Sunday, 15 April 2018

Shuffling Joe

I didn't set out to become homeless, but it still happened. Now I call a whole city home.

Before, I thought there were plenty of spots to take shelter in New York: shops, subways, doorways, malls, libraries, museums. The city seemed littered with warm welcoming places but by my second night sleeping rough, those doors started to slam in my face. Day by day  I drifted further into invisibility until the multitudes passed me blindly.

Everyone has their own route to the street and mine was booze. It was a slow decay. First, I didn't even notice it myself. It was a beer after work, then a few more. Then came the liquid lunches and a quick shot in my morning coffee to stop the shakes in my hand. As things gathered momentum, I kept telling myself that I could stop, if I wanted to. By the time I admitted the truth, my job was hanging by a thread and my marriage was on the rocks. The only sensible thing to do was to take a few more shots to block out the pain.

The last months of my old life went by in a haze. When I finally woke up in the shadow of a dumpster, it was too late for anything. The cold of the concrete soon seeped into my bones and I began to hate the people who dropped quarters in my cup. Assholes, one and all. I did manage to make one spot own; a tiny arch under an overpass. It smelled of trash but it was dry and out of the wind. It was here that I first bumped into Shuffling Joe or more accurately, Shuffling Joe bumped into me.

It was a terrible night, the rain was coming down in sheets while I lay cocooned like a human taco in my alcove. I had nearly drifted off, with the help of a half bottle of Tequila Rose, when something crashed down on top of me. I lashed out at my attackers, fighting for my life, or so I thought. The truth is, when you live on the street, life is cheap and nobody much cares if yours gets taken or not.

"God-damn-it! Get the hell off me!" I screamed as I battled my way out of my sleeping bag. I expected to feel the bite of a blade, or have my brain rattled, but none of those things happened. Instead, my attacker scrambled away and huddled in the far corner with a haunted look in his eyes.

"Get out of here, this is my place!" I yelled at him and managed to sit up. The traffic rumbled past overhead, the wind made the weeds outside dance as water dripped through the cracks in the roof but my uninvited houseguest was as still as the grave. He just crouched there with a box cradled to his chest and gazed out into the blackness of the night.

"Can't you hear me? GET OUT!" I yelled, but he didn't budge. I thought about getting up and evicting him but this guys elevator didn't go all the way up. He was damaged and damaged people were dangerous. Hell, who wasn't dangerous? The tequila was wearing off and I was feeling less than brave if the truth was known so I decided to stay as far away from him as I could. As long as he stayed in his corner, I'd stay in mine.

"Crazy as a bag of frogs," I huffed and pulled my sleeping bag around me once more. I'm not sure when I fell asleep, but I did, and when I woke the stranger was gone. I jumped up and checked my stuff, sure the guy would have robbed me, but he hadn't. Well, I guess we can all be wrong about people from time to time.

A few days later I saw my visitor again, this time in the food queue at St Mary's community centre. It's a good spot for a warm meal but he arrived late. The kitchen was about to close and only the dregs would be left in the soup pot. I watched as he edged up to the counter and stood there. He didn't take a tray like the rest of us did, he didn't try to pocket a few extra bread rolls like I had done. He just stood there as the volunteer apologised for the condition of the liquid which slopped into a bowl. The man just nodded his thanks and hurried over to an empty table on the far side of the room. I could tell he was starving by the way he lapped up the first four or five spoon full of the grease-covered liquid. But something happened, I saw it in his face, it was as if he had been caught doing something naughty and he slowly straightened up, forcing himself back from the steaming meal. With a shaky hand, he laid aside the spoon, then slowly stood. In a blink of an eye, he was gone.

I wolfed down my own meal. I had a date with a bottle of Wild Turkey that the Holy Rollers would confiscate if I broke it out here. As I passed my visitor's empty seat, I spotted his half-full bowl and an untouched bread roll. I checked nobody was watching as I slipped the roll in my pocket and made my escape. He might be a looney-tune but I wasn't.

That night, winter kicked in for real and the raindrops were so cold, they pinged as they landed. He appeared out of the night like a ghost, I nearly thought it was my double vision playing tricks on me until he moved into my cave and hunkered down as far from me as he could. The box I'd seen before was with him but nothing else. How could he have so little? Even on the street, we all have possessions, this guy didn't even have a blanket to throw over his shoulders.

