Pat Pilon CC
T H E P O O R O N E S
Keats was in the park running laps in the last half-hour of sunlight. Everything was green, great trees - Norway maple, magnolia and ailanthus - perfumed the air.
He was not alone. Dozens of others, as if propelled by a strange compulsion, repeatedly looped the Olympic standard 400 metre track.
Keats could not read minds, it was impossible for him to say what motivated his fellow runners. In his case, he’d taken up running not to tune his body, not to perfect its performance, but to keep from killing himself.
While his body sweated and struggled, his mind became a house with endless rooms. It was an antidote to the moments he felt like nothing, like a filament of steam, an image written in the air.
After making sixteen turns around the track - four miles - he stopped. It had never seemed more difficult. The timer on his wristwatch indicated he’d lost ninety-seconds since the last summer.
Mouth open, gasping for breath, he stood with his hands on his hips on the littoral at the north end of the track.
It was then they appeared, moving in close formation over the red clay like a cloud of dust or a freak meteorological event.
His eye struggled to organize the scene: their dirty faces and bodies floating amid the scrubbed faces and bodies of the runners. The runners wore uniforms of colorful athletic gear, while they wore grimy black denim and black t-shirts. Their skin was tinted a uniform shade of grey. It was a hue that any observer would instinctively know came from sleeping on the streets. He counted - there were a dozen, all young, all in their twenties. He watched them and thought: they live like dogs.
Moving slowly as if they’d traveled a great distance, they held their heads high and carried themselves with a certain dignity. That was the strange thing; a stillness clung to them as if they’d just left a wake or a funeral.
Keats had seen young people just like them in the subways, usually in groups of four or five, begging, waving worn cardboard signs that demanded money. They smelled terrible, they slept in doorways. They were almost always drunk or high.
Most New Yorkers couldn’t bear to be mistaken for someone poor. These young people’s visible abjection - the facial tattoos, the crude piercings, the derangement, the destitution - was entirely voluntary. They extolled the virtue of defeat over triumph, rejected everything and were proud to walk in rags among the healthy, the normal. Because of that they were hated by everyone. Considering all the factions, classes and tribes in the City, it was an accomplishment.
As they continued along the track Keats watched a blonde, well-dressed woman - like a flash of gold in dark water - move among them. He’d noticed her at the rear of the group, noticed the large white Akita accompanying her and assumed she was just another person out walking her dog. She was attractive, in her twenties. Probably a drug addict, Keats thought. They were going to score for her. She would foot the bill. They would all get high that night.
When the group was ten feet away, Keats - out of habit - made eye contact. She held his gaze for a moment. He thought of his own life, the years of dissipation, the expenditure of countless days and hours he would never get back. How lucky he’d been not to have ended up like them.
The group continued, exiting the park at Bayard Street. The woman glanced back at him, insolent pride flashing in her eyes. What exactly was she doing with those ambassadors of poverty and depravity, those crusty punks?
The next day at work, Keats sat at his desk drinking his first cup of coffee. Weren’t artifacts of middle-class origins visible in those filthy, dirt-encrusted faces? In the size of their bodies and in their body language? The true poor were small, furtive and bent. One might assert that what they were doing was called slumming. But, judging from the visible damage to their bodies it was an irreversible kind of slumming.
Their careers on the street led toward inexorable ends: death by overdose and disease or arrest and imprisonment. Surely, Keats reasoned, in taking that decisive step into the abyss - bypassing mere degeneracy – they were guided not by ideology, but pathology.
He’d stopped long before that happened. Had it been luck that arrested his descent? Or something else?
He tapped at the grey adding machine that sat just to the right of the computer monitor. His was a job that offered little or no hope of advancement. Hired a year earlier, he was still not assigned the same volume of work as the woman in the cubicle next to his. Often, while she noisily processed stacks of paperwork he sat at his desk with nothing to do. Perhaps, when the company performed one of its periodic background checks, something had been discovered. If layoffs came he was sure to be among the first to be let go.
A memory worked away in his mind. A man smaller than the others. A Mediterranean face; Italian, North African. A face with wild, red-rimmed eyes that stared out from beneath dark curls.
Almost ten days passed before he saw the blonde woman again. He’d probably run two miles by the time he spotted her and the Akita. In black slacks and a white dress shirt with the sleeves rolled to the elbow, she looked like she’d just gotten off work. He passed her by once, twice then stopped running and walked to where she stood in the grass near the chin-up bars.
