Jobless, broke, angry–that’s my life as of right now. So I decided to go out and take a long stroll, get some fresh air, to put my mind at ease. So I left my crib and went down North Street, past the I-10 overpass, before taking a detour to go to Spanish Town. From there, I cut through the state capitol grounds, central business district, across the parking lot, and finally onto the levee’s riverwalk.
I sat in the first available green bench, seeking solitude, so I could stare at the glimmering Mississippi River and the Port Allen skyline, thinking about my housing situation. The longer I sat there, people came and went, doing all sorts of fun activities. An hour or so later the riverfront was soon overran. Not surprising since it was a mild but bright sunny afternoon. Seating became so scarce that people began sitting all along the levee on its steps and embankment.
Right then this Rastafarian-looking brother, likely over six feet tall, wearing green cargo pants, and a black short sleeve linen shirt over a cardinal t-shirt, glided up, and sat beside me. I looked at him, and then, I took a moment to search as far as I could for another empty green bench. None were available. So I sat there. Slightly bothered by the odor, but mostly uneasy. That this dreadlock fellow had gotten quite comfortable. He had removed his shoulder sling bag and laid it across the bench between us, kicked off his sandals, and placed a carry-out plastic bag at his side.
I almost got up and moved just for hell of it, but didn’t. I should blame Hurricane Katrina for sending him. The City of Baton Rouge now had human litter everywhere. They’ve been seen all over town and occupying public spaces, downtown specifically. For a while, the River Center’s chlorinated water fountains had become bathing pools. Nudity was so prevalent it forced the city to shut off the water to deter further acts of hygiene. Policing soon followed. Homeless people were run off or arrested to reduce their presence. Some still show up, even to this day, but they don’t stay long, nor do they engage in further indecency.
“I’m not bothering you, am I?” He asked, shaking my daydream. “This is my favorite bench. I like the perspective it gives.”
“Not yet,” I said. “You do smell, though.”
“I do?” He replied, sniffing himself.
“Yeah, you do.” I told him. “Like, what is that?”
“Pumice soap and purple kush,” he answered.
“Smelling like that?” I told him. “That shit is loud, for real.”
“It is?” he replied. “My lady friend likes it.”
“I bet,” I replied.
He soon untied his plastic bag, taking out a foam plate, a bottle of sparkling mineral water, and plastic utensils. The lid flipped back, revealing its food; and then, he began feeding his face. Nothing was said. But every now and then, I tried to take a peek, and each time I did, I couldn’t figure it out.
“Say brother, what is that?” I asked, “Something from St. Vincent’s?”
“Oh no, not this. I got this from an Indian Deli off Florida Boulevard, not a soup kitchen. I can’t remember its name, but I know where it’s at; it’s located right behind the Payless Shoe Store. You should go there. They cook a mean curry goat, among other dishes.”
“Curry goat?” I said. “I’ll pass.”
“Too bad,” he said. “You’re missing out.”
“I doubt it,” I said. “What’d it hit you for?”
“Ten dollars,” he said.
“Say what!” I said in disbelief. “It’s not that good. Not for ten dollars.”
The Rastafarian shrugged his shoulders and I watched him twist open his bottle, taking a few swallows before recapping it. Then he lifted his foam plate up in the air for a second, so he could fold his legs in order to eat more comfortably.
“Hold up,” I thought. “You carry that much loose change?”
“What?” He replied, “Oh, not at all. All my loose change goes into a gallon Mt. Olive pickle jar. Save up for laundry day. Staying in clean clothes will cause people to treat you better.”
“Uh huh, so you paid cash?” I pointed out. “I mean, like, with dollar bills?”
He replied, mockingly, “Like, yeah? Don’t you?”
“I do, but … nevermind.” I told him. “I didn’t mean anything by it.”
“Listen, I don’t do that, alright?” He said defensively. “I don’t stand at intersections holding written placards. I don’t beg. None of that. I’m not that kind of dude. But I admit, if I see a coin on the ground, I will pick it up.”
