April 22, St. Petersburg – I spent most of the past two weeks in hiding.
Hiding from people. My people.
I’ve laid low. Tried to insulate myself from distractions. Tried to write.
I’ve made some headway, just not enough. Not yet.
Miraculously, I’d spent more than 30 hours at the well-appointed McDonald’s at the intersection of 4th Street North and 38th Avenue North and I had not been lured into a single interaction with a person who’s homeless, eccentric or out-and-out crazy.
Alas, the writing wasn’t going well today. I was scuffling. I was tired, searching in vain for motivation.
Earlier, when we arrived at the McDonald’s and parked, Becky had noticed the bloodmobile across the street. A couple hours later, she got up, left the fast-food parlor and crossed 38th Avenue North to donate blood. I guess times are tough in the St. Pete blood-letting racket. Prospective donors were enticed with rewards: $10 Walgreens gift cards.
When Becky returned, she returned clad in a “Oneblood” T-shirt. Damn. She donated blood, and she got a T-shirt, too. And it’s a nice T-shirt.
I made a couple phone calls. I called the Sunrise Motel in Treasure Island to see if they had any vacancies. They did.
I called my friend Shelley Via Smulsky in Waynesboro, Va., to see if she remembered the time her mother, Cora Belle Via , engineered the kidnapping of her 3-year-old granddaughter. She obviously doesn’t like to remember it. But she said she did. I thanked Shelley again for her hospitality when we visited last month and said goodbye. I didn’t want to make her mad at me.
And just as we agreed to pack up and head to the beach, I decided I had to give blood, too. I wouldn’t let Becky show me up as the selfish jerk I am. I wanted one of those T-shirts.
I walked up and into the blood bus. Apparently the Walgreens vouchers were not going like hotcakes. Nobody there but an intake person and two technicians. Later I’ll know them as Donna, Shaunta and Kanliya. But now we’re all strangers.
Donna, asked if I wanted to donate via the Alyx method. I’d never heard of Alyx. The only Alex is I know is Max’s cousin in Nevada. I learned a bit about Alyx.
The process, also known as apheresis, doubles the amount of red blood cells collected. An automated machine separates your blood into its constituent parts, then sends red blood cells to a blood bag and returns the remaining fluid to you. It takes about twice as long as traditional blood donation, which gave me time to chat with Donna, Shaunta (who drew my blood) and Kanliya.
It was a great time. Kanliya told me about Weeki Wachee Springs, where you can kayak among manatees. They even got live mermaid shows. They call Weeki Wachee “The City of Live Mermaids.” Max will love that.
Ever since Aunt Didi took him to see a middle-school production of “The Little Mermaid,” he has been enthralled with mermaids. In love with Ariel. He’s embarrassed about it, though for unknown reasons. Doesn’t like us to share his mermaid fascination with others.
Anyway, I kicked back on the donor table and tried to remember to squeeze when the blood’s going out and not squeeze when the fluids are incoming. Becky had told them about the crazy book project.
They found this fascinating.
Somewhere along the line, while I was distracted by squeezing and not squeezing, Donna turned the tables on me. She asked question after question about our adventure. She said she thought it amazing. She cracked me open like a can of beans. I said entirely too much, and the the next thing you know I squeezed when I should have relaxed.
I felt a pinch. Now I got a bruise. Everybody fell into a tizzy. Donna apologized for distracting me. Then she handed me a pamphlet on hematomas.
When we were chatting, I talked about my time at the newspaper in Tacoma, and how I always seemed to get in trouble with management. She said even the blood-sucking business had become increasingly corporate. It was getting hard.
What is now Oneblood used to be Florida Blood Services. Oneblood is the result of the merger of regional blood-collecting organizations.
They all agreed it’s not as fun as it used to be. And there’s nobody there. It used to be hopping all day, collecting blood and going crazy. And they loved it. Now, not so much.
I shook my head sadly. I said I thought I understood where they were coming from.
I left with two gift card vouchers, not one. I guess you get an extra one for submitting to Alyx. Maybe they just like me. They gave me a movie voucher. And yes, a T-shirt.
Two bags full of post-donation junk food. Cookies. Pretzels. Rice Krispies treats.
I told them they’re robbing me of the sweet, selfless feeling you get from giving blood.
We said our final goodbyes. I walked toward Walgreens to convert my vouchers into gift cards. Had to do it today or the offer is void.
Before I made the 20 yards from the blood bus to the Walgreens door, I run into a couple in the parking lot. A bearded older gentleman with a cane and his girlfriend.
