Friday, December 21, 2012

The Greatcoat Man

The Greatcoat Man

If you walk down Vical street early in the morning you would think it sedate, well ordered, regal even. Tall brick houses (some four story) spread out across half acre lots, surrounded by old trees with canopies up to sixty feet, hedges, elaborate flower beds professionally tended,  immaculate lawns as crisp as a marine haircut, three car garages. Not the new burbs of course but there are those who think the new burbs vulgar - bald, with ugly squarish houses resembling industrial buildings, phoney Greek columns tacked on. But it's the new rich who occupy the new burbs, the ones with enough money to allow a host of 'new look' designers to set up a new fresh, exciting environment remarkably similar to the new fresh exciting environments a few blocks over. Vical street is old business class and professors, the ones who liked a little history and tradition to go with their bank accounts.

How Jeffrey ever ended up living in a garage on Vical Street was a mystery to many for homeless persons usually live in poor areas with ramshackle houses squeezed in among second hand car lots, train yards, scrap dealers. But if you were a person who talks to people the mystery was easily solvable by simply talking to Jeffrey himself, a most affable chatty man who could be found in many public places in the course of his daily rounds - the grocery store, the cafe, the riverbank (if the weather was warm) and, most especially at the free lunch given out by the Baptist church six blocks over. Or you could talk to the lady who owns the garage Jeffrey lives in and if you did she would tell you (if she trusted you for she was leery of social workers, policemen, city inspectors, etc.) that she went to school with Jeffrey some fifty years before and could not bear to see the man sleeping under the nearby bridge beside the library wrapped in a vast cocoon of ratty sleeping bags, newspapers and plastic sheeting. When she found him there for the first time  it took her fifteen times talking to him before he replied. The fifteen times were discrete, accomplished on fifteen separate days, the first fourteen eliciting no reply (although in no way a rejection either for Jeffrey had smiled and nodded all during her monologues as if he were listening to a radio show and he was not the sort of man who added his own comments, at least out loud). On the fifteenth day, Eloise, easily the most patient woman in the world, after handing him the coffee and donut she brought him after the first morning, asked him if he had a place for the winter (it was October 15th and that is late in such a cold winter city) and, after smiling broadly then breaking into a good humoured laugh as if Eloise had just told him a mildly amusing joke, he said, "No, goddamn, no, no no, of course not." somewhat impatiently for a woman like Eloise who talked so much should know better than that.

"Well then," said Eloise, "you can sleep in my garage." This was the perfect thing for Eloise to say. If she had invited him to sleep in her house, which she could have easily done for it had seven empty bedrooms, Jeffrey would have taken flight and never spoken to her again. Jeffrey had once lived in houses and had vowed never to do so again not so much that houses were terrible places as what went along with them was terrible - people asking you all sorts of questions and insisting you do things. Garages were different, especially Eloise's garage. Her's was an isolated garage at the end of a long driveway, some fifty feet from the riverbank. Eloise's big brick house hid it from the street and there was a path up from the riverbank leading to its side door. Eloise, although a bit dense at times from living a life of social isolation (no children, widowed and wealthy at thirty who other than her morning walks, seldom left the house), was divinely astute when it came to Jeffrey. Although she talked 'a blue streak' as they say, Eloise was one of those who could talk and see, observe, feel at the same time. Jeffrey agreed to take a look at the garage that very moment and off they went together if you could call Eloise marching along briskly, Jeffrey trailing along behind muttering to himself, together. When he saw the garage Jeffrey was ecstatic on the inside but on the outside maintained a fierce facade of neutrality. He poked around in the garages dusty interior, looked out through its two dirty windows, opened and closed the door of the iron stove, inspected the wooden ceiling for signs of leaks and so on for so long Eloise grew tired of standing watching him. 

"Well?" she asked.

"How much?" replied Jeffrey.

That she would charge rent never occurred to Eloise but she saw immediately that a business arrangement was necessary. "Twenty dollars a month," she replied without missing a beat.

"Fifty would be better," replied Jeffrey.

"Split the difference - Thirty-five," said Eloise.

"Thirty and I shovel the walk, cut the grass," said Jeffrey.

"That much work should make it twenty-five," replied Eloise.

"Twenty-five is good but since I'm supplying the wood then twenty-two fifty."