"So, your back," I slurred. The ghost said nothing.

"God damn cuckoo. That's you? Are you a cuckoo going to shove me out of my nest?" I asked. It made sense in my head. "Well, I'll cuckoo you if you try it!" I slurred and rolled into the corner, turning my back so I didn't have to look at him lurking in the shadows. I felt the bread roll press against my leg. I had forgotten I had put it there. I took it out and held it in front of me. There was nothing in my stomach but gut-rot hooch.

"Cuckoo," I said to myself and devoured the bread. It was a dog eat dog world and I would have two if they were on the menu.

After that night he started coming more regularly, particularly as the winter closed in on us. No matter what I asked, he never spoke a word to me. I thought he might have been a mute but he sure as hell could hear. I knew he was clever, an educated man, you can just tell, even through the dirt. The more I got to know him the more I was convinced he was different to other street folk. I still knew he was crazy, bat-shit-crazy, just different crazy than the rest of us. After a while I christened him Shuffling Joe, because of the way he walked. It was as if the weight of the world was on his shoulders.

Over the years I got used to having Shuffling Joe about the place and, hard as it is to admit, I missed him when he wasn't there. His silence suited me. I talked enough for the two of us particularly when my tongue was loosened up by cheap whisky. We were like an old married couple in the end, right to the end.

Joe left this world as he lived. Silently.

I woke one morning and found him still rolled up in the corner. I got up and gathered my belongings but Joe didn't move.

"Up you get," I said giving the soul of his boot a gentle nudge. His foot flopped over and settled at an unnatural angle.

"Joe?" I said, my voice hushed, my heart heavy. I knew he was gone before I laid my hand against his cheek and found it cool. I sat back and rested my head against the concrete.

"Guess I'll never know your name now," I said to my cooling friend and felt something hard try to climb its way out of my throat. I forced that feeling back down, right back down, and hammered it home before it got the better of me. Joe's troubles were over but I had issues of my own. It was a new day and it wouldn't block itself out! Time to feed the beast and quench the thirst. I thought about dragging his body outside where someone else would find it but I didn't have the heart to do it. I decided just to give my cave a swerve for a while, surely someone would find him eventually. I was about to leave when I noticed Joe's box and he still had one hand wrapped around it.

"You don't need this no more, buddy," I said, pushing the stiffening fingers from the aged cardboard. The box had been wrapped in string, secured with a bow knot. I pulled on one end of the string and the knot fell loose. I lifted up the lid with no idea what I would find, money I hoped. What I did find left me baffled. Inside the box, on a bed of crumpled newspaper, lay a small pair of pink ballet slippers and nothing else.

"You really were a screwball, Joe," I said to my recently deceased cavemate. I was about to toss the box aside but I remembered how much Joe cared for the box, it meant everything to him. As stupid as it seemed, I couldn't make my fingers let go. With a roll of my eyes, I put the lid back on the box and stuffed it in my pack with the rest of my stuff.

"If they guys down the mission see you with those," I said to myself, "you better stay out of the showers for a month or even a year." I shouldered my bag and before leaving my cave for the last time I took one more look at Joe and wondered who he was. An enigma, wrapped in a mystery, wrapped in rags.

That night, I got more out of my head than ever before. The booze blacked out everything and it was only when I found the shoes in my pack the following day did I think about Joe again. I sat on a bench in Central Park and took out one of the slippers. It wasn't new, I could see the way the inside had been moulded to fit a delicate foot after hours of practice. Although the Satan still was lush it held a smudge here and there. Whoever wore them had a tiny foot. It hadn't been Joe that's for sure but it might have been someone Joe loved. As I sat there I knew I had no right to keep these things, they meant nothing to me but someone else might find them to be a treasure. I rummaged through the papers but there was nothing else in the box. That was when I spotted a yellowed label on the underside of the lid. It had the name of a shop on it. Suzette's. The address was in the West Village which wasn't so far away. With nothing else to do and a hangover to walk off, I headed south into unfimillar territory.

I never felt comfortable in Manhatten, I guess I was never a Manhatten kind of guy. When I eventually found Suzette's it turned out to be a brownstone building on an idyllic tree-lined street. It was a dream place to live, a dream from a life I once knew. I tried the door but it was locked. I pressed the bell, but nobody came. I was tired so I took a seat on the steps to rest. About an hour later a lady in her sixties mounted the step and gave me a wary look as she swerved past me. She smelled expensive and existed in a cloud of floating scarves. She put a key in the door and I decided to ask if she was Suzette. The lady stopped with one hand on the key as she turned to look at me.