“Sorry, to bother you, but the other night I saw you here with a group of men and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it…” He wiped at the sweat that dripped from his forehead. “It was like a scene from a movie.”
She looked past him toward the shining gold domes of the orthodox church that overlooked the park. “That’s funny, I’m making a movie about them. I’ll take that as a good sign.”
The Akita pawed at a candy bar wrapper beneath Keats’ sneaker. She tugged at the leash.
“What’s the film about exactly?”
“It’s about Roman.” Like many attractive people her features were so symmetrical that she appeared plain at first glance.
He was momentarily confused. “As in ancient Rome?”
In the middle of the track, two boys stood a short distance apart, kicking a soccer ball back and forth.
“Roman is an artist. He’s been living on the street for the last two and a half years. I’m documenting his return to the quote unquote real world of responsibility and beds and three meals a day.” She tugged at the great dog’s leash. “It’s looking more and more like he won’t be able to make the transition. He’s gotten used to the freedom of owning nothing, of having nothing. And he’s come to the conclusion that he was wasting his gift by making art.” Her tone of voice suggested that she - unlike Keats - was privy to an esoteric body of knowledge.
“Roman was the little guy with the curly hair?”
“When Roman enters your world, you feel his presence like a wound. I was working as a copywriter when I met him in the subway. I was suffering terribly that day, in fact, I’d left work early because of the pain. My entire life I’ve had to deal with Crohn’s disease.” Eyes downcast, she smiled. “Until I met Roman. He healed me. I’ve thrown out all my medication, I’ve stopped seeing doctors.”
There was no reticence in her voice, she spoke with what seemed like genuine conviction. Keats had met people like her – believers in in New Age therapies and the occult. What once had been a phenomenon peculiar to California had swept across the land.
“I quit my job and bought a camera. That was almost six month ago. I’ve been following him around the City ever since.”
Because he’d just run two miles his brain was awash with endorphins. He nodded his head eagerly as he spoke. “They all seemed so solemn, liked they were coming from a funeral or something. When I saw them walking along the track I immediately thought of that painting - Il Quarto Stato by da Volpedo - do you know it?”
She shook her head. “Kyrie had just overdosed…he’d been dead for like fifteen minutes…Roman brought him back to life. It’s all on tape. I haven’t had the courage yet to look at it.”
“Did he have the power to heal before he became homeless? What about the others? Are they his followers? Do they travel the land spreading his word?” He felt almost drunk. He hoped she didn’t think he was mocking her.
“They’re just a bunch of lost, loudmouthed kids. I can’t stand most of them. Roman, on the other hand, calls them the brave ones - they had the guts to step away from all the mindless glitter and become free.”
“Could I buy you a coffee sometime?” Pigeons zigzagged overhead, sirens broadcast far-off distress. “I’d like to hear more, when I’m not dripping with sweat.”
She smiled. “I’m sorry, but I’m leaving town tomorrow. I have to go home and pack.” Like an accomplice the enormous dog began to pull her away. She called over her shoulder. “My name is Eleanor. It was nice to have met you.”
There was a drinking fountain near the handball courts on the other side of the track. He jogged toward it. The great lights above the park began to glow. They came on gradually like moons at dusk.
Four miles. If he ran four miles he would completely forget about her by the time he finished.
As the summer progressed running became more difficult. Eventually, Keats could not complete a single lap without having to stop to rest. When he took a deep breath, he felt resistance deep in his lungs, like something was ready to bloom or to burst.
His GP referred him to a pulmonologist. The pulmonologist in turn sent him for X-rays.
Like a penitent child he reported to the radiologist. Even the rumor of illness imposed discipline. He felt meek, like he’d been punched in the face by a stranger: why me, what have I done? Suicide, depression suddenly seemed like absurd, incomprehensible concepts. He would do anything to keep his body healthy and intact.
In the waiting room he filled out forms, then followed a woman dressed in evergreen scrubs into the room where machines would reveal the secrets of his body.
She was probably 45 with black hair and dark circles beneath her eyes. In the V-neck of her scrubs, a gold cross hung above her breasts. Above her heart, the name Attilio was inked in blue.
She fastened a bib made of lead around his waist to shield his groin from the x-rays.
Her technique was to aim the devices at Keats’ lungs and then walk quickly - as if a fuse had been lit - behind a door and throw the switch. Clicks and whirring noises were audible as the machines shot electrons into his body. In all, she took four images of his lungs from four different angles.
Keats returned to the waiting room. He looked around at his fellow patients. It was like a betting parlor: they were waiting to see if their bets paid off or they’d lost everything.