Saw me exit the bus, and they wanted to know if I really got a voucher.
I said the people in there are sweet and nice, and they oughta give it a go. I talked them into it.
As they walked away, the man stopped and pivoted.
“Take our picture,” he said.
I asked a bit about them. He said they’re homeless. David Jackson and Tonya Denton.
I took a short video:
Then we part. I go into the store. Took about 10 minutes to convert two vouchers into two gift cards.
I walk back into the lot, hoping I don’t see David and Tonya. At first, I don’t.
As I walked around the front of the bus in the direction of 38th Avenue, I saw them. I almost made it to the street. I shrugged my shoulders and gave David the thumbs-up-or-down sign. Down. Damn.
They walked my way. I waited.
When they reached me, David said Tonya couldn’t give blood because she can’t read. For privacy reasons, he’s not allowed to read it for her. He lacked acceptable ID. They struck out.
We parted again after a minute or two. I walked away. I started to feel like a heel. I had two gift cards in my pocket. They had nothing.
I reunited with Becky and Max in McDonald’s. We pack our stuff.
The guilt’s too much. I decide to go looking for Tonya and David. I’ve got a gift card and a couple bucks to spare.
I cross the street. They’re not in the Walgreens lot. They’re nowhere in sight.
I look back across 38th Avenue and spot them walking away from the McDonald’s, along the backside of the adjacent Methodist Church.
I crossed the street and walked after them, but not too fast. They turned the corner and walk along the sidewalk along the front of the church. I lost them, but not for long.
I found them in a little courtyard outside a side door to the church. I hand over the card. Oh, but I expected a little quid pro quo. I’d decided to come out of hiding.
David thanked me for my donation. Then he sang the panhandler’s lament.
“Some people think you’re just the fucking worst person on earth because you ask, ‘Pardon me, do you have any change?'” he said.
I allowed there are a lot of scammers in the naked city. There are an astounding number of people who run out of gas and money at the same time. And even goodhearted people grow weary of trying to tell the scammers from the down and out.
David said they’ve been married almost a year. Some of what he says conflicts with what he said in the Walgreens lot, but that’s OK. I don’t expect consistency out of my homeless people
They sat at on a concrete bench at a concrete picnic table. Tonya smoked a cigarette. She didn’t say much.
“We kind of help each other, meet each other’s needs,” David said. “I try to keep the bad element away from her because she’s pretty naive. She don’t even know how to tell a lie.”
I asked about his work history, trying to get at the point where it all fell apart.
“I’ve never had a career,” he said. “I’ve been cross-addicted for a long time. I’ve had some stability in my life. Some normalcy.”
He paused. Then he began to spill the heavy stuff. His wife died of cancer. Her son was murdered.
“Two 16-year-olds carjacked him and killed him for $40 in Grand Rapids, Michigan,” he said.
“He was 35 years old.”
This sent his wife into a psychiatric tailspin. Understandably. He explained she had put her son up for adoption at birth and had reconnected with him soon before his murder.
“Three months after she had found him after 35 years without him, he got carjacked by two 16 year olds,” he said. “He was a crack addict. Danny was a crack addict. She had a complete nervous breakdown.”
David said he’s got a million stories. I was ready to hear one or two more.
I ask about his childhood. Dime store psychology. What deep, dark secret in his formative years led him down the road to addiction.
“By today’s standards, shit, my parents should be in jail,” he said. “Somebody tells you to cut that switch off the tree and come back and pull off your shirt and hits you eight or nine times. All the while he’s telling you to be a man. All the time you’re being hit with that switch, you’re enduring the pain he’s telling you ‘don’t cry, be a man.’ If I knew then what I know now, I woulda broke down and start crying like a wimp at the first slash.”
Now he’s warmed up. He told me a bit about his old man.
“My father was a hunter and had three dogs,” he said. “And at about 9 or 10 years old I got, when he wasn’t drunk, I got paid 50 cents a week cleaning up the poop and making sure the bird dogs got water and straw in their doghouses. One of the females had a litter of puppies, eight or nine puppies. He come in one day with a potato-sack bag and had me take all the puppies out of the little doghouse and put them in the bag. He takes me in the basement and he fills the cast-iron sink full of water and drowns them right in front of me. And then he hands me the bag tells me to go bury it.”
I allowed his father was kind of a son of a bitch. He says sure, but what did he know?
“Shit, I didn’t know he was a son of a bitch,” David said. “I had the mentality of a little kid. When you have the mentality of a little kid and he’s your dad, you follow and obey. I still don’t like to think about it. He made mistakes, and I made mistakes. He has to take some kind of responsibility for how I was raised, the way I began to think.
