Coming into the City

By Barry Pomeroy

When the sun was almost below the hills, I saw the banks grow even more populated and I was thankful for the dusk so I could slip by unnoticed. The darkness became more profound, and the increasing settlement turned into a glow on the horizon ahead of me. I was coming into a city and began to get excited. As I washed towards the city in the increasing dark, I began to formulate a dim plan. Inspired mostly by hunger, I decided to find a place to hide my raft so that I could buy food. The forgotten money in my pocket suddenly swelled with the coming purchase. The city became a sprawling twinkling and amongst the lights of moving cars were towering—although they realistically could not have been more than six stories high—buildings. Behind the secretive lights, thousands of domestic scenes were unfortunately combined with a flickering blue glow. High on the hill, I saw the bright lights of the strip malls, the simplistic shapes and primary colours of their gaudy signs promising food, essential goods, and finally, happiness. I saw the austere buildings of the university and how its high brick walls and pleasant lanes were crowded with students, who were, from this distance, insect small and scurrying on this summer’s evening.

As I drifted under the immense pylons of the bridge, their blank concrete faces swirling with a deceptively fast current, I heard voices and saw, under the lights of the well-lit walkway upon the bank, couples strolling arm in arm. I saw the morose silence of the solitary walker, wrapped in the black clouds of their thoughts. Small groups of teens, too young to attend the bar, brought their yearning to the shore, where in groups they whooped garbled sentences only they understood. I saw a lone guitar player, his long hair falling over his guitar as he strummed, the sounds coming plaintively across the water to be lost in the distance on the river’s other side. When I saw a brightly lit gas station, that beckoning image in every modern traveller’s eye, I began to think about coming to shore. As I paddled, I was swept past the pylons of an older destroyed bridge and tried to decipher their graffiti. The shore was packed with buildings. Some half-mile later, just as I was growing desperate, I found a place to temporarily tether the raft. I inserted my raft carefully amongst the thick bushes behind an ominous public building. Nearby, a discontinued railway bridge, which the local authorities had wisely allowed to be made into a walkway, was cluttered with pedestrians, but the bushes hid me as I began to prepare for my night in public.

I hitched my jeans a bit higher and tightened my belt, for I had grown still thinner on this diet of apples, and buttoned my coat. I laid my knife amongst my luggage and suddenly felt naked without its constant presence by my side. I slicked back my hair with river water until I was as presentable as I could be, and thrashed through the bushes to step out into the open. Nearby, a number of people looked politely away. I walked up the wide boulevards on the even concrete slabs, and my feet were surprised to find they didn’t have to step over a downed log or rock. I had landed at the lower part of town and had to walk the entire length of its waterfront on a street whose only traffic was pedestrians.

I was enjoying the bustle and was nearly to the western part of the town when I sensed rather than saw—although I quickly confirmed the sensation with my sight—that I had attracted the attention of the police. I looked into a plate glass window as I passed and confirmed that, in this safe town of clean-living people, I was an outsider. That, combined with my wild appearance, made me ripe for questioning. I almost halted—until I reminded myself that standing still would not allay their suspicions—and abruptly found myself in the middle of a crowd of middleclass bar people drunkenly singing around a lone guitarist. I forgot the slowly approaching police car for a second and looked curiously to see if this was the same guitarist as on the river, but this man was more slight, and his unruly hair was not as long.

Many years ago, when I was driving my motorcycle without a license, I was confronted by a similar situation. Driving up to a street, I saw a police car unnecessarily waiting instead of turning towards me. There was no oncoming traffic, so the only reason the police would wait was to get a closer look at, and then possibly question me. Acting on that belief and the contingency of the moment, I drove up to the cop’s window and began to chat. I pointed out my motorcycle—for to ignore its presence would merely call attention to my concerns—and mentioned I had recently acquired it. The cop reminisced briefly about motorcycles he had driven, and when another car came behind him and was patiently waiting to drive past, he waved goodbye.

I sat down beside the guitar player, reasoning I would then be allied in the cop’s mind with this other unusual-looking person. As his new friend, I listened to his thin voice attempt a version of Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold”. The bar people were leaving when another louder, drunken couple approached and demanded the same song. The man loudly proclaimed this song to be his favourite and said he would pay twenty dollars to the busker if he would play. I began to move away—since the police had left—but the drunken man, weaving even while he stood and only partly supported by the inebriated woman on his arm, demanded I sing as well, for in his stupor he believed me to be a fellow singer. I knew my singing voice was best kept to the wilds or the raft, so I protested. But he would brook no opposition, insisting that if I didn’t sing “nobody gets nothing.”