"In a way, I guess I am. Why do you ask?" she said, her accent sounded like money but it wasn't hard. Still, she was far from welcoming. I took out the box and handed it to her.

"Are these from your shop?" I asked. She took the box and opened the lid as if she expected to find a turd inside. When she saw the shoes her face softened and she lifted one out with great care.

"Why yes, yes they are. These are some of my early work, I haven't seen any of these in...well... twenty years or more. Where did you get them?"

"A friend of mine had them. I was hoping to get them back to his family if I could." I said.

"And what was your friends name," asked the lady still stroking the side of one pretty slipper.

"That's the thing. I don't know." The woman looked at me and I could see all the questions flitting behind her eyes but she chose not to voice any of them. Instead, she turned over the lid of the box and gazed at the label which had got me this far.

"You're lucky that this is the original box. It has a ledger number on it. Wait here and I will see what I can find out." The lady unlocked the door and once she was inside I heard the security chain rattle. I didn't blame her. I wouldn't have let me in either. When the door opened again, she had the box and a piece of paper in her hand.

"I'm sorry to say but I have very little. It's a girls name, Annie Leisman, but the delivery address is an investment house on Wall St. That is all I have. The bill was paid in cash so it's a bit of a dead end."  She handed over the box and the piece of paper and regarded me earnestly. "I hope you get these too, Annie. A lot of love went into these. I'm sure she will want to have them back."

"Thanks, Lady," I said hoisting myself off her stoop. I hadn't got to the sidewalk when I heard the chain rattle again. Wall St? Could Shuffling Joe and Wall St have ever gone together? Only one way to find out I guessed and headed south once more.

It was a long walk and by the time I reached the address on the paper, the doors were locked for the night. So I panhandled a few bucks from passing people, got myself a bottle and spent the night in Battery Park. The next day I went back to Wall St and the address I had for Anne Liseman. It was a typical building for this neck of the woods, old stone, new glass and miles of brass. I got as far as the lobby before a suited guerilla blocked my way.

"Not today, Buddy," he said shepherding me back toward the door.

"I'm looking for someone," I stammered trying to stand my ground.

"And who would you be looking for here?" he said with disdain in his voice.

"A friend," I said and it was the wrong thing to say.

"Yea, right." This time the hand was less shepherding and more shoving.

"I'm looking for Annie Lisemen."

The guy grabbed me by the jacket and half lifted me out of my shoes, "You're looking for a slug in the kisser. Nobody here knows no drunken bums, now beat it." he said shoving me through the door. I have been thrown out of enough places to know how to keep my balance. From the sidewalk, I give the guard a one finger salute and hot-footed it before the cops appeared. 

That night, back in Battery Park, I held shuffling Joe's legacy in one hand and a bottle of cooking brandy in the other. I was on the verge of giving up when I felt Joe's ghost watching me. A shiver ran down my spine and I knew I had to do this thing. I owed it to Joe. The next morning, the tattered box and the still full brandy bottle were in my pack when I returned to the investment house on Wall Street. I ducked my head in the door but didn't enter. The same suited guard recognised me straight away but instead of going in I beckoned him over to the door.

"I told you yesterday to beat it," he said as he got closer.

"I know. Just hear me out for a second. I really am looking for someone. I have a box I got to give them."

"Just leave it with me, I'll take care of it," said the guy. I knew the kind of taking care of he would do. Joe's box would be in the first trash can he passed.

"Can't. Got to do it myself. Look, I just want to ask that lady at the desk if Annie Liseman works here. And, I'm stone cold sober," I said hoping the guy would see that this was the quickest way to get rid of me. But it turns out he was not that kind of guy.

"You might be sober but your still a bum so, OUT!" he said spinning me out the door again.

"God damn corporate nazi," I shouted and snapped out a straight-armed salute. I goosestepped up and down the steps and could see the guy going red inside the door with his huge muscles straining under his suit. I turned my back on him and moved to the pavement. I sat outside the building with my cup on the ground to collect quarters as I asked all the women who went up the steps, "Are you Annie Liseman?"