“I don’t blame him, because his father made mistakes too. That’s how I rationalize it.”
There wasn’t much warmth in the house. He was the eldest of three boys. His father was an unpredictable terror.
“He worked and he drank,” he said. “He scared all of us. Everybody was scared of him. When he came home in one of those type of moods, everybody was scared of him.”
I turned the focus to Tonya. She’s mentally challenged, he said. Her life has been no pleasure cruise, either. He asked her if her father was any nicer than her mother. She shook her head no.
Then David opened up a little on Tonya’s behalf.
“Her brother raped her,” he said simply. “Her brother raped her sister too.”
He said he finds solace trying to soothe Tonya’s misery.
He talked a lot about pain. Said some interesting things about pain. At least I found them interesting at the time.
“Sometimes I find a balance because I’m able to feel her pain, not my own pain,” he said. “Who likes pain? Everybody understands pain, but who likes it? Pain is universal.
“Pain is … if you got a headache and you snap at somebody, they say, ‘what’s wrong with you?’ You say, ‘I don’t feel good. I got a headache.’ They say, ‘That ain’t my fault. Don’t take it out on me? And they keep nagging you around until you hit them in the head with the cane.'”
Did I mention David uses a cane? He does. Said the arthritis is debilitating. As he continued, he grew animated.
“And you go, ‘now do you understand what I’m feeling?'” he said. “‘You understand pain? Well, I’ve been trying to tell you man, I’m hurting. Now you understand me, don’t you?’ You said ‘bah bah bah bah bah’ until I had to get up and hit you with this cane. Now you can relate to me, right? Because your fucking head is hurting. right?'”
As he worked his way to the crescendo, to the part where he said “until I had to get up and hit you with this cane,” he actually stood up and wagged the cane in my direction. His blue eyes blazed with an uncertain fire. It gave me pause. I thought maybe I had gotten a little too personal. Nosy. Maybe it was time to retreat to the behemoth.
He sat down and holstered the cane. He talked in an even, nonthreatening voice.
“See, everybody understands pain,” he said. “And I understand her’s. More so than my own. And that for me is kind of a refuge from my own pain.”
I asked about his education. I said he struck me as an intelligent fellow.
“I’m dumber than a box of rocks,” he said. “I’m from the school of hard knocks.”
Well, it rhymes.
I wadeed in deeper. What about his addiction.? What particular monkey found a home on his shoulder?
He said it’s a many-headed monkey.
“If you put it in front of me, it’s like putting a kid in a candy store,” he said. “It’s everything, man. It’s cross-addiction. What you got? I’m not high on anything now. At this moment if somebody walked up with some free stuff … My addiction isn’t at the level where I’m not going to do anything to harm anybody for it or take anything from anybody to get it. But there was a time it was. But that isn’t anymore.”
There was no stopping him now. He was a freight train without breaks on an icy track. Been in trouble all his life.
“I’ve been stabbed eight times, shot twice,” he said.
He showed off his bullet wounds. One’s on the inside of his right leg, just under the knee. He pulled up his shirt to show off the other one, on the right side of his torso just below his belly button.
Then he pointed out scars on his face. Others on his hands. Got those trying to shield his eyes.
“A guy was stabbing me with a broken beer bottle, with the jagged end,” he said. “But I’m alive. I’ve outlived a whole lot of people.”
I muttered something about his toughness. He said he isn’t tough. He’s lucky.
Standing in my position, I found this hard to believe. I stood there in this shabby little courtyard where addicts wait for their 12-step meetings to begin, with a digital recorder in my hand and pointed under his chin. The gulls soaring above and squawking their squawks of discontent, I’ll bet they’re luckier than David Jackson.
They’re sleeping at the Salvation Army shelter at 1400 N. 4th Street, a 24-block walk. Have to be out by 8 every morning and in by 8 at night. They can’t sleep together.
Yet he’s there telling me, the guy traveling the country with his family chasing a dream, all about his good fortune.
Made me feel kind of shabby. Not only is he lucky, he says he’s very lucky. He uses the word “very” about six times.
“I’ve been lucky all my life,” he said. “Not in the sense where I can scratch off the ticket and get $5,000 a week for the rest of my life. I don’t buy into that. As far as being in a real deadly dangerous situation, real lucky. Real lucky.”
Sometimes he volunteers at the Salvation Army, washes dishes and pots, Stocks shelves. Does it to make himself feel better. Said it gives him balance.
He returned to his bloodstained storybook.