I glanced at the busker and he shrugged, so I sat again and sang, to the best of my ability, the opening bars of the song. Luckily, the drunks quickly chimed in and my terrible rendition was blessedly drowned by the bellowing of a man who in the day was probably that student loan officer who denies a student a loan, the stuffed shirt at the bank, or the officious twerp at motor vehicle registration. I relaxed and began to enjoy the irony. When the drunks walked away I turned to the busker to introduce myself.

“Hey, sorry about that.”

“No, that was fine, I can always use some help,” he replied kindly. “Here, half this is yours,” and he held out the twenty.

“No, forget it. I just came along. Anyway, you were the one busking. My name’s Joe,” I said and even as extended my hand I had a momentary vision of Dan’s first greeting.

“Bruce. Where you from?” He reluctantly stuffed the bill into his pants.

“I just came down the river.” As I spoke the truth I felt a social weight lift from my shoulders.

“What do you mean, down the river? Hey, are you one of those boat people, the ones down by the docks? I’ve seen them.”

“No, I came by raft and just came in for some food.”

“Everything’s closed now except for the malls uptown. You could go for the convenience, though.”

“Yeh, that’s where I was going.”

“I’ll walk with you, if you don’t mind. I’ve got to get some more smokes. Out.” And he held up his empty package as a form of proof. Bruce was a small, gentle man who, despite his obvious lack of comfort with social interactions, had turned to busking. He scarcely looked me in the eye while we walked, but I could feel his acceptance of others in his occasional sidelong glimpses at my face through his thick glasses and in the way he talked about his fellows.

“That was quite the drunk,” I offered, in order to break the silence.

We were walking up the sidewalk now and Bruce said, “Yeh, when they get drunk, they get generous. Wake up the next morning and have no idea where their money went. He’s a guy that might have been a good guy if he wasn’t drinking. Crazy what they do. Good thing you didn’t run out, though. I didn’t make all that much tonight, and the twenty sure helps.”

“Yeh, no problem. Glad to do it. Although I’m not really much of a singer, as I’m sure you noticed.”

“Not so good myself. But I like to play. Sometimes I just play classical, but they all want to hear the songs they heard when they were kids. Want me to take them back, but I can’t keep them there. I take them back for a couple of minutes for the cash, but that’s it.”

“You’re a good player. You learn by ear?”

“I can read music, but yeh, I learned by ear. And I use tablature as well.”

“How long you been busking?”

“About a year. Was going to wait until I was good enough, but then how long was that going to be? And they don’t give a damn anyway.”

We had arrived at the convenience store. As we turned to enter, Bruce asked, “What are you going to get?”

I had given the matter a lot of thought as my raft swept past the town and had decided to look for a staple, like rice or flour, that would combine well with another amino acid to give me a complete protein.

“I think flour.” And I rounded the three long aisles to arrive at the small baking section. The paper bag of flour was three dollars for a tiny, three-pound bag, but it was a welcome sight. The rest of the food seemed impossibly remote from appetite to me, and I looked with interest at the glossy labels of the packages, which described their contents in a positive light that seemed unlikely. The delightful labels represented food you might eat on a long space voyage. Tricked by the label, you would open another coloured tube only to find, by a telling first taste, you were again eating the same mix of chemical nutrients and resin someone, somewhere in a lab had decided was healthy. I did see a bottle of peanuts, whose sales were unusually dependent on the sight of the peanuts themselves through the bottle’s clear glass, and took it from the shelf. I could use the bottle as a canteen, for water was getting difficult to find on the banks of the river and I didn’t trust the river water, especially after I had passed the dam.

When we approached the till and paid for our separate purchases, I felt the bored teller’s eyes light with interest as he looked at us. He didn’t respond with the suspicion and surliness I expected, however, and wished us a good night when we left. When Bruce and I stepped back onto the sidewalk, we fell into conversation again, and I realized Bruce would come right to the raft with me if I asked, and would step upon it to go with me, talking all the while in his humorous, self-deprecating way and peering curiously through his mane of hair.

