b Papa Dog's Blog: The Exceedingly Lengthy Tale of Thomas the Homeless Guy, Part II (of II)

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Saturday, February 12, 2005

The Exceedingly Lengthy Tale of Thomas the Homeless Guy, Part II (of II)

(My mistake – I thought I had something else I was going to post today, but it’s not going to be until tomorrow. So let’s continue with the Tale of Thomas.)

Scott was sort of right – after that, there was no getting rid of Thomas, but there hadn’t been any getting rid of him before either. I was genuinely broke, so I didn’t give him any more money – at least nothing more than a dollar here or there – but I was always happy to share my food with him when he stopped by. I should hasten to add that Thomas, like many professional panhandlers, was really an entertaining guy. He was friendly and entertaining, with lots of colourful stories and a good line of patter. In a sense, he sang for his supper. I never resented sharing my food for him, and while his sense of timing was, to quote Alexander Woollcott quite thoroughly out of context, “what is usually and mercifully described as inadequate,” I honestly never felt imposed on. He was an interesting person and I was glad to know him.

I think Thomas was glad when Scott and I moved in to Tom’s place. Tom’s diet was a bit more New Age than Thomas would prefer. Let’s put it this way – he had a cat named Shakti. With our arrival, the house soon became filled with more traditional bachelor chow. We had spaghetti and mac and cheese and potato chips and cereal and hot dogs. Thomas knew that if he showed up at mealtime there’d be something he recognised cooking. The most exotic food I ever offered him was a ginger snap. He made a face “What’s a ginger snap?” “A cookie,” I told him. He took it, sniffed it, made a face again, but ate it. The only thing he ever turned down was peanut butter. “That stops me up,” he said in the cheerful spirit of glasnost.

I didn’t really grasp the big downside to welcoming Thomas into our home until one night when he showed up while I had guests over. Really, if you go over to somebody’s apartment for drinks, you should be able to count on not being panhandled while you’re there; out on the sidewalk around the corner, sure, but not in the apartment itself. Thomas had never familiarised himself with that particular etiquette rule, but I can’t really blame him; I’d never thought of it myself until that night. I tried an ineffectual little, “Uh…Thomas, this isn’t really a good time, I have company over,” little song and dance, but of course it would take stronger stuff than that to disengage him, and he quite rightly considered it established that he was welcome in the house. The most mortifying part was when Thomas approached my friend Lycurgus and took him aside for a private chat about the economy. Lycurgus, like Thomas, was an African-American, and I suppose that made Thomas feel he could be particularly frank about his needs and his point of view. They went out on the balcony and chatted, Thomas murmuring confidentially in Lycurgus’ ear. I looked apologetically at Sylvie. She smiled placidly. Nobody else seemed to feel quite as awkwardly about it as I did. When I had finally managed to eject Thomas, I apologised profusely, but they all told me not to worry about it. I did.

Thomas was not entirely predatory, though. He really did try to show his gratitude to me. He would rummage through garbage and stuff on the street and when he came up with little prizes, he’d always try to pass a share on to me. I still have a Looney Tunes drinking glass he brought by one day, something he found who knows where. The glass survived Mama Dog’s recent purging of our cupboard because she knew it had a sentimental attachment for me, but really I only took it because he wanted so badly to give me something back.

Another way he tried to repay me was by hooking me up with a woman. Unfortunately, the kind of woman Thomas had the most expertise at hooking a guy up with was the kind that was, well, hooking. And not high end hooking, either. His big selling point was “She’ll suck your dick for ten dollars.” He tried other tacks, too. He seemed to know a lot of young women in the neighbourhood. I guess he made it a point to cultivate such acquaintances. One morning I ran into him outside my building on the way to work or to look for work or to go drink or something. I had just had a shower and my hair was slick, but I’d towel dried and just let it sit where it lay. Thomas tsked and said, “That’s no way to look for the ladies.” He fixed my coat collar where it was twisted and then, in a gesture that was unwelcome, obtrusive, kind of creepy, and yet still somehow touching, he reached over and smoothed down my cowlick. Then he beckoned an attractive young woman across the street, calling her by name. He pointed at me. “This’s my white friend, Papa Dog!”** I shrugged and waved and wondered how many different ways he was going to come up with to embarrass me without making me tell him to piss off forever.

The most irate I got with Thomas in that period was the night before Scott and I were going to move out of Tom’s place to a new apartment of our own. My friend Robert from Austria was going to help us move our stuff in his car, but had to do it early. I wanted to get plenty of sleep, so of course Thomas came by twenty minutes after I’d gone to bed. Strangely, he wasn’t coming to hit me up for money. Quite the opposite. He had a military pension, and disability, and probably could have gotten by on that money if he had a different sort of lifestyle. He had just cashed one cheque or another, or maybe both, and he knew that if he had the cash on his person it would be gone by daylight. He wanted me to hold it for him. I was kind of honoured, in a weird way, that he should hold me in such esteem to trust me with his cash. He said, “Just hang on to it. Don’t give it back to me, I gotta make it last.” I said okay and went to sleep.