He told a story about his youngest brother. He has a couple stories about his brother.
“Him and his girlfriend, two guys come up with guns and attack them,” he said. “They rape her and sodomize him.”
His brother spent a year in a mental hospital. David swore he was not engaging in hyperbole.
“For real, man,” he said, “This stuff I never talk about. I never tell anybody. They don’t know the pain. They don’t know. It ain’t for them to know. It’s my pain.”
Having all this darkness swirling about your head, he admitted it isn’t the best thing for a person’s mental health. The blackness, though, it’s unavoidable.
Had some interesting things to say on that subject, too.
“Sometimes it makes you have suicidal thoughts and sometimes you … I don’t fantasize like some of the people today who get an AK and walk into the mall or Columbine or Colorado and start killing people that have absolutely nothing to do with my pain,” he said. “I don’t understand that. I don’t understand their pain. what makes them snap and do something like that.”
He’s not done parsing the American phenomenon of mass murder.
“Why don’t you walk into a police station with a gun?” he said. “Start shooting at people who are going to shoot back. You get a degree of respect from me if you did that. I’m not saying you’re right, but if you’re going to go out and kill a bunch of innocent people, walk into somewhere they’re going to shoot back at your ass.”
I asked about his youngest brother, the one who got sodomized by attackers in Detroit. Was he troubled, too?
“He was becoming a first-class auto mechanic,” David said. “He worked for Chrysler. He was engaged to this girl named Doris. He never hurt anybody in his life.”
When he finally came home to live with his parents, his brother couldn’t get right. Used to open holes in walls with his head. One night he came home late and started banging pots and pans in the kitchen.
“My mother came out and ask what his problem was,” he said. “He said, ‘The problem with me is the problem with you. Why don’t you take your ass to bed.’ And my father come out and shot him.”
Just like that.
His dad, William Jackson, came from Clay County, Kentucky. Coal mining country. Hard country.
“He come up hard,” he said. “He come up hard. Some of the stories he used to tell me, I used to blow them off. Stories about having to walk to school in the morning with a hard-boiled egg cupped in your hand because your parents couldn’t buy gloves. You’d pick it right out of the hot water and carry it to school to keep your hands warm. And then you had to eat it at lunch.”
His dad was a wizard with guns. He was good at that.
What happened, I asked, to his brother when his dad shot him. Did he, you know, die?
“He come to his fucking senses, man,” David said. “My Pops didn’t want to kill him, he just wanted to make his point.”
His dad was “aggressive” with his mother. His mother was scared of him, but she loved him. It was tough times.
“I’d be in the alley shooting marbles, me and three or four black guys,” he said. “I’d hear him hollering for me. One of the guys would say, ‘your old man’s calling you. You better go.’ I’d just keep shooting marbles. I knew I was going to get a whipping anyway. What’s the point of rushing home to get it?”
Sometimes when it came, it came as a bit of surprise. With a belt in the middle of the night.
“Then he’d catch me in bed when I was sound asleep,” he said. “Ever been woke up like that?”
I said I hadn’t.
His middle brother, he’s career military. A master sergeant.
“When I got my draft notice in the Vietnam era, I was already in prison,” David said. “At 18.”
“Robbery,” he said. “Used a paper bag over my hand. I didn’t have no gun, just a paper bag. This was 1968. I used to go the store to buy a pack of cigarettes and a red pop, then walk into the dry cleaners. One hundred and three dollars! Whoosh! Down the alley. I was gone. After about three or four of those things, I got caught. After running my mouth somewhere at one of those drug houses, somebody called them and told them. I went away.”
At least, I allowed, looking for a bright side somewhere, he wasn’t introduced to the hell of southeast Asia.
“I had some friends who went to Vietnam and that’s the last I ever seen ’em,” he said. “Back then you had draft dodgers go to Canada. They called them cowards. Better a live coward than a dead lion.”
A million stories, he has. He said all of them aren’t bad. I requested a heartwarming memory from his childhood. His best memory.
“My best memories are all the horrible stuff I did,” he said. “I did a lot of bad things. I’ve never killed anybody. It’s not that I didn’t try. Only reason I didn’t is I missed. And that’s how I got shot in the leg. I shot first, but I missed. He shot back.”
What led to this altercation? Must have been some sort of provocation, I said.
“Wasn’t no provocation,” he said. “Just was on my mind. It just happened to be on my mind. I said something. He said something. Just on the street. I’ll give him credit for one thing, man. Soon as he seen the gun, he was gone. He was running. He didn’t hesitate to run. Some people actually, when you pull a gun on them, they go through a panic thing.”