“Hey, how you going to cook flour on a raft? Is it one of those rubber rafts, more a boat, I guess?”

“No, it’s a wooden one. I made it myself. I’ve got a fire on it. Want to see it?”

“Yeh, sure, I was just going to walk around anyway, don’t feel like going home. Let’s go by the house, though, and drop this off,” and he indicated his guitar with a shrug of its shoulder strap.

We walked through the quieting city streets. Bruce smoked and talked about busking and how he had worked at an outdoor restaurant but the job had ended. I gradually discovered that this restaurant was the last place Bruce had worked, and that had been many years ago. He remembered his work fondly, so I asked him more questions. When we arrived at his house, I could see by the low-slung porch and the roof’s uneasy tilt that this older building was likely one of those chopped up into apartments. Sure enough, as we entered, I could see the banister of the stair went directly into a wall on the second floor.

“Hey,” Bruce said to his roommates and they nodded, except for one thin, greying man who followed us to the kitchen. Bruce’s room was a small, dark alcove beside the kitchen, ripe with unwashed laundry. As Bruce placed his guitar against the bed with the strings pressing into the dishevelled blankets, I could see the ritualistic behaviour of an established habit.

“Hey, you play chess,” I said, noticing the chessboard on the bed and the various pieces tangled in the sheets.

“Sometimes he never even leaves the house, plays it all day,” his roommate said, not unkindly.

“I’ve done it for a whole week before,” Bruce added. “Here, let’s go.”

“Where you going?” the older man asked.

“Just walking around,” Bruce replied and stepped past the kitchen to wave to his roommates watching the television. They said goodbye as we passed and the older man followed us to the front door, talking all the while.

“It’s a warm night tonight, but it’s going to get cold soon.”

“See you later, Doug,” Bruce said, and we left Doug standing in the doorway peering after us. “He’s a nice guy, but he’s always around,” Bruce said. I took his statement as both an explanation of Doug’s behaviour and Bruce’s desire to avoid home.

“He seems like a nice enough guy.”

“He doesn’t have any kids, and I guess he wants some, or needs someone to worry about anyway. So where you going on the raft?”

Bruce had already sensed I was not the typical boater, like the type that had harassed me in the mill town, but he had no idea how far these differences went.

“Downriver. Not to not answer, but I really don’t know. You go on the river and the river decides, especially in a raft.”

“Why especially?”

“You can’t really paddle all the time, too much work. So you have to lay around and hang out.”

“Hey, let’s go in here, just be a sec,” and Bruce indicated the local doughnut shop, one of those twenty-four hour places where locals sat and chain-smoked the night away while they nursed cold coffees and argued about politics.

“Hey, Bruce,” a number of them called out, and then turned back to their smoky conversations.

“I know a woman who works here.”

“Bruce,” said the woman behind the counter. She said his name like it was a statement rather than a greeting, although she appeared happy enough to see him. She was about Bruce’s age and had the same crazy long hair, although hers was pulled up in a net from which a few strands, whitened by flour, had escaped.

“Hey Deb,” said Bruce, “what’re you up to?”

Bruce asked his question without really expecting an answer for he immediately introduced me.

“This is Joe.”

“Hey, Joe. You guys want something?”

“Can I have one of those doughnuts over there?” Bruce gestured towards the one he wanted with more a flourish than a point, but Deb knew what he meant and handed it to him without its accustomed paper bag.

“Avoids the trash,” Deb said, referring to the wrapping and I understood that both Bruce and Deb were cognizant of our responsibility to the world I had discovered on the river.

“What you want?”

“I don’t really need anything,” I said, for now that I had flour and peanuts I was unwilling to part with my hard-earned money for food with so little nutritive value.

Deb leaned close and said, “It’s ok, it’s free.”

I took her at her word and said, “maybe a muffin,” for I assumed those would have the most food value. As she handed it over I could feel myself salivating.

“Everyone like muffins,” Bruce said in what was obviously a private joke. Both he and Deb laughed.

We went over to the till to pay. Deb rang the register and we pretended to give her money. This transaction did not escape the observing eyes of the patrons, but they occupied themselves in their conversations and ignored us.

“Thanks, Deb,” I said, and Bruce and I went out into the street to eat as we walked.

“Where are you from, Bruce?”

