Photo by Michael Macor

A Day In The Life

They say you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. But you catch still more with decaying meat.

Tony slapped along, worn shoes shuffling up the city's street, keeping in the shade from a hot summer sun. It was the middle of the afternoon and the glaring orb overhead, although furtive behind the looming concrete buildings, sent white splashing off the sidewalk and bathed Tony's tiny world in its heat. Small lancelets of light stabbed at his eyes, reflecting off the glass walls towering above him, keeping pace with him, leaping from window to window to light pole to (refuge as he crossed a street) window again, the flares following him with each small shuffling step. The miniature suns that shone even in the chasms between the skyscrapers, the light and the heat swallowing him, paced him throughout the afternoon.

Tony wandered. It was his life now. He ambled aimlessly, beginning in the mornings when he tried to hide among the crowds by walking with an apparent destination. That never worked; the people in the crowds withdrew, and he would become an obstacle, even more noticeable than if he'd just crawl into a corner.

Toward noon he would begin to slow, until he shuffled wearily, like now, in the late afternoons. The sole of his right shoe was duct-taped to the upper, and every stray now and then Tony figured he would find another used shoe or two in the next couple of days. But right now he wandered.

Weeks, or maybe months ago he had tried to be competitive, collecting cans and rummaging through garbage, filled with resentment and depression. But it was a dog-eat-dog world, he supposed, and the Situation was so bad he'd not found much of use left after the pickings of the Bums. All he could find seemed to be ashes and snot, definitely not the cream of the crop, but whatever the crop had that wasn't cream, and not much of a crop to begin with, at that. Precious little of nothing to be found in the dumpsters except rotten things and stinky, soggy stuff.

Tony wiped the sweat on his face, smearing the muck around more than anything, dirt from pollution in the air and the dust of the streets, thrown up with the din of cars and trucks that constantly passed by. His skin felt like the sodden things in a garbage can, felt like a tomato left outside to rot. His hair hung slick and stringy in his eyes, clinging to his forehead the same way his grimy tee-shirt clung to his armpits. The heat made him stick together in a muggy paste. He shrugged, to peel the shirt away from his back, but it only rode up and stuck, crinkled, onto his shoulders. He pulled the tail back down and shoved it into the back of his pants. He could smell himself. He tried not to think too much.

When his Situation had begun, he'd been lonely and afraid, angry with desperation. Given time, all the bad feelings had slipped away, like the good feelings had before that, sand blown grain by grain into the wind. Now he simply didn't think that much. He avoided feeling, the way he avoided the eternal ache in his gut, the way he avoided the eyes of the workaday crowds that invaded his sidewalk. People hustled around him, busy busy busy, and his belly ache grew and waned at irregular intervals. If he waited for it to become a stabbing pain and still didn't eat, he knew from experience it would eventually give up and subside for a while.

Today he had eaten lunch at the shelter, but had gotten there late. He was left with crusty mashed potatoes scraped from the sides of the pan. The lady who was always there had also spooned him out some corn that sat in the bottom of a pan of juice. The meat was all gone by then. But eating with the other Bums was worse than waiting for their leavings. He hated the rabble that would line up for handouts and sit in rows at the tables, gnashing and slopping like dogs, probably 'cause only half of them even had teeth. He went to the shelter only out of desperation, and he avoided Bums like he avoided all people. He didn't belong with either group. He wandered.

Time went on and on this way, hopeless days passing quicker now, as if his entire perception had slowed. Perhaps it had. He was a pitiful wreck, an empty shell washed ashore. A dirty husk blown in the wind. He certainly didn't think as much as before.

He usually prepared for night early, picking a Spot and taking it before it became occupied by the telltale shambles that was another Bum. Sometimes if he got a good Spot, like behind a dumpster or an abandoned car, he'd just keep it all the next day, delusional for hours, pissing in nearby corners, dozing off and on to avoid thinking too much. If he had no Spot, there were parks. Or he could go to the river. But there were critters living in the bushes. And plant bugs. And spiders. The river was even worse; Bums were there. Tony vaguely thought that Bums smelled bad and they started fights over needles and bottles and other things. The alleys merely hid dirt and roaches. Much friendlier.

He wandered now, beginning to look for a Spot for the night, as the shadows crept up the sides of the buildings, encroaching on the gutters, enveloping the sidewalks. The day was approaching evening and the air was getting cooler. He idly wondered what things would be like when winter came. Tonight was going to be cold enough.

