1 – No point being sentimental about it. Rock has done what he felt needed to be done, what he had told me he would do, and he’s gone. It’s sad that he’s not here anymore. But perhaps less sad than his life, at least the part of it that I came to know. Reluctantly, I must approve, endorse if you will, his suicide. Very few will notice he’s gone, I’m sure. Some bums he used to hang with outside the ‘food-liquor-tobacco’ stores on MLK and Palm Beach. They all have ‘food stamps accepted’ signs outside, and metal bars protecting the shop windows and the owner and the cash register inside. Maybe at some point his daughter Maria Teresa will get a letter in the mail, informing her of his passing; but if Rock took the precautions he told me he would, there will be nothing of the sort. He wanted to just disappear, see. No traces, no body, nothing. No memories.
This is a country that presents this ironclad façade of success. Men give you a firm handshake and bark ‘HOW YOU DOIN’, women go online at the end of the day and post things like ‘the networking event was such a success’. Then you look at the figures – antidepressant sales, drunk driving, child abuse, pill mills, road rage, going postal, you name it – and they tell quite a different story.
That’s one of the things I liked about Rock, he had no success stories, and no desire to have them. He was quite frank about it, about being such a failure, such a misfit. He didn’t linger on it, he just matter-of-fact would explain that it all started in Vietnam, where he saw, and maybe did, some very bad things, and then, maybe as a consequence,maybe not, got hooked on very strong heroin that some officers – again, maybe rogue, maybe fully backed by the higher ups – were in charge of delivering from a remote border outpost to Saigon. He didn’t know much about it, other than these general comments, and if he did, he never told me. He just mentioned that him and some other grunts were these higher ups’ muscle and drivers and whatnot, and they got paid in wads of cash and lots of rich yellow H.
This was the early 70’s. I don’t know much about what he did in the 80’s and 90’s, except that he drifted a lot and lived in at least a dozen states including Alaska. He tried to clean up his act repeatedly, the quality of the smack he was able to get diminishing constantly, didn’t hold any truck driving or supermarket shelf stocking job more than a few months, the old story. Finally, homeless somewhere in upstate NY in the winter, he decided to come to Florida. At this time he hadn’t done heroin in years, not because of having quit the habit, but because he couldn’t afford it anymore, couldn’t find it, or whatever, so it’s more like the habit quit him. He was an alcoholic to the end of his days. Would do pills when he could, but for the most part, he stuck to booze.
I had seen him many times in the last decade. Tall, skin parched by the sun, white hair and beard, collecting empty cans that he carried in enormous bags hung on the handlebars of his bicycle. Talking to himself sometimes, gesticulating. I had never had time for more than a glimpse, usually as I was driving by. When I was living downtown, he had approached me a couple times over the years, and unlike so many other bums, who give you elaborate, never ending stories about their trials and misfortunes, he would simply say, ‘brother, can you spare a dollar for beer’, and I liked that, and I would give him the dollar. He had a dignity to him, filthy as he was. Beyond these brief exchanges, we had never talked.
I mentioned mainstream America’s success fixation before. Many immigrants are quick to adopt it and embrace it, but Rock never did, and neither did I. A McMansion in a gated community built around a golf course is hell. A visitor in Southwest Florida, in Fort Myers, City of Palms, or even worse, in Naples, being driven around maybe by a friend or a relative who works in real estate or banking or yacht sales and likes to brag about ‘living in paradise’ would see his fair share of the golf courses and gated enclosures and malls and all that, but would miss the underbelly of the beast – which is what I happen to like best. True, I can’t linger too long or too deep in the black ‘hoods, for obvious reasons, although I’ve been involved in some community garden projects there and that kind of daytime stuff. But I really have no tools to deal with the corner thugs, and it would end badly. I’m not that naive. I don’t understand them, they don’t understand me, etc, so better avoid trouble.
I have seen my fair share of white rural poverty, in some cases very admirable and prideful and even charming, old folks living like their forefathers did, with few material comforts, a life of hard work in the fields. Other cases, I had to leave in disgust, after seeing human whales cramming their pieholes full of donuts in dirty kitchens, or after mom & dad decide to indulge in some crystal meth fun, the young ‘uns finally sleeping after a binge of Mountain Dew and KFC.