“My apologies,” I said. “So what’re you then?”
“I’m just homeless,” he replied. “Just another transient.”
“You sure?” I questioned.
“No doubt,” he responded. “Although, I don’t sleep in a shelter, a group home, or in some dark and dank place. I am that. My home is mobile. Finding somewhere safe to park it is often the problem; because, to stay put in one place too long could draw unnecessary attention. So I constantly move around.”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa?” I said, “You have a RV?”
“No, no, no. Nothing that big. It’s a van. No, a ’67 bus,” He corrected himself. “Nothing special, but it’s home.”
“You can afford that,” I said, somewhat shocked. “And it’s driveable? Insured? I mean, you have a driver’s license?”
“Oh, yeah.” He said. “Got to stay legal.”
“How?” I hinted.
“Show proof of who I am,” he said. “That I’m not simply a noun, right.”
“Yeah, that’s how it’s done,” I said. “So what else do you use it for? Public assistance?”
“What!” He exclaimed.
“Crazy check?” I said.
“Hell nah!” He thundered.
“For what then?” I asked.
“Maintain a P. O. Box and bank account,” he replied.
“Your what!” I replied, waving him off.
I then spun to face him directly, really confused now. Because, what my ears heard and eyes saw didn’t register? Not anything rational. How could this brother live in the brink and look normal? It didn’t add up and I wanted to know, whatever it was.
“Okay, so let me get this straight.” I said. “Your bus is your crib, right; you burn, keep yourself up, have money, and you support it all without a real job, public aid, and not from panhandling? Get the fuck out of here. Like, really? You expect me to believe that. Come on now. My birth wasn’t recent. Give me that.”
He said nothing, only smiled, and took another spork full.
“Okay, okay? So what do you do?” I asked him, “Help a brother out. How come you got it so good?”
“I outwit people.” He replied, “I earn plenty from February to May down in New Orleans and at college campuses, particularly when their semesters begin. Three-card Monte, the shell game, and playing chess pays well. You’ll be amazed at how giving people become when hubris, sin, and guilt are at play. They rather spend it than dole it out charitably.”
“Really?” I said.
“Really. I just know people are more willing to play and pay when it involves them. It’s natural. Acting human is a pleasure-seeking experience.” He explained. “Haven’t you noticed people are quick to support a performer, or gamble against a total stranger, than entertain someone just walking up with his palm up. Begging isn’t seen as trying, but just that: begging.”
“Okay,” I said. “I see. I got you. So, tell me this: if your hustle is all that, then why live like you do. Enter the real world, I would. Me, I’d rather jump in that river there than be you and do what you do. This is America, dog. Where you can rob, steal, or kill to get ahead. If not that, then play the system. Recoup your reparations somehow; because, bruh, that kind of street hustling you’re talking about won’t cut it. At least not for me.”
“Maybe not? I get that, it’s hard living. You couldn’t adjust to the obstacles that support it. In that world, you see, one must accept another kind of freedom that exerts itself: raw survival. You’ll do things you normally wouldn’t. Homelessness challenges the instinctual part of your nature, right down to its ethical and moral purpose, making certain beliefs expendable. And whatever is left is either enlightenment or insanity, believe that.”
“No thanks,” I replied. “I’m close enough already.”
“I bet. Say, what’s your name?” He asked. “Mine is Mendigo Van der Zwart.”
My head jerked back, but not far enough to not notice how nice-looking his hand was as he extended it. Even his fingernails, albeit long for my liking, were clean and round. This brother, right here, couldn’t be homeless? No way. I don’t care what he says.
“Uh, Mr. Smith,” I lied, shaking it. “Nice name you got there?”
“I know, huh.” Mendigo chuckled.
“What is that?” I asked.
“Dutch,” Mendigo told me.
“Do you speak it?” I replied.
“I do.” He replied. “That and Spanish.”
