Book 3: The Centre

by Rick Beck

Chapter 8

Mission District

Sal and I sat on a bench watching the street. A blond-haired woman in a green poncho waved her arms at the sky, screaming quite madly at it. People parted as she walked against the morning foot traffic. She was coherent enough to stop when she had a red light, but crazy enough not to care who saw her insanity. She wasn't old, maybe forty or younger, but already weather- beaten by the streets.

Even after I lost sight of her, I could still hear her screams. I remembered Jesus screaming at the sky. Jesus was talking to God. I knew that when I was watching it. A few days before he was nursing my foot, keeping me fed, and making Gene and me at home in his brand new, side by side, wide refrigerator box. It was the Cadillac of on-street living. The three of us slept inside, but Jesus never touched Gene or me, except for when he tended to my cut foot.

Jesus was as gentle as gentle could be. His voice was soft. His motions were precise. His years of training told him what to do. Once he was done, my foot healed with little more than some alcohol to keep it clean and frequent changes of the bandage.

Looking at Jesus I could have doubted his competence, but watching him work convinced me I was in capable hands, even if he did wear a sheet. He didn't have much, but he shared everything with us. When there was something we needed, it appeared, even a pair of too-big shoes he'd been protecting for who knows how long. He gave those shoes to me to protect my foot from further damage, because he could see it was what I needed, after using waded up newspaper to adapt the too large shoes to my two small feet.

Jesus believed he was Jesus. He acted as Jesus would act. When he went mad, he spoke to God. It was a terrible thing for me to see in a world where I had no control and everyone seemed somewhat mad. Jesus could be the picture of a man in control, even in a sheet. Seeing him lose his mind scared the hell out of me. It was the single most frightening thing I'd seen in all my weeks on the street. The fear didn't come from seeing a crazy man, it came from seeing a kind and gentle friend go nuts in front of me. I couldn't even trust someone who had proved I could trust him. It was all quite mad.

A chill made me shiver long after the woman's shrieks passed out of earshot. The sounds of the street slowly came back into my ears. My thoughts were still clouded by a man I'd known for only a couple of days.

"Hey, you all there?"

"Huh?" I said, noticing Sal's voice inside my dreamy head.

"Here. Thought you might need this," he said, handing me a soda.

"Pepsi? How'd you know?"

"You ate at the diner? Remember?"

"Oh, no, I didn't think of that," I said, getting a grasp on now.

"You okay? You look… I don't know. You look like you don't feel good. You need some food. You want to go back to the palace and lie down?"

"You got to stop buying me stuff. I want to give you some money," I said, putting my hand in my pocket.

"Forget it. I don't need your money," he said, turning so he didn't need to look at the bills.

"I can't forget it. You're feeding me. You're giving me a place to stay. I can't forget it, Sal."

"Forget it," he said. "Come on. I got somewhere to go."

Sal always had somewhere else to go. Sometimes I waited for him outside. Sometimes I went inside with him. I ruled out he was dealing drugs, or doing tricks, because I saw no sign of his mood changing regardless of where he took me. He did pay for everything and that made me no more comfortable than waking up to find him sitting on one of the kitchen chairs with Agnes straddling him as she jumped up and down on his lap.

I'd never seen anything quite like it. Agnes no longer threw fits, but Sal told her in front of me that I was his friend and I was welcome in his place, and she was to treat me like a guest. Luckily, he'd told her I wasn't interested in sleeping with her, although he mentioned that contingency each morning as we made our rounds in the days that followed.

"Come on," he urged, climbing the steps of the very old, very dirty Wells Fargo Bank.

Sal sat me down and walked over to a thick well-polished mahogany railing, where a woman immediately met him. He spoke with her before coming back to sit beside me.

"It'll be a minute. You sure you aren't hungry? I don't want you getting sick on me," Sal said, putting his arm over my shoulder and speaking intimately to me.

"I'm fine, Sal," I said. "I was just thinking is all. I think a lot."

"About me, I hope," he smiled, hugging his face close to mine in an intimate hug.

"Of course," I said, touching his arms.

I did like him but not enough to get involved in his weirdness. I still hadn't done anything about what I'd come for, but I was rested up after the long trip and my mind was back on my business.

"Come on," he said, when the woman signaled to him.

We walked back through the bank and into a vault with its huge thick door swung wide open.

"Your number?" the woman requested.

"Eleven seventy-three," Sal said, handing her a key he held out in his hand.

The woman stretched to insert the keys and open the door so she could remove the safe deposit box. She walked us out of the vault and into a room adjacent to it. She opened the door of a small cubical and waited for us to enter before she came into set the box down in the middle of the table. She left us, closing the door firmly behind her.

"Why'd you bring me in here?" I asked. "I'm not into kinky locations."

"Very funny, Billie," Sal said, flipping back the top on a good-sized box.