Three days I stayed sober and three days I stayed at the door calling out for Annie Liseman. It was looking like a lost cause when a man entering the building heard me ask if a passing woman if she was Annie Liseman. The man stopped and came back down the steps. He was forty or so, rich as hell with the slicked-back hair of a guy who thought he was the bees knees.

"I knew an Annie Liseman," he said standing before me.

"Does she work in there?" I asked throwing my thumb toward the door behind my back.

"No, but her Popps did."


"Yea, the Annie I know is eight. Was eight. She's dead now," said the guy and he genuinely looked sad about that.

"Is her Popps still here? I got something for him." I said taking out my box and holding it out to the guy. He didn't take it he just looked at me as if trying to make up his mind about me.

"What's in it?" he asked at last.

"Ballet slippers, Annie Liseman's ballet slippers."

"Christ! You got to be kidding me?" The man went pale under his year-round tan and lowered himself on the step beside me. The shock of whatever he knew stopped him from realising he was sharing his seat with a bum.

"What's wrong with that?" I asked, the box still in my hand.

"Charlie Liseman was a senior partner in this company when I was doing my internship. The big cheese, you know what I mean. He was married with one little girl, Annie, she was eight. One morning they were all rushing around the house, getting ready for work and school and such. It can be crazy, I got a little girl of my own now so I know. Well anyway, Charlie's wife was going to drop Annie to school and Charlie was coming to work. The all left the house together but Charlie took a call on his cell. He didn't see Annie get out of the mom's car and go behind his. He backed out... backed out... and well he just didn't see her. She had forgotten her ballet shoes. The next day, Charlie vanished and took nothing with him except those shoes. That was twenty-five years ago. Never been heard of since." The man looked down at his shoes and seemed really broken by the story. Was it possible that my Joe had been this Charlie Liseman?

I described Joe and the guy sitting beside me nodded his head, "Sure sounds like him."

So Charlie Liseman, my friend Charlie, was a Wall St guy. You live and learn. I handed the box to the man sitting beside me and said, "Could you get these to Mrs Liseman and tell her Charlie never forgave himself for what happened. He's gone now too, I guess that's all she needs to know."

"She's dead. Five years ago, breast cancer or so I heard."

"Perhaps they will fit your little girl so," I said and shook the hand of the man who put a name to my friend. I put my bag on my back, the still full bottle of cooking brandy rubbing against my shoulder blade and walked away from the steps. I saw the man lift up the box and take out one of the shoes that lay inside.

I was on the crosswalk when I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was the guy I had been talking to on the steps.

"Hold up! Have you seen this?" he asked holding out the box. I look at the pink shoes and said sure.

"NO! These!" he said picking out one of the crumpled pieces of paper.

"The newspaper?"

"Jesus Christ! They're not newspaper," he nearly yelled but then remembered people were standing around us. He lowered his voice and put his arm around my shoulder to draw me away from curious ears. In a quieter voice said, "They're bearer bonds, hundred thousand dollar treasury bearer bonds. Dozens of them!"

"I don't understand," I said gazing into the box.

"Its money, lots of money. Could be two million or more!"

"I swear I didn't steal it," I said throwing up my hands and backing away from the box. The guy started to laugh.

"I know you didn't but you have them which makes them yours."

"They were Charlies, not mine."

"Charlie has nobody left. If they go back into the system they will be gobbled up by taxes and fees. I think Charlie wanted you to have them. Look, come up to my office and I will talk you through it. You can't go walking around New York with millions stuffed in a shoe box."

"Charlie did."

"I guess he did," said the guy patting me on the back. I carefully put the lid back on the box and followed the guy up the steps to the investment brokers. I didn't even register the furious look the security guard gave me as I passed, I was in too much shock. I was a millionaire.

That was five years ago and now I have a small apartment of my own. I still go down to St Mary's, but as a volunteer. I miss my friend all the time and often think the world would be a nicer place if we all talked a little less. I could never get the hang of calling him Charlie, he would always be Shuffling Joe to me. It turned out there was 2.9 Million dollars in his box and although the government took its share, I have more than enough left to see me off to the next world. At home, my home, I have two things that I will never part with, they are my life, my new life. One is a pair of pink ballet slippers, sitting in a tatty cardboard box and beside them stands a still closed bottle of cooking brandy.

I often think of my friend and wonder if he found peace at last.

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