In any case, the places I always enjoyed the most are the Spanish neighborhoods. Of course, I speak the language and know the culture and have genuine love for the places these fellows come from, but it goes beyond that. It’s hard to explain. Everything still seems made and done on a human scale: you walk in the evening (you walk! that alone is worth of note) and you see and hear and smell the familiar, age old rythms of life, of tacos and tamales cooking and kids kicking a ball in the street before being called to dinner. You see clothes drying on clotheslines, hear roosters in the backyards, see the tiny kitchen gardens full of cilantro, peppers and tomatoes. The tired men gather for a round of beers, a ranchera drifts downwind from a truck. I don’t think I idealize too much here, I know reality: I still hate the sight of 10, 15 eager, desperate guys running towards a truck that has stopped at the day laborer gathering spots, parking lots and gas stations around Ortiz or Palm Beach, with a blond guy inside that needs maybe a couple men, and tells the rest to fuck off. We were once a proud people, goddammit. But hunger knows no pride.
Except for some of us, like Rock. Because he was one of my tribe, born Roque Rivera Fuentes in Ponce, Puerto Rico, who knows when.
2- Let me go back a few years. I had just divorced, and lost my job. That was a tricky period, I was trying to get into gardening and farming but it was hard and some days I had to resort to those day labor places where you go early in the morning and hope to be picked by someone in need of a body for the day or the week. The pay isn’t great, and the agency takes a big cut, but I had to pay rent and child support and, if possible, eat and drink, so once in a while I parked my old station wagon outside and sat there with other assorted characters and misfits and just plain honest folk getting desperate, with their job gone and the house in foreclosure and whatnot.
Rock would be there sometimes, at the agency on Fowler. Bums, the truly homeless and desperate, ironically, don’t have a chance at those places, as you need an address and some paperwork and to be, in a way, a member in good standing of society. But he had somehow figured it out, he told me: he would sometimes crash or stay at some subsidized housing unit of some friends of his, off of Michigan. Only when he had enough to pay them, so that’s the kind of ‘friends’ we’re talking about here. But he could use that address and get a shower sometimes. I don’t mention getting his mail there, because he hadn’t gotten any mail in years.
Anyhow. I was sitting there this one gray, rainy, miserable morning one time, remembering another time in my life when I would get up early and wait for work. But this had been many years ago, in a different universe, not on Fowler with the hand painted ‘Beauty Supply’ signs and the shady used car dealerships. It had been in Tel Aviv, and I was a young man then, traveling the world without any cares – no kids, no rent. I only needed to save enough to get on a ferry back to Greece, and it didn’t matter if it took a week or a year. I would enjoy the jobs I got, even the crappy ones. It was all a big learning experience. Now, I felt like I didn’t have anymore to learn, anything I would give a shit about anyway. In a way, my life was over, and my only hope was to be able to provide money and an example to my kids before I kicked the bucket. Not an outstanding example, not even a mediocre, middle class working bloke who watches football on weekends example. Just not ending a homeless wino collecting cans and sleeping in alleyways off of Fowler would be enough. Not ending up like Rock, you could say.
– I heard you speaking before, he said in Spanish. There’s an accent there. Are you from Brazil?
– Argentina, I said. Close enough.
– Ahh, Argentina. I used to love Libertad Lamarque. And Gardel.
Puerto Ricans of a certain age may be the only humans alive that still remember Lamarque or Gardel. Including Argentinians. It always makes me laugh. We sat there and chewed the fat for a while. I think both of us knew no jobs would come our way today. And it was OK. I teased him a bit about Puerto Ricans not knowing anything about football – soccer, Americans call it – and being so much into baseball, which makes them an oddity among other Latin Americans, along with Cubans and Venezuelans. Dead serious, he told me he was never into baseball, and went on to explain that the true national sport of Puerto Rico is cockfighting. He proved quite a conoisseur. Anytime, later on, that I would want to get him speaking, all I had to do was ask a cockfighting question. The man knew his roosters. I pretended not to remember I had given him a dollar or two now and then, in what felt like a previous life but was in fact only a short time ago.
– Al carajo, he said around 11. Fuck it. I have a couple dollars. If you have another dollar fifty, we can buy some malt and just chill awhile.
– Sure, I said.
So we walked down the street some, and bought the cans from a sour West Indian guy who I think lives in this convenience store, because he’s always there, any time day or night. I left my car parked at the day labor place. I didn’t say anything about it. I guess I was afraid Rock would ask me for a ride or something.
We sat at the loading dock of a warehouse that looked like it hadn’t been used in decades, covered in graffiti and grime, and drank slowly. I had a joint in my cigarette pack, one of those spliffs I like to roll with hash and tobacco, only there’s no hash in this country so it was just some highly suspect weed instead. I lit it up, took a few drags, and passed it. We finished it and drank some more. After a while, we didn’t talk anymore. The cans empty, we shook hands and left.
(to be continued)