“Mom and Dad live in the bush about sixty miles from here,” and he named some towns he felt I might know.

“Do you ever see them?”

“I was there for Christmas. That’s where I got these new glasses. Kinda funny. I had my old ones and broke them on this camping trip—we went down to the bay—and my friend Bear fixed them. He had to wind some wire around he had from the car, but they were still pretty screwed up.”

“So they got you new glasses?”

“Yeh, I was lying there on Christmas day and I woke up and they were there. My old ones were gone, so I put them on. They are the old prescription, but I can see okay. I guess my family got sick of seeing me go around with the wired up ones. They were falling apart anyway and I had to keep wiring them.”

As Bruce spoke I saw the small house in the country, where kids played in the yard and parents worried about their strange son. I saw the debate over the expense required for the welfare frames that housed Bruce’s thick lenses, and the pleasant anxiety as they wondered if he knew about the surprise, the parents standing in the door of his tiny room while the other kids jumped on him to wake him for the present.

“This is it,” I proclaimed, and pointed to the brush that hid my raft from the back of the unlit ministry of justice.

“You hid it.”

“Yeh, I wasn’t sure if anyone would be around.”

I parted the branches, stepped into the thicket and Bruce followed until we stood on the swampy shore. I waited for Bruce to clamber up onto the platform of the raft.

“Hey, this is great.”

“Yeh, this is where I live.”

“So what are you doing on a raft? Where you going?”

We sat on the raft’s edge by the fire pit and I tried to think about how to answer Bruce’s question.

“I thought I knew when I first left, but now I’m not so sure. I guess I wanted to do something different, I wanted to leave where I was.”

“Yeh, I’ve done that before.”

“But it’s not really that, either. I left in the middle of the night, and I guess I wanted to start over, start from nothing, so I took nothing with me and gave it a try.”

“And what happened?”

“The living was easier than I thought, but I’m not sure about going back anymore. I had a job I didn’t really leave, I guess, but I’m not sure I want to live that way again. I’m aiming for something like the no-packaging thing you and Deb do at the doughnut shop. And something different, too. I want to live as though life had meaning, and I see people all around me, always did anyway, who aren’t doing that.”

“I don’t know what life with meaning is. I just kind of do my own thing and let other people go.”

I was grappling with the problem as I spoke and wasn’t making a lot of sense, but something Bruce had said was similar, in part, to my general goal.

“Yeh, that’s it too. I want to be able to live in a way that makes sense, in a non-damaging way, as much as possible anyway. And I want to add something so when it’s over I leave something positive and maybe not just a pile in the dump.”

“Deb really thinks about that a lot and got me into it. She’s really cool, and I can see where she’s coming from.”

“She’s nice. Hey, so maybe I better get going. I should be long gone when the sun comes up.”

“Ok, man, it was nice talking, and I like the raft. Maybe I should do that sometime, we’ll have to see.”

“Take care, Bruce. I’m glad I stopped.”

“Yeh, and it got the cops off your back too, huh?”

“You noticed that?”

“Yeh, take care, man.” Bruce parted the bushes and I heard him stumble back to the trimmed grass bordering the parking lot in the rear of the building.

I waited while Bruce walked away and thought about my attempt to articulate my thoughts. As I pushed off the shore carrying my new acquisitions, my flour and my peanuts, I thought about Bruce’s life, how the police let him alone and the other patrons in the coffee shop let him have his understanding with Deb. There are so many ways to make a living. Bruce has his friends, roommates, which I guess is a kind of family, and a job, on the street playing guitar. He wasn’t the guitar player I had seen on the way into town, with the long smooth hair and carefully appropriate tie-dyed t-shirt, for Bruce didn’t come from the middle classes where life looks pleasant. That guitarist went home to the silent parents sleeping upstairs, and if pennies fell when he shook out his bag, he let them lie.

As I swung out into the current I thought about how Bruce peered through his warped lenses at a world that gave people like him little space, but he would say he didn’t need much anyway. He would continue to play, even in the winter when he wore fingerless gloves to partially cover his freezing hands. He would move his chess pieces there in his sour room while Doug protectively hovered in the background. Bruce would continue to ask questions and to greet his newfound friends with a generosity of soul I’d seldom seen.

(C)opyright 2009 Barry Pomeroy All Rights Reserved

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