I stood looking in at a half dozen bundles of bills wrapped in rubber bands. I'm sure my mouth dropped open. I'd always had enough money to get by on, except when I was last in San Francisco. Now I was seeing more money than I knew for certain existed. We're talking real money here.

"The restaurant money. It's what Papa didn't take with him. I don't touch it very often. I can have what I want, but I have their old place and when I work I have spending money. I don't need your money, Billie. It'd simply get thrown into the box. I doubt I'll ever spend it and my folks aren't young. I'm the only kid, and they're making money in Mexico. They come here off and on, but haven't touched the money as far as I know."

What do you say to a man who has a box filled with more cash than you've ever seen?

The box was closed and the contents went untouched. The box was returned to its resting place. Sal led the way out of the bank. I didn't know what to make of him.

"Why show me that, Sal?" I said, sitting down on the first bench we came to.

"Why not? You keep bugging me wanting to give me money. You're sleeping on my couch. Save your money, Billie. As you can see, I don't need it. You are at my place because I want you there. You are my guest. Get used to it and save your money."

"I like paying my way," I argued softly, knowing he never listened to anything I said.

"Great! You shall buy me lunch," he said loudly, waving down a hotdog cart.

"How do you want your dog?" Sal asked from over his shoulder.

"Sit down. I'm buying lunch," I said. "How do you want your dog," I said in his voice.

Sal laughed and I put out seven bucks for two dogs and two drinks. I could have gotten some real food for that kind of money, but I was determined to pay for something. Dogs would do.

"Hits the spot," Sal said, wiping his mouth with the tiny napkin we were provided by the entrepreneur-on-wheels.

As I chewed on my hot dog I found myself watching a guy that was sitting with two other kids. I thought about my mission, except this was the Mission District and although I knew we'd hung out near here, I didn't remember many street kids in residence in the area.

"What are you looking at?"

"Nothing," I said, clearing my mouth before I spoke, but I looked up at the three boys again.

"You do hustlers, Billie?"

"No!" I objected, wondering if these boys knew any of the boys I knew. "They aren't hustlers."

"Bet me," Sal said, waving the older boy over.

"Yeah!" the surly kid said as the two boys he left sat watching.

"What's up?" Sal asked.

"I don't know. Depends on if you make it worth my while getting it up. Twenty-five. One of you," he snapped, glaring at me as Sal interviewed him.

"I have a girl. I mean she's a bit heavy, but she likes a threesome. What are we talking here?"

"I'll do both of you for twenty-five. I don't take it up the ass, and I don't suck cock. Got it?"

The boy laid down the ground rules carefully as he suspiciously checked me out to see where I fit into the picture.

"What about me?" I asked, being cute for Sal.

"Twenty-five," he said, indignant.

"But I'm with him," I explained.

"I don't give a fuck who you're with. Twenty-five for you."

Sal broke up laughing and the kid wasn't amused.

"You know, Gene?" I asked.

"Gene? Gene who?"

"He hung in The Castro. We had a motel room up there last summer. Lots of you guys came and went."

"You know Fat Alfred?"

"Is that the desk guy?" I asked, sensing some connection with the angry young man.

"Yeah, that's him. We always give him one of the new guys and he gives us a room. It's a good trade for the money."

"Yeah, that's him all right. Gene was thin, dark curly hair, he hung with Ty, Donnie, and a couple of guys named Tony and Tim."

"Yeah, I know Tony. Went north with some guy he met."

"Santa Rosa," I said.

"Yeah! He was working with a contractor up there. I worked for him a couple of times. Him and some other dude lived in a cabin behind the contractor's house."

"Yeah, we all lived together in the motel for a time. Just before they found Donnie's body up off 101."

"Yeah, I remember that. You one of us. You look pretty old for the street. Who's this guy then?"

"Not that old. It's what happens. You grow up. Some of us do and you get off the street if you can."

"LA," he said. "Gene went to LA if it's the guy I think it is. Some rich dude picked him up. He's living the good life. I wouldn't worry none about him."

"That's what they said about Donnie, even after they found him dead. They said he went to LA. They knew what happened to him and they said he went to LA," I objected still angry about the street that no longer owned me.

"Yeah, I heard that story too. Go figure," he said, failing to draw the connection. "Say, I got to make a living. Did I tell you what you wanted to know or what?"

"Here," I said, reaching into my pocket and giving him a ten dollar bill.

"What do you want for this?"

"I already got it. Get something to eat," I said. "That's all I wanted to know."

"I got friends," he said. "They eat too, you know."

"Here," Sal said, holding out another ten. "You can't all eat on that. You should look for another line of work."

The boy put the two bills together, stuck them in his pocket before walking away. Sal sat staring at me in disbelief.

"I just learned more about you in five minutes than I've been able to get out of you in three days."

"It's a long story," I said.

"Why'd you give him your money? He's a hustler," Sal advised.

"He's a kid. He's got to eat. Been there, done that. It doesn't hurt to help someone who needs it."

"You hustled? No you didn't. Billie, don't get me not trusting what you tell me. I trust you."

