The Very Last Dance of Homeless Joe

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Fantasy  |  House: Booksie Classic

Submitted: September 11, 2019

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Submitted: September 11, 2019

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They’re all over Manhattan: Soho, Times Square, Murray Hill, Wall Street, East Village, West Village, Upper East Side, Hell’s Kitchen, and Washington Heights.  I’m not talking about yuppies, buppies or millennial yuppies. I’m talking about the disenfranchised, the outcasts.  society’s lost, and forgotten children. I’m talking about Manhattan’s homeless people. The castaways, stranded like uncharted islands in the stream of more fortunate New Yorkers. Haunting the streets with haunted eyes, watching the world go by, close enough to touch, but just out of reach. They are hopeless. Untethered. Adrift on a concrete ocean, with no safe harbor in sight. They are a statement, they are a result, they are a reminder and they are legion.

 

These thoughts went barreling through my head as I approached Homeless Joe and his dog, Mush. And how bad could this guy’s story be that the other homeless people thought he had it worse than them. Especially Blind Sally.  She said that life was dance and dance was life and if you didn’t dance you didn’t live, and that Homeless Joe had stopped dancing.

So I went up to him, a long haired tan 40-ish looking guy with a three day old beard and a beat up black leather vest with no shirt.  On his bare chest was a tattoo of Aquarius the water bearer, and out of the urn poured mermaids.

On an old raggedy blanket next to Joe, there lay a big light brown pitbull with four white paws surrounded by well chewed stuffed animals. A large bag of Nutro dog food and a huge knapsack sat beside him.  Joe was reading the Daily News. Our conversation went something like this; “Hi there” I said. “I’m writing an article on homeless people for a small community newsletter. My name’s Rich.  Do you mind if I talk to you for a bit?”

“Name’s Joe, but I’m not homeless.  The road is my home.  I’m an urban camper.”

“Fair enough. I’d still like to talk if you don’t mind.”

“No problem. Tell you what though.  I tell you my story, then you tell me yours, deal?”

“Sure.”

“Groovy man. What do you want to know?”

“First of all, is he friendly?” I asked, pointing at the light brown pitbull laying on a dusty Sponge Bob blanket.

 

“Put out your hand and find out.  Just kidding, he’s friendly as they come. A big mush.  That’s his name, Mush.  Go ahead, he’s okay.”

 

I put my hand out, palm up, and Mush sidles up to me, his tail wagging, big grin on his face. As I pat his head, I notice a big scar on his back left leg so I ask, “What happened to his leg?”

“He was abused by his previous owner.  Left him tied to a tree in Central Park in freezing mid winter.  His paws were frozen to the ground and he was half dead when I came across him. Took some doing, but he’s fine and dandy now though.  But he’s scared of some stuff.  Thunder and lightning..  Maybe his jerk owner left him out in a storm or something.”

“Looks happy.  But, where do you guys sleep?”

“A grassy hill in Central Park by the lake.  Convenient and more comfortable than you might think.”

“What about in the winter?”

“We hop a freight train to Florida.  Easy peasy.”

“Why Florida?”

“I was born there.”

“You got family there?”
“I used to. Mom, dad and two sisters, all wonderful, all died in a fire when I was 16.  I was sleeping over at a friend’s house.  Lucky me, eh?”

I stood there stunned for a moment, then said, “I’m sorry, that’s tragic.”

“Yeah, it was twenty four years ago.  Messed me up pretty good for a long time. Seems like a lifetime ago.  What else you want to know?”

“I’m really sorry. What brought you to New York?”

“The pizza.  Just kidding.  I came here back in the 90s to get some distance, know what I mean? “

“Yeah. And what happened?”

“Got a job, met a girl, had a kid, started living again.”

 

“Sounds good.  How’d you wind up here on Broadway?”

“Oh, my wife and son died. Drunk driver on Riverside Drive. I was at work when I got the call. Lucky again. Course, my luck’s been all bad. Till recently, anyway.”

