Wednesday, November 24, 2004


A Very Special Thanksgiving Episode

So, you know how every Thanksgiving, every sitcom does that idiotic plot where the characters meet some poor and/or homeless person and learn a lesson about how important it is to be thankful and share with those less fortunate?

Here’s mine.

In September of 2000 I got a job at the Silver Dollar Casino, after a month of destitution, the result of being unceremoniously shitcanned by Parker’s. I had to start at “on-call” status until a full-time schedule became available, which was how I ended up working on Thanksgiving night.

There had been a mild rush early in the evening, made up mostly of people looking to blow off some family-induced stress by getting liquored up and throwing away some money. But that cleared out after last call, and by the wee hours we were down to the usual assortment of insomniacs and compulsives. We started closing tables soon after, and, being an on-call dealer, I was one of the first to get sent home early.

At that time of night, I knew I’d have a decent wait for the bus. Fortunately, I always had my backpack stashed with reading material and my discman, for just such an occasion. I picked up a pack of cigarettes at the 7-11 across the street and looked forward to smoking half of it at the bus stop, while I read the latest Star Wars novel and listened to Depeche Mode.

It was rare to find other people at the bus stop that time of night, so I was mildly surprised to see not one, but three people there. One of them, a large, shabby-looking guy in a rickety wheelchair, asked me if I knew when the next bus was due. Checking my watch, I told him it would be about half an hour. “Good,” spat one of the other ones, a spotty kid who was-maybe-barely out of his teens.

Okay, I thought, I don’t even want to get into it, just let me find a quiet spot to smoke and read, and let Depeche Mode drown out their little drama.

The kid hurled some insults at the guy in the wheelchair, who angrily told him to go away and quit messing with him. The third guy, in rescue-mission clothes and a shaggy beard, would occasionally chime in drunkenly, apparently on the side of the wheelchair guy. Soon the wheelchair guy asked me if I knew where the next bus stop was. Still reluctant to get involved, I told him it was about half a mile up the road, just past the entrance to the airport.

He started trying to roll his wheelchair away, to get to the next stop and away from this pathological kid, but the chair was falling apart and he was having trouble controlling it. Finally he asked me if I would help him.

Well, shit.

What the hell; I didn’t want to be alone with the kid anyway. I put my book away and began pushing the crumbling wheelchair, with the help of the shaggy guy. The kid still shouted abuse at us as we left, but I guess my being (relatively) young and (relatively) able-bodied was enough of a deterrent to him. Good thing he didn't test me, since we all know I'm basically a puss at heart.

Wheelchair guy’s name, I learned, was Dave. He didn’t tell me what he was doing down by the airport at that time of night, and I really didn’t want to know. The only name I got for the shaggy guy was “pardner,” and I got the impression he was just some bum, further down the homeless chain, who had latched onto Dave so someone could do the thinking.

Dave and Pardner, Dave told me, had been waiting at the bus stop when the kid showed up, decided they were an easy target, and started fucking with them. When Dave had tried to play the “leave me alone, I’m a Vietnam vet,” card, that had just given the kid more ammo, and he was starting to get physically threatening when I, the burly deterrent, had shown up.

Again, really glad he didn’t start in on me.

Pardner was pretty useless for pushing the wheelchair, which was a one-man task anyway, so he gave up and just walked alongside us, ostensibly watching out for the kid, but mainly wandering in a fog. It was a good workout, pushing the wheelchair along, with the back wheels going flat, and the small front wheels apparently gripped with wanderlust, constantly spinning off in other directions. At one point the sidewalk gave way to a hotel driveway, with no wheelchair ramp, so Pardner had to help me lift him down, and then back up again on the other side. By the time we finally reached the next stop, my chest, arms and legs felt like I had had a pretty good session in the weight room.

Complicating matters, Parder would occasionally pull out a rusty steak knife, filched from God-knew-where, declaring that he was ready if the kid showed up again. Dave, the alpha bum of their pack, would yell at him to put it away, but Pardner remained adamant about being our first line of defense. I had to patiently remind him that when cops see a homeless guy with a knife—especially in Sea-Tac--they tend to open fire without stopping to determine the niceties of the situation. This seemed to penetrate Pardner’s fog and he finally put it away.

When the bus finally arrived, it fell to me to help Dave get his chair strapped in. The kid was glowering at us from the back of the bus, so I sat by Dave as the bus got underway. Pardner sat on Dave’s other side and soon passed out.

As we rode on towards Seattle, Dave told me how he ended up in his current situation. He had been married, he said, with a reasonably successful auto-repair business, and his pride and joy, a vintage T-Bird that he had restored himself. One day, though, he had come home to find his wife in bed with another man. Dave flew into a rage, grabbed the guy as he was trying to grab his clothes and run, and threw him out the window. Well, not so much “out” the window as “through” it. Messed the guy up pretty bad, Dave said, trying to hide his glee in that fact.

Dave’s wife, not surprisingly, left him. The other guy recovered, and immediately filed one mofo of a lawsuit against Dave for assault, vowing to take him for everything he had. Dave had been forced to sell the T-Bird at a huge loss, about a fifth of what it was appraised at. He lost the business and his home, which is how he ended up homeless, and since he hadn’t had health insurance, he could no longer afford his diabetes medication, which was how he had ended up in the wheelchair.

Of course, throwing the guy through the window had been about the stupidest thing Dave could have done, that’s a given. But come on, a guy shouldn’t be penalized for the rest of his life just for being an idiot. As he told me his sob story, I could even see a lingering hint of pride for what he had had, before he fucked himself up so bad. I decided to help him out.

I took a mental inventory of my wallet. It had been a fairly decent night, before last call, and if I remembered correctly, I should have a hundred dollar bill, and at least two twenties. Just before I got off, I decided, I would give him one of the twenties.

The kid got off somewhere in Georgetown. Pardner continued to sleep, his malnourished body sprawled across two seats and halfway across the aisle. I kept talking to Dave, listening to his tale of woe, as the bus entered Downtown Seattle. As we approached my stop, I pulled out my wallet, telling Dave that I wanted to give him something. I looked inside, ready to pull out the twenty.

There were no twenties. There was the hunny, and a fifty.

As I sighed and handed Dave the fifty, he looked at me like he was about to cry. He thanked me about twenty times, vowing to use the money to clean up and get himself back on his feet—figuratively, if not literally. I shook his dirty, callused hand and told him happy Thanksgiving. Gave him some cigarettes, too.

Go ahead, call me a sucker. Fuck you. Do you think I believed he would be able to change his entire life with fifty bucks? Hell, I didn’t even believe he WANTED to change his life. I knew the best this poor dumb sonofabitch could hope for would be a hot meal, a warm blanket, and something to numb his senses a bit before the elements or some back-alley psycho sent him to an early, unmarked grave. So, yeah, I gave a bum fifty bucks. Like you wouldn’t do the same, if you were me.

So there’s your heartwarming Thanksgiving story. The moral…shit, do I really have to tell you to be thankful? Be thankful you have the good sense not to throw guys through plate-glass windows. Myself, I’m thankful I no longer have to be at bus stops in Sea-Tac at three in the morning.

Copyright 2004 Rich Bowen

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