I met the homeless man during a late night cigarette break on my apartment’s stoop. He was a black man wearing a tan barn jacket in the dead of winter; it was stained and full of holes. The man was friendly, though, and he smiled at me with a toothy, unshaven face. He pointed at my pack of Winston’s and I carefully pulled a cigarette halfway out of the pack before extending it to him. He smiled and sat next to me on the cement stairs, without saying a word.
It was loud outside my apartment – they were filming another episode of Sex & the City on my street – and we listened to the teamsters at work.
My roomate, Kori, startled both of us. “Having a smokey treat?” he said, opening the building’s front door. It was a term that he always used with sarcasm, signaling his disappointment in my aborted attempts to quit. The homeless man stood up and offered Kori his seat. Kori thanked him, rudely took the seat, and began talking above the din. He probably didn’t realize that he was ignoring our neighborhood guest, but he spoke only to me.
“So, last smokey treat of the year, right? Can’t imagine that you’ll keep coming out here all winter.”
I smiled, knowing that I’d happily brave the wind and snow.
“I thought I’d join you for the last ceremonial pre-bedtime smoke.”
“Thanks man, that’s kind of you,” I said.
A crane down the block began to hoist a flood light above the intersection of Perry Street and West Fourth. It made a grating, gear crunching sound and the three of us winced.
“What is the deal with these TV shows?” I said. “It’s kind of cool at first, but there’s a point when it’s just too much. They’re here day and night now.”
“Either of you two ever been in a helicopter?” the homeless man said, suddenly breaking his silence. Kori and I looked at each other in confusion, as if suddenly the garbage cans on our street had begun speaking.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “Ever been in a what?”
“A helicopter,” he said. “Those big flying machines with the rotors.”
“No, don’t think I have,” said Kori, sarcastic again.
“Well, I tell ya, it’s loud,” he said. “It’s so loud you can’t think straight. You have to remind yourself to not bite your lip or breath too hard.”
I stared at him, squinting my eyes in confusion. “You know how you can tell somebody’s shootin’ at you in a helicoptor?”
“Uh, I imagine it’d be pretty hard to miss,” said Kori.
“Well, you ain’t got a very good imagination.” The man took a drag of his Winston. “It’s so damn loud you can’t hear nothin’3/4not the gunfire, not the metal being pierced.” He closed his eyes. “You can tell that they’re shootin’ at you by the holes in the floor. That’s how you know. You see the light come streamin’ in through the holes and you know that you’re under fire.”
Our eyes widened and I think we said “woah” together. I’d never had this long a conversation with a bum before, and I was instantly fascinated and curious.
“So, were you in the Army?” I asked.
“Marines,” he replied. “It was twenty five years ago, but I still remember most of it.”
“What was it like?” I asked, prodding him for more juicy details.
“You mean in combat?”
I nodded like an eager pup.
“Well, Vietnam was a rush, I’ll tell you that. Whatever they say about the horrors of war-well fuck it. It was an experience I’ll never regret.”
“Seriously?” Kori asked, suspicious.
“Hell yeah. I mean, like everyone, I saw people die; I saw friends go down. But man, being shot is like nothing else. Like being kicked in the gut by god himself.”
“That’s a good thing?” I asked.
“Well, no, come on now. But it’s amazing still.” He closed his eyes again. “You got a hole in your belly, ’bout a half-inch wide. Now, it don’t bleed immediately, ’cause your body don’t know it’s shot yet. But you fly maybe two, three feet and land on some dirt and you got a damn hole in your body. You sit there staring at it, unsure how it got there, and then you begin to pour out. Like someone turned on the faucet in your gut.” “Does it bleed a lot?” I asked. “Sure. But after a minute, it don’t matter, cause you can feel that bullet in liver and stomach. Doctors say that you don’t have feeling in your brain and internal organs, but I don’t believe that for a minute. Swear to god that I could feel that fucking bullet eating me up inside.”
He was finished with his cigarette and I offered another. In exchange, I asked him for his name. He told me that he went by his last name, Faulkner.
“You have a title in the military, Fauklner?” Kori asked.
“Sure. I was a Corporal,” he said. “No wait, they made me Lance Corporal after I came back home,” he corrected himself. “Never really meant much of anything though.”
We continued talking out on the stoop for an hour. We talked until my fingers began to turn blue. I wanted to continue, but, unlike Kori, I had no pockets to hide my hands in. Before we went back inside, I asked Faulkner if he’d ever written anything.
“Why, you a writer?” he asked.
“No not really,” I said. “But if I had the stories you have, I would be.” He smiled. Seeing that we were going inside, he began to walk away too. I stumbled down the steps and caught him, pulling five dollars out of my wallet. He wouldn’t accept it, though, and I felt pathetic, condescending. “Hey, you listened to my stories and gave me some smokes. I should owe you.”
