Every day I cut through the alley behind my house on the way to the store. There's a distinct and occasionally heavy smell of methane that emanates from a sewer opening. The pavement is so contoured that, if it was made of dirt and mud, it would make for a good BMX stunt. And most of the time, there's a guy, sitting on a guardrail.
For all the other decay in the alley, the guardrail is an anomaly. It's in better shape than most freeway guardrails and really doesn't belong in an alley with very little traffic.
The guy who sits on it doesn't really "belong" there, I guess. At least not the first time I saw him, early in the morning, hungover and taking a circuitous route around the methane spewing sewer that would put the most flatulent Hereford to shame. And in the process, I almost kicked over his beer. He may have even thought I was going to do it on purpose and I immediately apologized.
He didn't respond. I didn't press the issue.
I began to see him nearly every day and said hello. For whatever reason, he didn't respond the first seven or eight or dozen times, so I just stopped addressing him. If I was him and I had found a quiet little place in an alley I liked, methane be damned, I'd probably be pissed that some bearded dickhead was disturbing my beer-and-bologna revelry. He always has a 24-ounce can of Milwaukee's Best — "The Beast," as we used to call it when it was all we could afford, knowing it didn't have the kick of Olde English or Eleven-Eleven (four sticks of dynamite, for real, at 8 percent-plus ABV). About half the time he has a package of cheap bologna, peeling it off slice by slice and popping it in his mouth.
One day I came around the corner on my way back from the store and startled him. He looked at me with a half snarl, more "Motherfucker, you scared me" than "get the hell away from me." I said I was sorry. He said 'You alright today?" "Sure." Just small talk, stuff that happens on elevators and buses when you see someone all the time.
So the next time I saw him, I asked him if he needed anything. He had his can of beer, 75 percent covered with a brown bag, the kind of thing a cop could be a dick about if they wanted. In over a year, I had only seen a cruiser roll down the alley once, but you never know.
He responded to my offer with an "I'm good." Just enough hesitation for me to wonder if I should have said, "I'm buying". In retrospect, I should have of course made that clear, but I didn't.
Most people who encountered him in the alley would probably refer to him as homeless, and that may be the case, but he doesn't strike me as completely homeless. Some days he's cleaned up enough that it wouldn't be out of the question for him to apply for a job. For that matter, I'm not entirely sure he doesn't have some kind of part-time gig or at least government assistance, for which one usually needs an address. I did see him one day, much earlier than I'm usually up, and from his eyes and his clothing, I gathered that he might have slept in the bed of a pickup truck, one of several abandoned vehicles parked in the yard of the vacant and decaying house on the corner of what is otherwise a well-maintained block. But he always has beer, and he travels light, and he doesn't panhandle at any of the stores or corners in the neighborhood. As many times as I've seen him, I've never even seen him coming around the corner to get to where he hangs out. He's just there. Until the other day. He had been there during our unseasonably cold weather, but he had been there during our average below zero temperatures in February, too. We actually remarked to each other about how crappy the weather was. It was always small talk. It was never freaking Tuesdays with Morrie or war stories or tales of drug addiction or dialysis. I know some of those guys too, by name. John, the recovering alcoholic, who could play a white-haired recovering alcoholic drifter in any movie, and Paul, who always has a different bike and apologizes for dumpster diving, even though I've made it clear I don't care.
I never got around to asking the Milwaukee's Best Light guy his name, probably due to our awkward first meeting.
As I came around the corner from the store recently, I almost said hi. But it was just an overcoat, draped over the guardrail where he likes to sit. I looked around, but he wasn't pissing behind a car, or down at the dumpster throwing out his bologna wrapper — yes, he cleans up after himself. But his beer can was still there. And almost assuredly close to full, otherwise it would have blown over in what was a pretty significant wind. And I had never seen him in a beige overcoat. For that matter, it was cold enough that he probably would have been wearing it.
Had he been hauled off to jail for a warrant? Possible, but the cops probably would have let him bring the coat, unless he left it there on purpose because there was contraband in the pockets.
Had a family member tracked him down and taken him home? He still wouldn't have left the coat. It looked almost new, and I had always known him to be sort of fastidious. He ate his bologna with a napkin, for Oscar Mayer's sake. He always had beer, but never seemed drunk.
If he had fallen ill in the alley in the short time I was in the store, there's no way in hell an ambulance in this town would have gotten to him. I would have found him first.
It began to rain. I thought about taking the coat inside my house to keep it dry for him. But if he came back for it, how would he know? I could leave him a note, but if I wasn't home, what good would that do him?
A week has gone by. The coat is still draped on the guardrail, waiting for my friend to come back. Yeah, he's my friend. We don't share much, other than a neighborhood and a fondness for beer, though I gave it up for a very, very extended Lent. And when my friend comes back, I'm gonna buy him a Milwaukee's Best Light, unless I can talk him into something better. And I'm gonna give him a place to hang his coat on my back porch. And I'm gonna ask him his name.
Jimmy Doom is a Detroiter who acts, writes, and screams at TVs during sporting events.
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