“Fuck!” I blurted. “Homeless people usually don’t speak foreign languages, you know, unless they’re slightly off and talking in tongues. And you’re not that, are you? Is that what the weed is for, for medicinal purposes, to keep the voices at bay.”
“No it isn’t,” Mendigo said. “I just like smoking weed.”
“Must be nice,” I replied. “I still don’t believe you’re homeless. Not based on what I see.”
“Seriously,” Mendigo told it. “I don’t look it?”
“Nope,” I said bluntly.
“I’m a transient, alright.” Mendigo began…
“You see, I lost my parents to a car accident. I was in the tenth grade. At the time, my life was in disarray with an uncertain future. I didn’t have any extended family; so I moved around a lot, from friend’s house to friend’s house, but that became intolerable. Next thing I knew I became public property and held captive by the State of Mississippi for five long years.”
“But on my eighteenth birthday, the state lost its fiduciary control of my inheritance. It wasn’t much, but it was a start, and mine. To be honest, I was surprised I got any of it. That it hadn’t been pocketed, if you know what I mean. Three years later, I was emancipated and man did it feel good. It felt like I was skipping across water puddles six feet deep without sinking.”
“What almost ruined it though, that surreal high, was this judge–a Judge James Greenville. He stated from the bench that Mississippi wasn’t a fit place for my kind. That I should return home, Africa maybe, up North someplace, perhaps Eurasia, or voluntarily go behind concertina wire. Altogether, fine places for Negroes like myself with extraordinary talents, intelligence, and motives.”
“I resented him and his bigotry, but it all worked itself out. Somebody must’ve kept tabs. Prior to my freedom, I received a brown certified envelope. It had been delivered twice? Because, people running the shelter kept trying to sign for it knowing they couldn’t. I later discovered they wanted to know its contents to conceal them, to commit sabotage regardless.”
“You see, they would’ve done it for sure had they known it held an all-expense paid trip to Washington D.C. No way would they’ve let me go there to attend a symposium where some of the brightest minds in the world devoted to advancing mankind’s future met. I might fuck around and impress somebody, you know, make something of myself.”
“The enclosed letter also provided a deadline to accept their invitation and I didn’t hesitate. I notified them immediately that I’d be there. Besides, I was very interested in seeing what they had to offer; but, I also knew my parents’ desires. They sacrificed a great deal to put me through private schools from birth, so I could become the best at whatever I chose to pursue.”
“After that, I scoured the local newspaper looking for a used car to buy. I saw an ad for this old two-tone Volkswagen bus. I purchased it, had it fixed it up, loaded up my shit, and drove it to D.C. Thankfully, my road trip went smoothly. Once there, I checked into this selected hotel and spent the week riding public transit to attend these lengthy training seminars and lectures given by prominent social scientists in their field of expertise.”
“While there, sadly, I picked up this bad vibe from those I met. I often felt my fellow peers looked upon my attendance disparagingly. Even people of color acted prejudiced, which I didn’t expect, but should’ve. Perhaps, I insulted their sensibilities after I told them that I was born out of that rich Mississippi Delta tradition and not some protected palatial landscape. And that’s when I met him. The man who offered destitution as a career path.”
“You’re kidding, right?” I said.
“Nah, I’m serious!” Mendigo replied. “Maybe I became an ideal candidate when I was redirected to these advanced discussions that focused on human and economic ecology, who knows? But what I do know was that evening I was notified to take the next day off to explore the city and give serious thought about skipping the closing dinner, and focus more on my future, which I did.”
“That night, I walked out of the hotel and was met by a bright moonlit sky, a cool breeze, and speed walking cityfolk. I wasn’t far from the local park where I had seen earlier men playing chess, so I walked in that direction. I wanted to test myself and learn some new positions before I left town and explored the country.”
