Memories return like dreams, if they return at all. Something reminds. A flash flood, and you are elsewhere, in another time.
It’s hard to find your way back.
Last night. House show in Philly. Erik Petersen was doing what he does when he’s not sharing the stage with the rest of Mischief Brew, filling an entire room with his voice, a guitar and an occasional train whistle. The song I didn’t know. With shows like this, often the words are inaudible, but with Erik the words are largely the point, so most came across clearly. It was a generational account. The kind where the grandpa tells the grandson who becomes the grandpa who tells another grandson. Or at least that’s what it sounded like to me. But, I wasn’t there for most of the song.
It didn’t take much to take me away. This grandpa had lost his limbs to the railroad. The words came out, the crowd yelled along. They were all there, but suddenly I was on a sidewalk in Seattle.
He didn’t have either leg. To get around he used two standard crutches, designed to help someone with a sprained ankle get around for a week or two.
I feel guilty that I don’t remember his name. I don’t even remember if anyone knew him, or if he had just shown up. That happened all the time in that life.
We didn’t ask how it happened. We just knew, or thought we knew. The train had taken them. That was who we were. The people that passed through, if they didn’t ride trains, they spent time walking around the freight yards, chasing whistles. Trying to get close to them. It was how I’d got to Seattle.
I was there for a week, and in traditional fashion we cooked food, made alterations to torn clothes and drank. A lot.
In those days that was how I got through. I ran. I risked life and limb, and I tried to get happy by inducing it with whiskey.
I guess for our nameless friend, the story was similar, the whiskey never quite worked. Sure, it brought you elsewhere, for a time, but it always brought that elsewhere back. “You’re not a happy drunk,” a friend once said to me. She was right. The whiskey felt good, maybe only because it brought you closer to the desolation that was otherwise just below the surface.
The boy was barely in his 20s from the looks of it. We welcomed him in. Somehow we had ended up on the sidewalk just around the corner from the house where we were staying, down a hill in the central district. We sat by the street like it was just an extension of our living room, laughing and talking. Making friends. I remember him smiling. He was having a good time. There was whiskey, wine and probably more than a few Olympia tall boys.
It turned. Like it does for me. All it takes is one free moment. The mind has a split second to think, and you look down at where your legs used to be. You remember what you were able to do before. The strangers around you don’t know what happened, and you don’t want to tell them. They know the basics. You are still mad at yourself, mad at existence. Living like this was dangerous. It still is. You want to be strong, because we’re all being strong. If we weren’t, we wouldn’t choose this life. We’re smart enough to choose the easy way.
You know the way they look at you. They do their best to see you for who you are, and they succeed, until you try to stand up. You don’t want help. It’s not exactly pride, but that you must cling to some semblance of self-reliance. You’re not helpless yet. But the whiskey, even with legs, you’d stumble. The tear begins to form in your eye. Your new friends, you know they’re not repulsed, but that they can’t help but pity you just a little.
They’ve invited you back to the house, but you can’t go anymore. Now it is pride. You would like nothing more than to rest. Sleep it off, wake up around people who care about each other and may care about you in the morning. Maybe share some breakfast. Ingredients pulled from the Whole Foods dumpster. Maybe some from the food bank.
That is what we do. We take what we have and break it into enough pieces to nourish those who still have the strength to hope.
Instead he got up on the crutches. Placed them of the cracked sidewalk, and swung his torso towards downtown. I don’t remember his name. I hadn’t thought of him in years, but he still lives here, in the space where these songs play on repeat. Everybody’s there and nobody leaves.
And for him, I can’t give up.