"Done," said Eloise and Jeffrey removed his right hand trappers mitt and they shook to seal the deal. Then he pulled a weathered wallet from an inside pocket (Jeffrey was so well layered he had, perhaps, ten or fifteen inside pockets) and counted out twenty-two dollars and fifty cents. Eloise deposited the bills and coin in her jacket pocket and went into the house.

The first sign of Jeffrey's occupancy was smoke curling up from the chimney. But this was not a sure sign for Eloise herself might have fired up the old stove although it hadn't been fired up for thirty years. She was supposed to be an artist of some sort so possibly she was now using the garage for a studio. The second sign was, when the snow came (early that year - November 6th), Jeffrey shovelling the walk. However there was not a necessary link between the walk shovelling and the smoke curling. Jeffrey could have been sent over from the local homeless shelter and paid so much a time. So a third sign was necessary and the third sign was Jeffrey walking up from the riverbank pulling behind him a sled loaded with wood and entering the garage's side door. Mr. Conkglin saw this while he was looking out his rear kitchen window. "An old bum wearing a greatcoat left over from the First World War," he told Mrs. Fingle, his neighbour on the other side. Indeed Jeffrey was wearing an old greatcoat but it was army surplus from the Fifties and not left over from the First World War. It was too big for him and thus allowed him to wear a mixture of wool sweaters and new fangled fleece vests underneath it and also to withdraw his mittened hands up into the warm and windless interior of its overly long sleeves.. 

This knowledge stopped with Mr. Conkglin and Mrs. Fingle for some time. Neither were scandalized by 'old bums' as Mr. Conkglin called Jeffrey and thought if he lived in the garage and shovelled the walk that was his business and a matter between him and Eloise. But Mrs. Fingle did mention it to the members of her bridge club which met every Tuesday evening, revolving the meeting location among the houses of the members. It so happened that that week they were meeting at Mrs. Fingle's house and one of the women, one Joan Memora, a doctor's wife who lived six houses down, kept looking out the window to see if she could catch a glimpse of the old bum. It was the night of the full moon in December and its light reflecting off the fresh snow gave her a good view of Jeffrey as he laboured up the path from the river bank pulling his sled loaded with scrap wood and entered the side door. A few minutes later dark smoke began drifting out the chimney.

All doctor's wives do not have a germ and bug phobia but Joan Memora did. When she saw Jeffrey, with his long straggly hair sticking out from under his trappers hat, wrapped in a greatcoat so soiled it looked as if it were used to clean a gutter, she could not help but think of bugs and germs and give out an involuntary shudder. Although, granted, he lived in a garage seven houses away for her own house, she was sure nature could easily devise a way for contamination to find its way across such a paltry distance. Joan had no children but there were many in the neighbourhood. She had heard many times, from good sources who also shared her bug and germ phobias, that such dirty old men frequently snatch children off the street and they are never heard from again. Either the children are sold through a network of confreres or they are used for unspeakable perversions, then murdered and their bodies dumped in the river. Later that night she spoke with her husband who pooh pahed the whole thing, telling her her fears existed only in her imagination "There are more pedophiles at a church meeting," he told her, "than among a gathering of street people." But she was not convinced. Her husband had a too cavalier attitude about the dangers of this world and was an untrustworthy guide. She spoke with some of her girlfriends who assured her that it was not a matter to be taken lightly. Men by their very nature, one of them told her, are predators and this makes for them a bond, unconscious in most cases thank God or all women would be lesbians, with even the most heinous of criminal perverts. "In such matters," her friend said, "asking men their opinions is useless for their sublimated tribal allegiance overrides everything."

Joan phoned her city Alderman. She asked him several questions about bylaws which he answered cautiously for he had had dealings with Joan in the past and had found that an attitude of gentle discouragement was the best policy. First she wanted to know about regulations having to do with 'living in garages' as she put it.

"Usually people live in houses," replied the Alderman.

"I know that," said Joan. "But I am not talking about people who live in houses. I am talking about filthy old men who live in garages. What are the regulations?"

"Well," said the Alderman, "I suppose it depends on what kind of garage and so on."

"What do you mean by 'what kind of garage'? A garage is a garage, isn't it?"

"Yes, but then what one person thinks a garage could be considered by another to be a guest house. Some people have guest houses where relatives stay when they come to visit."

"Well the garage I'm talking about is just a garage."

"Are you sure?" asked the Alderman. "Have you been in it?"

"Of course I haven't been in it." said Joan. "I am not in the habit of lurking about on other people's property and going into their garages."