"I didn't tell you anything. You figured out most of what you know without any help from me. I don't need your approval, Sal."

"No, you haven't said much. I don't suppose you're going to tell me what that was all about? I do have a right to know."

"A guy named Gene saved my ass. I'd like to find him if he's still alive."

"You were here before?"

"Yeah, I spent last summer here."

"Were you the new guy they fed to Fat Alfred for the room?"

"No, I didn't do that. He's a slob. I wouldn't go near him."

"No, you wouldn't. I'm blown away. You want me to get that kid for you? Is that what you like? I can if you want me to."

"No, I don't like kids. I know what it takes to be where he is. These are mean streets and those kids don't have any way to get fed on a regular basis. You'd be surprised what you'd do if you get hungry enough."

"Someone killed that kid, Donnie?"

"Yeah, two guys in a van. They nearly got me once."

"Man, let's get out of here. You're scaring the shit out of me. You survived on the streets? I'd never have guessed that."

"Sal, we've been through it. That's all there is to it. I'm here. I survived."

"I didn't mean to piss you off. Why so angry?"

"I'm not. Those were tough times and they're tough memories."

"And you came back?" he asked suspiciously.

"Here I am," I said, opening my arms wide for him to see all of me.

"Why?"

"I have this crazy idea that I can help the kids get off the street," I confessed. "I don't want anyone going through what I went through. I'd like to do something so that the kids could be kids a little while longer."

"Those kids? What, ten bucks at a time? You'd be broke in an hour. You're not much more than a kid yourself. How can you do anything?"

"I didn't say I knew how to go about it. I'm open to suggestion."

"My suggestion is, go back where you came from. Those kids are commodities. They're bought and sold. No one wants them. They're yesterday's trash. You think it's possible to convince them they don't want to be where they are?"

"I don't know. I didn't come with a plan. I came with an idea. I'll work on it. I don't need to convince them of anything. I need to provide them with an option."

"You're serious?"

It didn't seem to require an answer. It sounded ridiculous. How could someone like Sal understand? He didn't have any idea what it was like. He knew what I said, but he didn't know what I meant. Not many people were going to see it as I saw it.

"You want me to buy that kid for you? I'll do it if you want me to. I got the cash."

"That's exactly what I don't want. That's the problem. There are too many guys who purchase them and then toss them out, after getting what they want off them. I don't want anything from them. I want to find a way to help them.

"You read the laws on that kind of thing? They better get rid of 'em. The law loves a good sex charge. It's all the rage with prosecutors. It's how they make their promotions."

"If they had a safe place to stay, got fed regularly, and maybe went to school, maybe they'd have a chance of living to adulthood. On the street, even if they make it to adulthood, how are they going to survive after that? There's got to be a way to get to them before it's too late."

"They don't want to be pinned down. I've lived here since I was a baby. Those guys have always been out here. They can't stand being closed in somewhere. They're forever looking over their shoulder."

"Well, they shouldn't be out here. They shouldn't think no one cares about them. They should know they can get help if they want it."

"You see it as a problem. Most people see it as one more thing they have nothing to do with. If the truth be known most people never see those kids. They keep on walking until they're no longer faced with them."

"Is that how it is for you, Sal?" I asked.

"Sure."

"Sal, I misjudged you. When I thought you couldn't get more offensive, you have. I've got to go, Sal. Thanks for everything. I mean that. I sincerely thank you for getting me pointed in the right direction. I couldn't have done it without you."

"Billie! Come on, Billie! Don't be like that," he begged.

Sal sounded exasperated. I couldn't go back to that tiny place where they lived. I'd gotten my feet under myself. The fear had passed. I was ready to face the future without giving in to self-service. I walked back toward The Castro, feeling almost at home when I passed the cut-rate motel.

I passed the people on their way somewhere, heading back for the one spot where I could sit and look out on the activities that might lead me to what came next. I pushed myself into the last booth of The Castro's diner and ordered coffee. I'd just given up the only place I had to stay and I felt liberated.

"Water? ...On the house for paying customers," the counterman offered.

"Yeah, thanks. It was a long walk up here."

"Downtown?"

"Downtown," I answered in the counterman's shorthand.

He slid the water over next to the coffee and collected the three one dollar bills I'd set down.

"Keep the change," I said.

"Thanks. Nice stew on special today."

"Just had a hot dog… downtown. It'll take some doing to get anything passed that. I may try some before I leave."

He laughed and I checked to see if it was the same surly man in the same dirty apron. It was. Maybe he was having a good day.

I watched the traffic pick up as the evening rush developed. The foot traffic was still hurried but interspersed with strollers, some couples holding hands, and kids started to appear, two sitting with their backs against the glass where I sat. I remember Ty sitting in the same spot, tapping on the window for me to come out. The memories were far more vivid in the places where they were created. I finished my coffee, thanked the man, and stepped out into the evening air, bag in hand.

Where the hell was I on my way to now?

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