The outlet mall at Flatwoods, WV isn’t very exciting. The stores aren’t great—Tommy Hilfiger, whose clothes I won’t buy, is the only designer with a presence. It is a good place to look for Christmas presents for newly apartmented, college freshman nieces and gadget-addicted (I’m sorry, I mean tool and I don’t mean addicted) husbands. Plus, there is one of those Amish Bulk Foods stores that, I don’t think, have much to do with the Amish but do have lots of wonderful, bad-for-you sorts of things like bread-and-butter pickled beets and caramel-covered marshmallows. So, I stopped yesterday on my way home from Thanksgiving in Huntington.
I got out of my car and heard someone barking at the top of his lungs, “…and all you God-damned Republicans are going to get what’s coming to you, all you fat fuck Jesus-freaks with your jacked-up pick-up trucks and…” Shit, I thought. This is going to be someone I know.
And it was. Backpack Jack, who I met the first night I worked at Bartlett House back in the late 80s and who has been wandering in and out of my life ever since. But then again, that’s what he does. He wanders. He labels himself a hobo and, if there is anything noble left in the call, he embodies it.
It seemed a civic duty to offer Jack a ride back to Morgantown; I’m a big fan of free speech, but I also think people should be able to bring their children to public places without being confronted by someone yelling obscenities. Jack isn’t crazy, just bored and a little too in love with the idea of himself as an outlaw. And, he told me, he had figured he wouldn’t get a ride to Morgantown that day and thought he’d just stand there yelling until the cops offered him a free place to spend the night. Flatwoods doesn’t have a homeless shelter, and Jack says he prefers jail—fewer rules and no one who thinks they can save you.
The hour-and-a-half trip was like the world’s longest panhandle. I guess Jack’s shtick is all he has left, because he kept it up long after I’d given him the five bucks he’d asked for and made it clear he wasn’t getting any more out of me. That makes me sad. Jack used to be more interesting.
We reminisced a little about his old running gang: Cat Eyes, Big Al, and Steve who never did get a colorful nickname. They’re all still on the road, although Jack says Steve was married for a while and is only just now de-trailered and single again. We talked about the winter I had to cut through the duct-tape Cat Eyes used to keep his boots on to check for frostbite, and how sad it was that Big Al had ripped off a local shop-owner who is usually kind to the homeless and, as a result, wasn’t welcome in town by anyone these days. It was a little like running into an old friend and a little like going back to a job I was no longer suited for, but mostly it made my car smell like unwashed man and wood smoke.
Still, it’s nice to live in a world small enough that I know the hobos on the road; when to stop, and when to keep driving. The alternative—to always have to keep driving—seems both lonely and wrong. I may be done letting homeless men live in my basement, but hopefully I will never have to stop offering them rides back to town.