But didn’t he shoot you, I asked? Didn’t he have a gun? Oh, he explained, his assailant returned later. Used a friend of his to set him up.
A friend named “Bugs.” Anyway, Bugs got his. David said he was reading the paper a couple days later and found out Bugs got shot in the back. David thought this kind of ironic.
Well, I figured it was time to go. He packed a lot of misery and violence and heartache into 32 minutes. I felt rewarded for my time and initiative.
I began to walk away. David and Tonya walked with me. I tried to end the interview, but he didn’t seem to want to let go. Tonya tugged at his arm.
I said goodbye. And good luck.
He kept talking. Wouldn’t let go.
He regaled me with a humorous homeless story or two. I was unfamiliar with the genre
“I’m in a situation where I’m homeless,” he said. “I got no money, nowhere to sleep. It’s raining. Every time I turn around the police come around. I got no ID, I’m homeless. They’re sweating me. I see a drop box with clothes and shoes and stuff. I crawl in head first, move some books around, stuffed animals. It’s raining. At least I’m out of sight. I’m out of the rain.”
On the tape, I hear my own voice. “Good luck, guys,” I said. Heartless bastard.
He’s not done. Not yet.
“The next day I hear a door slam,” he said. “I hear a motor running right outside the box. All the sudden a key goes in the side of the box, and my feet fall out. And the guy practically has a heart attack. He thinks I’m a dead body. I come crawling out, and he’s holding his chest. And says, ‘what are you doing in there?’ ‘Man, it was raining,’ I say. ‘You got a cigarette?’ ‘No, I don’t smoke. What you doing in there?’ I say, ‘You got any change? Which way you going? I need a ride.’ I hit him up for everything.”
Tonya pulled harder. She pulled toward 38th Avenue and Walgreens.
He’s stronger than her.
“OK,” he continued. “Another time, kind of a similar situation, I’m at one of these places where people donate cardboard. It’s clean. They just throw magazines in there, books. Paper. It’s raining, I crawl in the damn box. I’m homeless. I finally doze off. Before I know it I’m getting fucking hit in the side of the neck and head with books and magazines and shit. Man, I jump up so quickly I throw them back out and say, ‘bitch I already read these!'”
He broke into a chorus of laughter. Real laughter. Feeling good. Perhaps I should have hung out in that church yard a little longer.
I had to be impressed. He managed to cram several vignettes into our goodbye.
He wasn’t done yet.
“Another time I make me a sign,” he said. “You know, people make signs that say ‘I’m homeless. Need help. Ex-vet down on my luck.’ I go get me a black magic marker and I write ‘Ex pimp. Need ‘ho money.’ I hold it up. People are doing double-takes. They’re laughing, pulling over, handing me money. They’re busting out laughing and blowing the fucking horn. They thought that was the fucking shit. I had people come over and take pictures.
“Here come the police. They don’t think it’s a bit fucking funny. You try to throw some humor in the situation and you get in trouble for that, too.”
When you’re down, I said, the world tilts against you. I’ve been saying that a bit lately. I must think it’s clever or something. He doesn’t.
“I don’t trouble trouble, but trouble troubles me,” he said. “I’m driving down the street. I blow the horn at a guy. He jumps in. I say, ‘Man, how you doing?’ He says, ‘I’m all right. How how you doing?’ I say, ‘Where you going?’ He says, ‘Look at this.’ He shows me a 9-millimeter automatic, fucking 17 shot. This is 1986, fucking 17 shot. ‘What are you going do if the police pull us over?’ He said ‘I’m going to shoot em.’
“I’m not a killer. I’ve been around killers. I’ve known a lot of killers. Guys who killed 10, 11 fucking people before they finally got caught.”
Tonya was still pulling him toward 38th Avenue. I pulled in the other direction. Finally we broke free. More goodbyes.They stood at edge of the road, waiting to enter the crosswalk.
I made it to the safety of the behemoth. There’s a note on the camper door. Becky and Max are at the Walgreens.
In three minutes I stood in front of the Walgreens, talking with, you guessed it, David and Tonya. A guy named Chris, a guy David knows, walked up. I excused myself and go in to find my family.
I found them. We walked out. I introduced Max and Becky to David and Tonya. We had a nice little interlude. Brief. Max ran about like a crazy man. Like a 5-year-old boy.
David turned serious again.
“When I see a situation like this, it makes me realize what I’m missing,” he said.
Then he takes two steps toward me, looks me straight in the eye and says:
“It don’t make it any easier, but it gives you something to live for.”