An hour later, he was back, asking for just twenty dollars of it. I was trying to sleep. I was irritated. I said, “I thought you didn’t want me to give it back to you.” “Just twenty dollars,” he pleaded. “Okay, fine,” I grumbled, “but let me get some sleep.” A half hour later he was back again.

This recurred several times through the night until finally, at wits end, I crumpled the bills and through them down a stairwell at him, yelling, “Take the money back! Just let me get some fucking sleep!”

Tom and I wondered about that night later. We were both now fairly sure that Thomas didn’t drink or use drugs, and the only explanation we could come up with was that he was splurging on the $10 blowjobs. We tried to figure out how many he must have had to go through his entire pension cheque, but I’d lost track of the dollar amount during the night. A lot, we figured. A lot of blowjobs. Maybe some worth more than $10.

It wasn’t always such a drag with Thomas, but somehow blowjobs were a recurrent theme. One night I was walking home from Igor’s when I ran into Thomas on St. Charles Avenue. He walked with me and didn’t ask me for money. We just shot the shit. Every time we passed someone, though, he’d stop to panhandle them, then catch up with me. He spotted a guy sitting in a parked car and went over to ask him for money. He caught up with me, laughing, looking as embarrassed as I’d ever seen him. He pointed a thumb back at the parked car. “Gettin’ his dick sucked,” he laughed. Even Thomas new that under those circumstances, etiquette required curtailing of the panhandling activities.

That winter I was by myself in a new apartment in the same neighbourhood. Thomas found me pretty quickly, but at least he couldn’t let himself into the building. One particularly chilly night he came by and asked if he could sleep on my couch. It was too cold out to leave him to the elements, so I said sure. The only thing was, I told him, I wanted to leave the heat off. I had plenty of blankets for both of us, but I didn’t like the idea of having a gas heater on all night long. I didn’t think it was safe. Thomas said “Yeah, sure,” and we both crashed for the night. Within twenty minutes, naturally, he had turned the heater on. I’d scarcely had time to focus on that worry when a new one materialised. Thomas had fallen asleep and was starting to mutter to himself. It suddenly hit me that he was a somewhat addled Vietnam vet, and all the attendant stereotypes occurred to me at once. Who knew what kind of Agent Orange flashback he was having? What if he got up in the middle of the night and thought he was crawling around that hooch back in the DMZ looking for the Charlie beehive? Thomas muttered and rustled around on the couch. I didn’t sleep well that night. I was never tempted to grant him another sleepover.

Things came to an end with Thomas sadly but not really unexpectedly. As you might guess from the stories I remember most vividly that I’d been trying for some time to figure out a way to cut him loose for once and all. He gave me the way himself. My friend Charmingly, back in the Bay Area, had sent me $10 for something or other. I forget for what. To buy her a book? Maybe to get some beignet mix. Doesn’t matter. The relevant point is that the ten dollar bill was sitting on my bureau waiting to be spent one morning when Thomas showed up at my door. I was getting ready for work and didn’t have time to talk, so I was kind of brusque with him. He was looking for money and I told him, honestly, that I didn’t have any to spare. He asked again and I said no again. I was grabbing my lunch from the fridge when he abruptly said, “Okay, ‘bye!” and hustled himself out the door. I looked up. That was odd. I started to the door to look after him and then it hit me. I looked at the bureau, and sure enough the ten dollar bill was gone.

The next time I saw Thomas I was finally able to be cold to him. He acted hurt and puzzled. “Why you bein’ like that, Papa Dog?” he asked. “Because you stole ten dollars from me,” I said. “What ten dollars?” he asked, persisting in his forced innocence. “The ten dollars that was on my bureau before you showed up this morning and was gone after you left,” I said. We went back and forth on this a few times, Thomas protesting his innocence against all reason. I told him that he could keep the ten dollars, that I’d get paid eventually and could replace it myself; but that as far as I was concerned he’d betrayed my trust unforgivably and I didn’t want anything more to do with him. “I’m sorry you feel that way, Papa Dog,” were the last words he said to me, and he really did sound genuinely hurt. It was way past the stage where that would make any difference, but even then he was managing to summon pathos.

Where is Thomas now, I wonder? He was probably in his late 40s then, ten years ago, and life expectancy on the street doesn’t extend much beyond that. It’s too bad the way things worked out. Too bad he couldn’t restrain himself in the face of that one little temptation. Too bad it didn’t occur to me to stow the cash away somewhere when he showed up at my door. Too bad we only met in the first place because the path he took in life left him knocking on strangers’ doors to make his way.
*Pan of early Bogart stage performance, 1922.

**Of course, he didn’t say “Papa Dog.” I wasn’t “Papa Dog” then. He said my real name.


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