among the group.

It takes Toby a good two minutes to reach the end of the block. He stops, unsettled by the vast separation from his pack members.

The leader steps forward, raises his hand and pointer finger and yells, “Toby, keep going. Get back there and apologize for calling that woman a f—ing c—t.”

Toby steps off the curb and crosses the street.

The leader steps back into the group. “Goddamned Toby. Calling that woman a f—ing c—t. She doesn’t deserve that.”

Everyone agrees: Goddamned Toby.

After crossing the street, Toby continues about ten feet when he appears lost. He stops to examine The Floor Store’s sign.

The leader steps forward once again, waving his arm in a gesture of moving air forward, “Keep f—ing going!”

But Toby is stuck.

The leader drops his head and shakes it. “Goddamn it Toby.” He sighs. “You can apologize later. Get the f—k back here.”

Toby looks worried as he nears The Purity. He has tried and failed. He stops in front of my car, staving off the consequences. I prepare to offer a get-away ride.

“Get the f—k over here you f—ing idiot.” There is a playful, forgiving tone to the leader’s voice. Apparently, this is not the first time Toby has failed him. He will not harm him.

“Let’s go,” the leader commands. Even though he didn’t give her eighty-six cents, the Ivy League anthropologist falls in beside him, matching his stride. The group heads north to parts unknown. Toby trails several feet behind.

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