"I'm glad to hear that, Mrs. Memora. But exactly what kind of building it is is crucial. If, for instance, it is a guest house, then someone could live there."

"So how do I find out whether it is a garage or a guest house?"

"Properties could tell you. But before you phone them let me tell you another thing. Even if the building in question is not a guest house but a garage, then, although it is against regulations, sometimes people do live in them."

"And what does that mean?"

"Exactly what I said. Economic turndowns create a lot of poor unemployed people. Sometimes they take to living in garages."

"But illegally."

"Yes, illegally. But sometimes the city turns a blind eye. We have so may resources and people have to live somewhere."

"But that is anarchy!"

"Call it what you will, Mrs. Memoir, but it happens. As I say we have so many resources. Getting up legal cases, calling in bailiffs and policemen, all these are expensive. If we pursued every Bylaw violation as if it were an absolute then taxes would have to go up astronomically and people would like that even less than the occasional unenforced Bylaw."

Joan's opinion of the Alderman, not very high to begin with, was not improved by this conversation. A do nothing. A big bum sitting in a padded seat. A brainless blob with a cheshire cat smile.

Properties, after much cajoling and waiting to be connected to someone who then connected you to someone else, finally told her Eloise Banning's garage was indeed a garage and not a guest house. The next day she phoned the Alderman again.

"In law, Mrs. Memora," said the Alderman, "there is a matter of proof, of evidence. For example, is the older gentleman you are referring to actually living in the garage? I know you saw him pulling a sled full of wood into the garage but that does not necessarily mean that he lives there. Possibly he may be simply using the garage for storage."

"But he burns wood in the stove," Joan replied. "You can see the smoke rising from the chimney."

"Well," said the Alderman, "Perhaps he does a bit of work in the garage and burns wood to keep himself warm."

"Well then," said Joan, "you will just have to investigate and find out."

"That would require a form 555713B," said the Alderman.

"What's that?"

"A Bylaw Violation Complaint Form. By filling out one your complaint will enter the process and eventually be considered for investigation."

"And how long does this process take?" 

"The clerks could tell you better than I," said the Alderman, smiling unconsciously at the pleasure of handing Mrs. Memora off to the bureaucrats. "Good luck," he added and hung up the phone.

555713B was a long form and it took Joan a half hour to complete it. Bylaw Violations was obviously low down in the city food chain. It was located in what seemed to Joan an abandoned warehouse, at the back. The yard, as you walked up to the door was filled with rusting heavy equipment parts. The entry door was multicoloured, not by design but because it was aged and peeling. A cardboard sign, stained and turned up at the edges, was tacked to the door by two roofing nails. Inside was only slightly warmer than the outside. The clerks wore heavy jackets and one even sported a pair of fingerless gloves. She filled out her form at a table laden with thermoses, bagged lunches and cracked coffee cups. The clerks were welcoming, so much so that she wondered if they received so little business they were desperate for company. When she passed the form over the counter the young clerk called out a person from a rear office. This person, a middle aged woman wrapped in four sweaters topped by an weather beaten wool coat, read the form very slowly and very carefully. When she was finished she said, "Thanks." She then carried the form through the door leading to the back offices. 

"How long will it take?" Joan asked the clerk, a very young male, little more than a boy, with a prominent adam's apple and bad teeth.

"How long will what take?" asked the clerk.

At first Joan thought he was being impertinent but a further searching of his pimply face informed her he was that sort of dense person to whom everything must be explained.

"I just passed in a Bylaw Violation Complaint form, 555713B. It's about an old bum sleeping in a garage in my neighbourhood. How long will it take for the matter to be investigated?"

"Depends," said the young man.

"On what?" Joan asked.

"Three of the four supervisors are on vacation and the one not is on course. Several months I would say before it is IPed, initially processed. After that it depends on where the initial processing channels it. The devil is in the details as they say."

"Several months before it is initially processed?"

"O yes," said the clerk, delighted as all bureaucrats are by the note of horror in his questioners voice. "At least that. Could be much more." With this he smiled the smile of a born clerk, one who is pleased to give to the uninitiated a glimpse of the arcane and labyrinthine, the beauty of which they, as lay persons so to speak, can only appreciate up to a point. Joan looked at his pleasant blue eyes which were as serious as those of a monk or a father confessor. Perhaps he had a sense of irony she thought but it was well hidden. At his request she bought a box of cookies, a fundraiser for one of his children's cub packs. Since he looked to be about fourteen she wondered where he had found the biological time to have a child in cubs. 