 

This shut me up. I mean, Joe was sitting there … smiling, telling a complete stranger that he suffered not one, but two life crushing tragedies, like he was reading a brunch special at Tavern On the Green. I didn’t know what to say.  A few awkward seconds passed, then Joe began speaking again.

 

“When my wife and son died this past December, I pretty much lost it. They were the loves of my life, you know? Wandered the streets, sobbing uncontrollably, screaming at God, WHY WHY? Finally wandered into Central Park. Was gonna drown myself in the frozen lake when I saw this dog tied to a tree.  Mush. I couldn’t leave him there, so I picked him up and carried him to Fifth avenue and happened to spot a patrol car. They drove us to the Animal Medical Center on East 62nd Street. I saved Mush’s life.  He saved mine. Miracle number one.”

“Miracle number one,” I said dazedly. “What was miracle number two?”

Joe motioned for me to come closer, looked right then left and whispered, “Cancer.”

I blinked in confusion. “Cancer?  What, you’ve beaten it or something?”

“Nope” he said with a smile.  “I’ve got it. Cancer.  The doc gives me three months.”

“I don’t understand.  Where’s the miracle?”

“Rich, I prayed to God to let me die and guess what?  He answered.  Cancer.  No more sleepless nights.  No more regrets.  No more loneliness, despair …the list goes on.”

“Why are you smiling?”

“Look man, I asked God to let me die and bingo!  I’m dying, so God exists, so Heaven must exist so my whole family’s there waiting for me.  I’m going home man.  I’m going home.”

 

What could I say?  Joe was sitting there happy as a clam with two life tragedies under his belt and three months to live.  “Joe, Jesus.  Don’t you think you should talk to someone about all this?”

“I’m talking to you, man.  Anyway, it’s your turn.”

“My turn, what?”

“I told you my story, now you have to tell me yours.”

“You just told me you’re happy you’re dying. What am I supposed to say to that?”

“Hey, a deal’s a deal.  I want to know your story.  Here, pull up some pavement.”

 

So I sat on the Sponge Bob blanket with Mush’s head in my lap as I rubbed his pink belly and told Joe my tale. My alcoholic dad and manic mom. The 13 different apartments I lived in before age 9. How I lost my whole world at age 22 and spent the next few decades rambling around aimlessly. The girls, the jobs, psych wards, Fountain House saving my life, all of it. And while I told my story a number of people from the neighborhood stopped to leave dog treats or sandwiches or money, and to pet Mush. Joe greeted each one of them with a big smile, like he didn’t have a care in the world. And he told me stuff.

 

Joe liked 60’s rock, especially the Stones. He had read a lot of history books and especially loved Vikings and Norse mythology. Thor, the god of Thunder and such. He’d only been out of the country once, and that was to Nepal where he fell in love with the temples and mountains. He used to smoke, but gave it up for his late wife, Sherry. He’d never voted. He liked deviled eggs.  He played baseball as a kid and broke his arm sliding into home plate on an inside the park home run. He scored the run and the hometown crowd went wild.  His favorite color was sunset orange.  He met Johnny Depp in a bar one night and they talked about swordfishing and pinochle and old bourbon. He wore one burgundy Nike running shoe on his right foot and a suede Reebok walking shoe on his left. He loved his late dad, mom, sisters, wife and son more than life itself. And now, believing he was soon to be reunited with them all, he was more at peace than anyone I’d ever met.

 

“What about Mush?” I asked.

“There’s this rich lady who has a big old upper west side apartment who comes by and visits us all the time, brings Mush toys and kibble. She said she’d take him when it’s time for me to go.  Nice lady.”

“He’ll miss you awful.”

 “Yeah, me too.”

 

And we talked some more, till the orange sun set on the Lincoln Center skyline. Eventually, I thanked Joe, patted Mush and went home to write about Joe and the other homeless people I’d met. 

 

As I walked back down Broadway, I felt this incredible sadness wash over me. All the homeless folks I’d talked to, the stories they’d told me, the sight of them. They left me with one realization not just about the homeless but myself as well.  We need each other, perhaps desperately.  And, like Blind Sally told me, we need to dance.

- Richard Courage

 

 


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