A door opened and with a wave of her hand the radiographer summoned Keats back into the X-ray examination room. She led him to a small office and pointed at a glowing medical imaging monitor.
“It has to be walking pneumonia, or…” She shrugged, “Well, I’m not a doctor, I can’t make a diagnosis.”
The pair of lungs on display were shot through with enormous, ghostly shadows.
“But, I mostly feel fine.”
“I’ll send the films to your physician.” She pointed at the screen. “If I was you I’d check in to the nearest hospital.”
“You have Sarcoidosis, Mr. Keats - it’s in your lungs, it’s in your eyes and quite possibly it will affect you brain.” The doctor was a Latina in her late twenties. She was attractive and friendly, yet there was something of the policeman to her.
He’d been out of the hospital one week. They’d had him on antibiotics for four days before finally changing tack and performing a lung biopsy.
The results had been conclusive.
“I thought Sarcoidosis was something only African-Americans and Scandinavians get…” His membership in ‘normal’ society had been annulled – he was officially a sick person. His new life would consist of adapting to the vicissitudes of illness and decline.
“I see you’ve been doing research, Mr. Keats. I’m afraid it’s not entirely clear why or who or even how people contract Sarcoidosis.” She was lying to him, treating him like a child. “You were a heavy smoker, weren’t you?”
“I never smoked in my life. I had asthma as a child, but it went away.”
“In any case, treatment is what we need to discuss.”
“You have fifty-five percent lung function. In a case like yours, 60mgs of prednisone every single day for one year is indicated.”
Starting at his calves pinpoints of sweat broke out all over his body. “I know about prednisone - it’ll ruin my bones, my GI. The mood swings are supposed to be horrible.”
“We will prescribe a variety of medications to counter the side effects. Your appearance, I’m afraid, will change…”
“…You’re talking about Cushing’s Syndrome.”
“Yes, Mr. Keats, but it will be temporary.”
“I have to think about this.”
“Are you refusing treatment?” She lifted a pen and began to write.
“No, no of course not.”
“What I’m advising is simply the standard treatment, Mr. Keats, nothing more, nothing less.”
He left her office gripping a fistful of prescriptions. Walking along Lexington Avenue in the bright summer sunlight he looked into the face of every passing stranger and wondered: which of you will outlive me?
A week passed. Keats waited underground for the 6 train. Ten feet away, a shirtless young man with a crescent moon tattooed beneath one eye, sat on the platform with his back against a girder, a cardboard sign in his lap: I need money for beer and dope. Anything helps. There were beads around his neck and wrists. Shining out from beneath dark matted hair, his soft brown eyes bore traces of a forgotten self-respect.
An idea pushed Keats across the subway platform. He knelt, dropped a five-dollar bill at the young man’s bare feet. “Do you know Roman?”
“What?” He picked up the money and pocketed it. His nose was crooked, there were scars on his forehead. Acne pebbled the skin of a face that had been marked by punishment and disaster. His smell was strong, but it was not the smell of the true homeless, who stewed in their own excrement for months at a time.
“Do you know Roman?”
In a singsong voice hoarse with sickness: “Roman? Oh yeah sure, sure. Everyone knows Roman.” His metabolism appeared to speed up as he took in Keats and deemed him an easy score. “Roman’s practically famous.” He rubbed his nose, nodded his head continuously.
“I’ll give you ten dollars if you take me to him.”
He was on his feet, folding the sign and rolling his shoulders. He moved toward the stairs. Keats followed.
“And I’ll give you ten more dollars if you make it quick and avoid any silly detours”.
His name was Corey. They exited the subway via a stairway at Canal Street. It was after six, the City had begun its descent into evening. Around them, like migrating animals, commuters single-mindedly undertook the journey back to their homes.
Prompted by olfactory and other cues, they granted Corey a wide berth. He was a noisy, smelly ghost invisible to some, real to others. Keats, a step behind, watched the crowds part before him. A police escort would have been no less effective.
As a vagrant, his existence within city-limits was a crime. Even the words that came out of his mouth violated laws. Instead of sports or current events, Keats and the homeless youth spoke of the one thing they had in common - heroin.
“Funny how it’s stayed at $10 a bag for years on end.”
“Outside the City there are fluctuations.”
“There’s one dealer I know in East Harlem. He sells it for $5 a bag.”
“Where are you from?”
“What about you?”
“Why’d you come here?”
“To become famous.”
“I came here for the dope.”