"They said that it would take some months before it was even initially processed," Joan said to the Alderman on the phone. 

"Ahhh!" replied the Alderman.

"Don't you think that a long time?"

"Yes, indeed," said the Alderman in a tone of voice which said the exact opposite.

"Perhaps you could do something to expedite the process," said Joan.

"Aldermen have to be very cautious about interfering in the bureaucratic process. Best to let it churn away on its own without meddling. Meddling often only makes it worse. You would be surprised at the depths of resentment meddling can stir up. Best to let sleeping dogs lie."

"Do I have to go to the Mayor?" Joan asked.

"No," said the Alderman.


"I'll see what I can do," said the Alderman. Which wasn't much. When she talked to him a week later he told her 'that things were moving along'." Joan doubted this very much so she sent a letter to the Mayor. The Mayor was on a junket in a far off country smiling and eating exotic foods and no reply should be expected for at least two months. 

One morning in January Joan rose early. This was unusual for she normally went to bed late and got up late. However, the previous night, some hours before her usual bedtime, she felt suddenly very weary and decided to go to bed. She woke very refreshed when it was still dark outside and decided to bundle up and go for a walk. 

She walked in a zigzag all through the neighbourhood remarking to herself how beautiful it was on a winter morning, the ground covered with several feet of snow and the air bitter cold. She decided to walk to the local coffee shop and have coffee and a doughnut, an offense against her latest diet but, considering the vigorous walk of, in total, one hour or so, a venial rather than a mortal sin. At the coffee shop she met Eloise. Joan was surprised. The scuttlebutt on Eloise was that she never left her house. Yet here she was standing in line at the counter dressed in an enormous parka which extended from the top of her head (the hood) to her ankles. Looking at her from the side so that she could see one eye which seemed to Joan filled with healthy vigour and even mild amusement, she thought Eloise failed to measure up to the reports she was distracted and perhaps mildly insane, just the sort of woman to install an old wino in her garage. Eloise felt Joan's eyes upon her, turned and recognized her, although they had never been formally introduced, and smiled. 

"There is a man living in your garage," Joan said to her, deciding to take the direct route for many said that Eloise's mind wandered and once it wandered it was hard to bring it back again.

 "Yes," said Eloise. "Isn't that wonderful? It's warm in there with the wood stove going and much better than sleeping under the bridge in these kind of temperatures."

"But it's against the law," said Joan.

"Many things are against the law," said Eloise, "yet people do them anyway."

"Aren't you afraid of germs? What about diseases like HIV?"

"Usually, dear, HIV is transmitted by anal sex. Since I don't practice anal sex or sex of any description for that matter,and have not for forty years, why worry?  Besides Jeffrey is a hypochondriac. He has been tested seventeen times for HIV. all results negative."

"Don't you think he might pose a danger to the neighbourhood children?"

"No more than you or I. Besides he doesn't go into the neighbourhood. I am on the edge and he comes along the riverbank. He doesn't like the neighbourhood. He says it is full of evil spirits and he avoids it like the plague."

"But surely a man who claims our neighbourhood filled with evil spirits is mad," said Joan.

"You don't think there are evil spirits in the neighbourhood?" asked Eloise.

"Well," said Joan, "a few perhaps but that would be metaphorically speaking." replied Joan.

"Jeffrey doesn't do metaphorical, dear. Everything for him is real."

By this time they were seated at a table each with a coffee and donut. Joan was surprised to find the place almost full. She thought only the rare person got up this early in the morning. Some were on their way to work, wolfing down coffee and a bun and bolting out the door. Others seemed as if they were coming from work, shift workers she supposed, with coats off, lounging in their chairs, if it is possible to lounge in coffee shop chairs, sipping double doubles and eating breakfast sandwiches with bright yellow egg sticking out the sides. Excepting for young children, they were of all ages and descriptions. There were even an old man she would classify as a member of Jeffry's tribe, drinking a small coffee through a jungle of scraggly beard. Eloise had a large coffee and a bun, Joan a hot chocolate and a sprinkled donut, the later being what she considered her secret vice. Joan told Eloise about her relationship with donuts.

"Well," said Eloise, "if that is your secret vice then you will go to heaven for sure. Maybe a few brief moments in Purgatory but then right on to the gloriously boring. Personally I plan to spend eternity in Purgatory or even on the outskirts, hopefully just the outskirts, of Hell. I think I would meet much more interesting people there. Kissing the arse of tyrants, even if they are theological tyrants, is likely to attract only the worst kind of time serving sycophant and who wants to spend eternity with a bunch like that?"