“I entered the park and there standing on the sidewalk was a lanky fellow, in a dark suit, sentry-like, looking out studiously at chess games in progress. His night vision must’ve been sharp considering it was a dim lit park. He didn’t even try to get closer. Nor did he play the old man nearby, sitting there reading his newspaper, who already had his board and clock setup. So I asked him, the dark suit: ‘You’re not playing him?’
“The dark suit sized me up.”
“Look at them—homeless,” the dark suit said. “Straight up hustlers, you know. You won’t find any of these people loitering at intersections holding up handwritten signs begging for money. They outwit you for it. Would you believe one of these geniuses got the bright idea to clean up this public space and turn it into a chess park? Now it is a real money pit. Wild, huh?”
“I was like, okay.”
“Then the dark suit said: Just so you’ll know. The most advanced players sit at the tables closest to the sidewalk. Consider them grandmasters. Most people play players in the middle and farther out. Also, if you decide to play, know when to quit. Don’t do what some diplomat’s son did, okay; he had several security branches out here after he got smashed. He was pissed and embarrassed that that old man right there took him for two thousand dollars and a diamond ring.”
“Did the old man give it back?” I interrupted.
“The money? Nope.” Mendigo replied. “The ring, he did; but at a price.”
“How much?” I asked.
“Another two thousand,” Mendigo recalled.
“Damn,” I said. “That old man fucked him for real. Now that’s a hustle.”
“I know, right?” Mendigo replied. “So I studied the old man. He looked the part alright, but the signs weren’t quite right. He didn’t act slow. He didn’t look unkempt. He didn’t smell like he slept on dirty mattresses, under expressways, behind dumpsters, or in parking garages–nothing like that. But that old guy crushed some diplomat’s son and made four grand. Now that was intriguing. So I stood there debating, then I greeted him.”
“Play a game?” I asked him.
“The old man looked like John Brown. He folded his paper and put it aside. Then, he explained the house rules. Five dollars per game; Touch move; Ten-minute games; Loser gets black. I placed a ten underneath the time clock and we shook hands. Soon openings began. Moves came fast, timer hit repeatedly, pieces traded, castles, creative indecisions, sacrifices, checks, checkmates, resignations, and draws. This continued for hours. Our games drew park spectators. Neither of us spoke throughout it all. Finally, the homeless man called it quits, only ten dollars richer.”
“Just as I feared,” the old man said. “A third world citizen capable of using the proper tools to indiscriminately kill white people. That’s a good sign.”
“He then rose and gathered his stuff. The crowd extolled us for our play. I offered to buy him a meal, but he turned it down. So, I offered him a rematch as conciliation. Even told him which hotel I was at. The old man never stopped packing. The man in the dark suit assisted him in that endeavor and they left together.”
“Who was he?” I asked.
“I found that out later,” Mendigo replied. “Instead of playing with other players, I went back to the hotel, feeling good about how I played and whatnot. The next morning, around 3:00 a.m., my phone rings. It was the concierge desk unhappy about a homeless man—a Dr. Jabezz Stoneridge—standing in the lobby. He asked for me. I thought: ‘A Doctor?’ So I got dressed as fast as I could, went downstairs, and met him. I apologized to the desk clerk, saying that it was cool and, that I had invited him.”
“We exchanged good mornings, then I said to him: Dr. Stoneridge, it’s kind of early isn’t it?”
“Dr. Stoneridge didn’t mince words. He wanted to replay those lost games and talk. I said sure and we left out, back toward the park. I didn’t think anything of it then, but the park was vacant except for that dark suit fellow. He was standing there holding a brown paper bag. Once we sat down, the dark suit reached into the bag to place two bottles of sparkling mineral water, two large foam containers, paper napkins, and plastic utensils before us. So I opened the lid to find oxtails and grits in it.”
“Now that’s my kind of eating,” I said.
“I know, right.” Mendigo replied. “Like, who in town cooks that at that hour?”
“For real,” I replied. “I’ll go there over your Indian Deli.”