“It took me almost ten years to quit. After that I could barely remember what it felt like to know anything.”
“I want to stay high forever.”
Bars of sunlight flared on the soot-colored avenue. Schoolboys left black handprints on the shiny finish of parked cars. Near the corner of Reade and W. Broadway a man stood in the middle of the sidewalk and leaned against a long pole affixed with a sign advertising a Chinese restaurant. He attempted to hand out menus to the merciless swarms that jostled past. There were no takers.
Pear-shaped and balding with long hair trailing down his neck, he wore stained navy chinos, a faded blue, button-down oxford shirt. He looked like an office worker who’d been stranded on a desert island for a decade. Once upon a time, he’d sold his labor to reputable employers and been fairly compensated. Those days were gone forever.
With Keats in tow Corey walked up to him. “Have you seen Roman?”
“He’s in Blimpie’s, at his usual table.” He pointed at Keats. “I know you, don’t I? You work in the Seagram’s Building.”
Reflexively, Keats shook his head ‘No’. Corey touched his elbow: “This way.”
The man with the sign called after them. “Someone told me you were arrested, Corey, and I almost cried, imagining you caged like an animal…”
Two blocks down W. Broadway was the Blimpie’s. Corey led Keats to the entrance of the restaurant. “He’s in there.”
Keats handed Corey $20. Corey went on his way without a word.
Keats stared through the open doorway. A solitary man sat at a table near floor to ceiling windows that looked onto Murray Street. Around him refuse overflowed from trash cans, pieces of food littered the floor. Earlier in the day a horde of office workers had eaten there and departed quickly as if in advance of an invading army or news of plague.
Keats stepped into the restaurant. A single employee - eyes unfocused, lost in reverie - rested his elbows against the counter as he awaited the next customer. It was a large space. Artifacts of its previous existence as another restaurant were manifest in the anachronistic fixtures, the painted over brick. Perhaps, long ago it had been a Beefsteak Charlies or a Longchamps. Keats thought of Anglo-Saxons in England, moving into abandoned Roman enclosures and haphazardly converting them to their own uses. That was city life.
The man at the table wore a stained, threadbare black blazer over a white t-shirt. His face was dirty. With his beard and curly black hair, he might have been one of Castro’s guerillas starving in the Sierra Maestra. On the other hand, he could have been a tourist who’d suffered a drastic reversal of fortune and been left to wander far from home.
The man turned at the sound of footsteps on the sticky floor.
“Are you Roman?”
Keats pointed at his chest. “Well, you see, the thing of it is, I can’t breathe so good anymore…”
“When I’m indoors, in a crowded room, every word, every gesture strikes me like a well-aimed shot.”
Keats and Roman faced each other. It was dusk. Men and women filled the streets around them. Roman’s rough hands were inside Keats’ shirt. Mortified by Roman’s proximity, by the smell of his body, the electricity of acute embarrassment flowed over Keats. It had been a long time since he’d allowed himself to be humiliated in public.
Leaning back, lifting his elbows, Roman clenched and unclenched his hands in the empty air. “I am what happens.” He turned and walked away.
Keats buttoned his shirt, suddenly aware of the salt air from the harbor pulsing in his nose. How easy it was to forget that Manhattan was an island jutting into the sea.
He wiped his brow and called after the departing figure. “Can I give you some money or buy you a meal?” Then, he began to cry.
Later that night, alone in his apartment, he would stare in the mirror and take one deep breath after the next.
In his ears every sound merged into a single, pleading note. He could see Roman moving away from him, far down Murray Street…
The reddening sun lingers briefly on one horizon, then as if a scale has tipped, a sliver of moon appears on the other. He shivers as the wind rings half-audibly among the skyscrapers. Passersby on his right and left; each has plans, a life. He too once had plans; now there is no end in sight. He waits for the stoplight to turn green. Mica glitters in passing headlights, dogs bark in the distance. Everything is as it should be. The light changes. He runs across the West Side Highway.
On the bank of the Hudson river Roman reaches out his right hand, and fills it.... And he sows it on the...And then...water...and...before their eyes; and it brought forth fruit...many...for joy
Bill Whitten is an American songwriter and musician. He was the principal songwriter and singer/guitarist for St. Johnny & Grand Mal. The New York Times describes his music as "mixing three parts Rolling Stones, one-part Velvet Underground … rock with an unabashed swagger." His last album was Burn My Letters. His story Pleasure is No Fun appeared in Typishly. His story "Smoking in Bed" will appear in the Canadian Lit Quarterly 4 in late September.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.