Joan didn't know what to say to this so said nothing. When they were leaving Eloise lined up at the counter to buy a coffee and two donuts for Jeffrey. The coffee she poured into a thermos she pulled from her pocket. The donuts she stuffed into the voluminous pocket on the right hand side of her parka. 

Outside in the cold air they walked down the street leading to Eloise's house. When they turned into the side street Eloise said, "You may as well come and meet Jeffry, dear. He's very cheerful in the morning, sitting by the hot stove smoking his pipe, waiting for his coffee. He likes company once in a while. Other than myself I mean. I'm afraid he finds me a little boring at times."

Joan, brought up in a strict code of almost professional courtesy, could find no way to refuse this offer. As they approached the garage she, stealthily she hoped, zipped up her parka as tight as it would go and stuffed her mitt tops into the sleeves, thus, she hoped, forcing any germs or bugs which might come her way to attach themselves to the outside of her clothing, where, on the walk home, they would die off in the cold.

Jeffrey, as Eloise had said he would be, was seated by the fire smoking his pipe, an enormous German pipe given him by a professor who in his old age decided to give up sucking noxious fumes into his lungs. He was seated in a old stuffed chair with comfortable rounded arms one of which Jeffrey had his legs hanging over in a picture of comfortable domestic bliss. The stove was well stuffed and the heat radiating from it was so strong even Jeffrey, who hated to be chilled, had removed most of his outer layers. He had on two pairs of long red underwear, three wool vests and a pair of bright yellow socks, or  rather socks which were once bright yellow, now somewhat less so. Joan was surprised that even in the heat no foul smells came from his direction. On the contrary he smelt of a mixture of mild male animal and old spice, his favourite deodorent. As well, there were no unsightly messes (overflowing excrement buckets for instance) in sight. In fact the place, although humble and well worn, was neat and clean. Not far from the stove was a table, above it a small white cupboard and atop the stove was a large pot of water. There was a bed in the far corner and series of pegs along one wall where hung a motley of clothes. Below them were a line of boots and shoes for every season of the year.

Jeffrey was not accomplished at the social graces. He ate his donuts with great gusto while Eloise found two folding chairs in a corner and brought them over for her and Joan. Conversation was limited. Joan and Eloise commented on the weather and Jeffrey nodded sagely as if he were an emperor and aides were bringing him news of great import to them, but all in a days work to him. When he was finished his donuts he washed them down with great slurps of coffee and then resumed his pipe puffing, sending clouds of whitish smoke, the particulates of which, Joan lamented in silence, settled on their coats and snowpants. After five minutes the women rose to leave and Jeffrey, spurred perhaps by the manners from a distant past, got up to see them out,  shouting after them as they negotiated the path to the house, "Watch out for the goddamn cold, now. Watch out for the goddamn cold and the slipping too. It's just as bad."

"To withdraw Form 555713B you have to file Form 555713C-X," the Alderman told Joan over the phone. "Since Form 555713B has not been initially processed it's fairly easy. No one objects to a withdrawal of something requesting that which has not yet begun. Once it begins, now that's another matter. Yes, yes, another matter indeed. Sometimes it is impossible and things must be allowed to roll on to their natural conclusion. A certain momentum has been created against which the wishes of individuals are powerless. Luckily in this case things have not proceeded so far along they cannot be brought to a halt."

For once Joan was glad for the slow march of city bureaucracy. Just as she was about to hang up the phone the Alderman asked her, "So this old gentleman, would his name be Jeffrey?"

"Why, yes it is," said Joan, a little surprised. "Do you know him?"

"Oh yes," said the Alderman. "I went to school with his younger brother and played on the same baseball team as he for a number of years. He was a pitcher and a good one too."

"I see," said Joan.

"I still see him around from time to time on the streets - a nice old bindle stiff, a jolly old lag still with his sense of humour."

When Joan mentioned the Alderman saying this in the coffee shop the next morning, Eloise laughed. "Jeffrey is his brother, dear, as much as he likes to pretend otherwise so high and mighty he has become. Birds don't shit in his path and angels from glory wipe the sweat from his brow, or so he would like to think from the vantage point of his lofty seat. Well, I suppose at least he has the honour to run a little interference for his brother once in a while which is more than you can say for many others. Not so bad, really."


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