“Whatever,” Mendigo replied. “Anyhow; I began digging in when he suddenly started multiple blindfolded games. I got the impression this wasn’t about chess, but something else. I soon realized I was being interviewed.”
“So what did he ask you?” I asked.
Dr. Stoneridge asked, said Mendigo: “Do humans adapt to nature? Is the survival of mankind a moral imperative? Should people or nature be allowed to weed out the weak? Do the survival of the survivors make us better human beings? Is empathy measurable, cost wise? Does it, empathy, serve as an effective methodology to prepare leaders to make socially prudent decisions? And, after each question and answer he’d call out his chess move.”
“And this went on and on until sunlight shone. The games ended in a draw. He was impressed. We shook hands again and he stood up. Since he bought the food, I figured I could clean up our litter and put it in the trash bin. I hadn’t noticed, in that brief moment, that the old man and dark suit had departed. They were already walking across the park and getting into a dark Suburban. I didn’t know what to make of it, at what just happened. So I decided to take a long walk to clear my head.”
“Upon returning to the hotel, the concierge said I had mail. It was another brown envelope. I took it and returned to my room, sitting there on the bed, thinking what now? I stared at it nervously, wondering. Imagining so many things until I finally unzipped it. To my surprise, it held documents having my name on all of them. Contracts for every incentive: land, wealth, admission into a prestigious university, a foreign passport, second citizenship, a guardian angel, global healthcare, and other rewards.”
“To get them though, I had to sign the enclosed social contract and forfeit five years of my life to become homeless. To do otherwise, it would’ve tracked my ongoing activities indefinitely. For it contained a non-disclosure agreement laying out the surveillance it could and would do based on what decision was made, particularly if I declined.”
“At first, I laughed. You know, disbelievingly. Then the mind bulb lit up: Dr. Stoneridge must’ve sent that first package. He already knew what I was capable of even as a teenager. I began wondering: did my parents know him? I spent that day reading and rereading every fine detail. I skipped the ceremonial dinner. I wanted to be sure, you know, unequivocally. I had to decide by 8:00 am. I was literally signing my life away.”
“I got up early that morning and packed. It was 6:00 a.m. when I got to the main lobby. A short young lady stood up. She had a plain but round face, a churn butter complexion, deep brown eyes, and a dark bob haircut. Laying at her feet was a blue duffel bag. In her hand, she flashed a small whiteboard displaying my name and under her left armpit was a brown envelope.”
“I couldn’t help but notice how the wool varsity jacket fit her, in that it featured her irregular pear figure of being small up top and stout below. Now I wasn’t sure why she was there, or who she was, but I had an idea, so I met her. The tension was quickly broken. Brief greetings and names were exchanged, along with deep sighs of relief, knowing there was someone else willing to participate in such a social experiment.”
“I soon checked out, then shouldered her bag, and carried mine. We both left the hotel together for my bus, drove to the park, and handed both of our brown packets to this dark suit female sitting at the table where I played the old man, just as the instructions said. She accepted them both and then to our surprise she told us all our finances had been put into a joint ebank account.”
“We had only that and whatever we could deposit into it as earned income. To make it last for five years and do so without public assistance, financial charity of any kind, or reliance on criminal acts. Such activities would be monitored. The dark suit gave us a reloadable debit card and a fancy encrypted mobile phone, and then explained its usage, that if we survived the experiment, it will call us on this exact date. So don’t lose it. Good luck and godspeed.”
“After that, we hit the road; thinking up strategies on how to best survive the next five years on fixed funds. Yeah, we were afraid. Who wouldn’t be? Still though, we went into it fully aware of the dangers and it forced us to forge a lasting partnership, where personal histories were shared, and promises made to never abandon the other, regardless of how desperate it got.”