“I just wanted to give something,” I mumbled. “Well, for what it’s worth, thanks.” He patted me on the back and laughed. As I went inside to warm up, he walked toward Seventh Ave, away from the lights of the TV crew.
I went outside every night that winter, hoping that he’d return. By February I’d given up. He told us that he was originally from Georgia and I began to picture him back down there, returning home for the summer. By the end of the winter I’d given up smoking and, hence, didn’t spending too much time talking to bums on my stoop.
During a night the following March, I was going to the local sports bar, Riveria, to watch some NCAA tournament games with Kori. Crossing Charles Street, we saw the neighborhood’s Asian grocery clerk talking to a black man in a barn jacket – Faulkner! The grocery clerk always wore a paper plate on his head, with the center cut out, as some sort of bizarre top hat. Because of the hat – and his seven-foot frame – I’ve always been frightened of the man. But Faulkner joked with him like they were old combat partners, his arm around the man’s shoulder, grinning widely. Kori and I stopped and stared. We’d been talking about the man for months, telling our friends that he was some sort of legend-possibly the bastard child of William Faulkner; only that could explain his gift for story-telling. We walked toward the two men cautiously, as if approaching timid deer, but they didn’t seem to notice us. They carried on their conversation as if we weren’t there, our mouths open, peering over their shoulders. Finally Kori interrupted.
“Lance Corporal Faulkner!” he said, making the Asian man jump.
Faulkner looked at us and began to rub his dry palms. “Now who are you fellas?”
“We met you last year. You remember, right?” I said.
“Sorry kid,” he said. Then he turned away and returned to his conversation.
“Hey man,” I said, “We’ve been hoping to run into you. Where you been?” Faulkner slowly spun back, with a creased, menacing face. “Listen, I’m talking to someone here. I don’t know you, so you’re being rude.”
He glowered until Kori and I walked away. We’d been starting to wonder if this guy was just a phantom of our imagination and here he was, in the flesh, and he wouldn’t talk to us. Walking down Seventh, we became pissed. I bitched that we’d probably never see him again. Kori agreed, but said “what are you gonna do?” and I shrugged. I couldn’t believe that this man, who held such an uncanny grasp of the details in his stories, didn’t remember us at all.
When we got into Riveria, Kori and I took off our coats and sat down to eat. We both looked off into space, watching the five games simultaneously televised, and then Kori suddenly shook me, his eyes bugging and wild. “We have to give him the Green Monster,” he said.
The Green Monster was Kori’s coat. It was puke-green down parka that must’ve weighed about thirty pounds. I gave it that name when Kori asked me to haul it back from Philadelphia once and, ever since, I’d been on a mission to get rid of the damn thing. Kori always looked pretty odd going to work in a suit, wearing that ridiculous, oversized coat. It was an inspired idea to give it to Faulkner, as it would give him a decent winter layer – even if it was almost spring – while also giving Kori the impetus to go out and buy something classier. Because we didn’t want to loose our seats at Riveria, Kori handed me the coat and instructed me to bring it out to Faulkner. When I got outside, I didn’t see him or the clerk on Seventh. I began running up the avenue, frantically scanning the streets. The coat was weighing me down and, just as I began slowing to a canter, I saw Faulkner descending into the 14th Street subway. I called to him from the top of the station and he stopped. He looked up at me as I descended the stairs. He shook his head and said, “where’s the fire, kid?” Panting, I told him “We remembered your jacket-the same one you’re wearing now.” He eyed me suspiciously. “Just thought you could use something warmer.” Faulker puffed out his chest. “What am I supposed to do with that?”
His finger was yellowed from smoking.
“I don’t know,” I replied dumbly. “Listen, you don’t have to take it, but I’m just offering it. A gift.”
“Well then, what am I supposed to do with this?” He flared out the corduroy collar of the barn jacket, indicating that he wasn’t about to throw it out.
“Whatever you want. It’s up to you.” We stood there, motionless, as I waited for him to do something. Defiantly, he fastened the top buttons of his barn jacket. I dropped the Green Monster on the ground. “I’m just going to leave it here, okay? It’s a nice coat and it’s warm.” And with that I walked back up the stairs. When I got to the top I realized that maybe the coat would just sit there. Maybe it would lie on the ground until tomorrow morning and Kori would see it when he took the 2/3 downtown. I went back to retrieve it, but before I got to the bottom I could see Faulkner, still standing there. He was wearing the Green Monster now, fashioned atop the barn jacket in a double layer, and he admired his reflection on a chrome MetroCard vending machine.
November 1999 / March 2000