Traffic calmed down a little in the evenings, after everybody jam-packed hustled home, bumper to bumper and honking just to make noise. Evening traffic was easier to live with. He watched the traffic all day every day; it kept him occupied so he didn't have to think, but right now he needed to find a place to sleep. A place to hide from everything. At night he huddled invisibly and his teeth chattered.

He plodded along in a haphazard way, sometimes circling a block, then wandering off on a tangent to check out an alley across the way. Occasionally he glanced around for a Spot, but the good ones were taken, and he watched his feet, tattered tennis shoes passing over cracks in the darkening pavement. The left shoe had no lace and the one on the right was knotted, a frayed end sometimes flopping under the shoe a split second before it was stepped on. The shoes were worn smooth and round at their rubber edges, and the soles were worn through. Sometimes the crowds would get too close and he'd shun them to the point of stepping in a puddle. His feet would take all day to dry. The shoes smelled of decay, and the duct tape was loosening. He'd have to keep an eye out for another scrap. Or shoes. Shoes were precious things.

The sky was darkening and the sidewalks were almost empty when the streetlights began to click on and hum in the chilly air. It was never really dark in the city. But it was evening and the people were gone, the people who shamed him with their brightness and cleanliness, who made him feel dirty and diseased. He was dirty, no doubt about that, and the cooling air chilled his pasty clothing, still glued to his shriveling form. He didn't care that he had lost forty pounds in three months, or that the growling Gut Monster was no mere hunger, but his body feeding on itself, slowly ingesting its own muscle tissue. He was crossing the line between scrawny and emaciated and he still had found no Spot for tonight.

He shuffled along randomly in and out of the small streetlight circles. It was never dark in the city but now the sky was black and the skyscrapers were dim at the top, glowing faintly in refected light from below. Cars went past individually now, or maybe in pairs, and the streets were hollow and empty and mean. The large downtown skyscrapers were blocks away; here were the newer, smaller office buildings, surrounded by little, carefully maintained strips of grass and bushes, some with small trees. Spotlights made the buildings shine against the black of the night. He moved on, ambling toward a nearby oasis of yellow light. It was an expressway ramp, and he resigned himself to finding a Spot in the park that he knew was beyond the highway.

Eight blocks passed under his worn tennis shoes and the freeway was much closer, but he'd come upon an area where the ever-present streetlights were out. Faulty wiring or an open circuit or something somewhere; he didn't know or care. These things happened, and because of it this street and its surrounding area was completely dark. Power outage dark. It was rare to see this deep blackness in the city. He peered now and saw the husk of a gas station on the other side of the street. Closed, seriously closed; plywood windows and a big For Sale or Lease sign with a telephone number. Ruins without damage. Just a few weeks before it had been an obsolete business, fading as the city slowly grew around it. Now it was dead; a boarded-up little building and two little concrete islands, the gasoline pumps uprooted. The whole thing was dark and plain, stripped of emblems and logos and identifying items. No displays of oil or tires, just the white banner barely visible in the darkness with its telephone number. Telephonumber. Tony couldn't really remember the last time he'd used a telephone.

He prowled the deserted parking lot, wary in the dark, his breath fogging in the cold night air. He could smell the petrochemicals. He could smell himself. He wasn't gutsy enough to try the front door but it would be locked anyway, to keep out people like him, Bums and vagrants. People not like him. He did have the nerve to try the bathroom doors, but they were locked, too. Around in back of the building, a small ravine cut through the city, a gash of vegetation that the miles of concrete and steel had grown up around, leaving this little gully. It was choked with weeds and heavy brush. The pavement of the station's driveway came right to the edge of this lush foliage, separated from it by a steel guardrail. Tony stepped over it.

Looking into the inky chasm, he barely saw the refuse of man; garbage, fast-food containers and wrappers, broken boards, even some tires perhaps somehow related to the gas station. The darkness of the unlit brush hid a creek from sight, but he heard the trickling of the water, and the whole ravine smelled of rot and chemicals. He knew that They wished they could throw him down there with the beer cans and the snakes to rot, and forget about him, too. More junk. He pissed into the shrubbery and turned away, stepping back over the rail. In the dark he crossed the asphalt to the rear of the abandoned building and sat down with his back against the wall, facing the blackness of the weeds and trees and the cloying smell of decay. Shivering, he huddled around himself.

He closed his eyes and tried not to think.