“We agreed instantly to outfit the bus for sleeping and buy supplies. Then we chose Baton Rouge, Louisiana as the more favorable city and state to do what we needed to do. We’ve been here since 2006. Some ideas worked, others didn’t. But in the end, though, those that did work got us through. Quite honestly, we both had our doubts until today came. Today is May 19th, graduation day. We graduated from one of the hardest and cruelest schools. But it was worth it, because early this morning a phone call woke us up, offering warm congratulations, saying the experiment was over, and all those incentives had been formalized. Now, I’m waiting for my lady friend. She went off to make travel arrangements and preparations. Time for us to get going and put what we learned to good use.”
“Say brother, that’s a hell of a story,” I said, disbelieving it. “A real doozy. So, out of curiosity, where’re you’ll going?”
“Mediterranean most likely? I can’t forget what that Mississippi judge said,” said Mendigo. “My lady friend suffered similar indignation in New Mexico. So we thought why not go overseas. Repatriate later, if at all.”
“I hear you,” I replied, somewhat amused.
Mendigo finished his meal. Then he reached down into his shoulder bag, withdrew a cigar, and lit it. Soon he was inhaling deeply, the smoke, up his nose and from it. The odor was pungent. It caused some bystanders to hurry past. Several stared at him disapprovingly. Jealousy came from others. Soon a short bottom heavy woman marched up and stood before us akimbo and she beckoned for the blunt. I was taken aback by this.
“Mendigo,” she said. “Are you ready?”
“I am,” he responded. “Been ready?”
I figured it must’ve been his lady friend, the one he met at the hotel. She didn’t look like a bag lady, all raggedy, deficient, and diseased, but rather attractive and healthy–having brown butter skin, lengthy copper hair, and dressed in a faded blue spaghetti strap sundress, and matching canvas shoes. Then she told him something in Spanish, which made his eyes flash, and produced a huge smile. He glanced over his right shoulder, looking down the hill, to find a big black sedan, and that dark suit female from five years ago posted beside it.
“Dessa Válida,” Mendigo said. “This here is, uh, Mr. Smith.”
“Hello, Mr. Smith.” Dessa said.
“Hello,” I replied.
“Bae, our flight departs New Orleans in five hours,” Dessa said. “Tomorrow we’ll be in Madrid. Also, our bus will arrive two weeks later.”
“No shit!” Mendigo said.
“No shit,” Dessa replied. “I couldn’t see us going abroad without it. The three of us have been through a lot.”
“That’s what’s up,” Mendigo shouted.
Mendigo jumped up, a foot taller than her, and then he embraced her, lifting her clean off her feet, displaying his strength. They shared a long shotgun kiss until she landed on her feet. He then shouldered his bag, drew on the blunt twice more, and then offered it to passing strangers. One accepted it happily? I didn’t want any part of it.
“Well, Mr. Smith,” Mendigo gestured. “It’s nice meeting you. Take care, alright. Our ride awaits.”
“You too,” I replied.
We all shook hands. Dessa then discarded his litter. They kissed again and headed out, holding hands, and ambled down the steps toward River Road.
There goes one bad brother, couple actually. So crazy, them two, choosing to do what they did. They went into the most inhospitable setting to get ahead. And although I saw the car doors opened, held, and shut behind them, before they pulled off. I still had my doubts.
Perhaps it’s true, his testimonial? Maybe? I sighed, looking skyward. Then it got me to thinking, trouble lay ahead. An eviction notice had been posted on my front door and it stated I had five days to vacate. After meeting him, yeah, I better pawn some stuff to pay this month’s rent and the next. Because, I had absolutely no intentions on being homeless. That’s not for me. Now if it got that dire, I will resort to crime and public aid, or die trying. The alternative lies at the bottom of that murky water.
Wayne McCray was born in East St. Louis, Illinois, in 1965, and grew up in Chicago until 1984. He attended Southern University A and M College in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He currently lives in Itta Bena, Mississippi, enjoying country life. His writings have appeared in Afro Literary Magazine, The Bookends Review, Chitro Magazine, Drunk Monkey, The Ocotillo Review, Ogma Magazine, Pigeon Review, The Rush Magazine, and Wingless Dreamer.