Get Access to Print and Digital for $23.99.
Subscribe for Full Access
November 2023 Issue [Letter from Reno]

Four Men

Keeping company with outdoor people

Illustrations by Jorge González

[Letter from Reno]

Four Men

Keeping company with outdoor people
Adjust

Awakening to the snowy sunny morning of Tuesday, March 7, 2023, I took due pleasure in looking out through my white curtains at white sun glare that appeared almost warm from within. Why not stroll outdoors? Should I take a chill, this warm room would receive me again—and, after all, certain dark brown puddles in the vacant lots along Second Street implied that spring might impend, never mind that unpleasantly cold breeze on the river, or the refusal of First Street’s prizeworthy icicle crop to even begin dripping. You see, I like to believe in spring almost as does a Christian in heaven. Why fret about unborn summer problems? The wind might numb my face, but my hands felt warm enough in their leather work gloves. In brief, I was a doughty tourist here in Reno, Nevada, on whose downtown I had fixed with the design of finding three homeless men—for in the United States, cities often rot from the center out. Since Reno’s incorporation dates to 1903, her downtown, I reasoned, ought by now to hold a skid row, or at least a few vagrants. Right away I won a jackpot of sorts: between Second and Third at Bell ran a long slushy alley with glary mountains of snow at its eastern end, while several blocks to the west a man in a blue parka, from whose wheeled conveyance hung at least fifteen black garbage bags, kept inspecting and adjusting his setup under the surveillance of a row of sparrows on a power line. I surveilled him, too. Why not invite him to be one of my three men? Well, by the time I reached him he must have noted my coming and for all I knew might start creaking away toward the storm cloud that overhung the Amtrak station, so it seemed more expedient to creep up on somebody closer, probably on Second, since the river breeze on First had chilled the homeless away. Better yet, why not get warm while pretending to reflect on where to look? With the right scheme I might even pass for a journalist.

Entertaining myself, as every old man should, by watching out for bruise-colored sidewalk slicks, I inched back up the steps, which the landlord had considerately salted, locked myself in, threw my gloves, coat, cap, scarf, and vest on the sofa, then heated my lair delightfully, simply by pressing a fat round button on the remote control. (We indoor people certainly know how to live.) Unfolding the newspaper, I learned of a major storm expected in reno-tahoe. Now I knew why the owner of the coffee shop down the street had been laying in sandbags. But I lacked pecuniary or sentimental interest in Reno’s ground-level properties. My own studio in Sacramento, California, was going to flood any year now and I could not prevent it, so why care about Reno’s future miseries? For Reno cared nothing about me. And so it came time to admire the midafternoon sun on my neighbor’s pitched roof, whose tiles appeared a pale silver-gray—no snow there at all. A juniper gestured in the wind. It hunched, bowed, and shrugged. By dusk that tree was convulsing drearily. I lay in bed, wondering a rather tiresome wonder that I have never been able to get rid of: Why is it that in clean warm privacy I can watch snow clouds creep in over sunny brick buildings for as long as my money holds out, while other people sleep outside?

On Wednesday, March 8, 2023, with high winds predicted that night and a flood watch for the next day, the Shelter Census Dashboard on the website of the Washoe County Housing and Homeless Services reported zero of forty-five units available at Cares Campus Safe Camp. Although any true-blue patriot would assume that Washoe County so brilliantly plans and builds as to maintain on offer exactly as many beds as each storm, layoff, eviction, or foreclosure demands, I in my perversion began wondering again. Specifically, I wondered whether somebody might die of exposure tonight. Surely not right at Safe Camp—for that place sounded so safe!—and preferably not as a result of getting turned away from Safe Camp, which might reflect unhappily on Washoe County. Most likely nobody at all would die on Reno’s streets between now and tomorrow morning, so why fret? Of course, a corpse on the sidewalk would increase the value of this essay. At any rate, the newspaper was awfully thin, as are most American periodicals nowadays, with its thinness spent largely on indoor pronouncements; hence any outdoor death might go unreported, thereby preserving me from knowing about it—bad for my essay but relaxing for my conscience. And in an appropriately ignorant spirit I got back to work.

I was the first of this essay’s four men because every time I looked in the mirror, there I was. Now, as I said, I had better find three homeless men, for that would be easier than changing my title. Once I did that, I could cry my lyrical crocodile tears and go back to bed. You see, I insisted on keeping warm. That was another reason I got to be first. Doubtless each of my three new brothers would likewise consider himself at this story’s center, but how could I help that, or them? Am I my brother’s keeper? I preferred to say that I wasn’t; it kept my expenses down. But I could be pleasant enough without committing myself to rescuing anyone.

And so early that evening I turned off the heat, armored myself in my outdoor clothes, descended those icy steps, and within two ka-chings of the celestial cash register, there was my essay’s second man, inhabiting a doorway at Second and Virginia! (Now do you see how easy journalism is?) Thinking to buy this person a meal (and incidentally interview him in a warm place), I invited him into the Club Cal Neva casino across the street. His name was Roland.* Either one of us might have been embarrassed had I inquired into why he must sleep outside when I did not have to, so I tactfully sharpened or maybe narrowed my focus; in other words, I asked how he intended to cope with the storm, whose advance winds felt nasty enough. He replied in that patient, tranquilly apathetic way so prevalent in Americans who have resigned themselves to homelessness (in certain other jurisdictions, such as Mexico, one may see sparks of class hatred, but in our Land of the Free, poor people tend to blame themselves). In brief, he seemed neither worried nor happy about impending difficulties. Maybe his passionless affect obscured some other feeling, but I would rather believe (wouldn’t you?) that this man was at ease—in which case I need never invite him to spend the night in my warm rented room. Come to think of it, I already possessed an exemption from such duties. For God, chance, or economics had long since fixed our divergent destinies: He was an outdoor man and I an indoor one, so that whatever happened on the sleety side of my picture window could be left to Mother Nature. Oh, yes, he seemed to be doing well enough. To prove this I need merely report that when I bought him the beer of his choice, he only drank half of it. Of course, he may have kept the liquid level high in order to sit awhile longer in the Cal Neva’s smoky warmth, unmolested by security. But what adds credibility to my interpretation is that just before we parted I gave him twenty dollars, which he looked at for a while before making it disappear. (Don’t you agree with me now?)

I normally just go inside, he remarked, like in a doorway or in a casino.

So a doorway was inside to him. Well, well. Of course, even to me the Cal Neva was inside, or at least inside-ish. I decided to annex for my temporary office this smoky, grimy stretch of carpet and the high-top tables along the wall between the bar and the wide steps up to the street, with Seventies rock and blues music as a soundtrack. I would bring the next two homeless men to the Cal Neva, buy them beer or food, pick their brains, pay (we indoor people are often good about paying), then hood myself against the wind, warm my gloved hands in my pockets, and march back up Second Street to that happy rented bed.

Do you ever worry about getting attacked when you sleep? I asked.

No, he answered, extremely calmly and slowly. I don’t fear it because I don’t fear God—which I presently understood to mean that he did not fear whatever God might visit upon him. I used to gamble with my life, he continued, like one time when somebody took a gun to me and I heard a click and this voice was talking demonic possession and this is what’s gonna come next, because you’re gonna know it, like Judgment. There was a guy in Utah I met who had described the same thing.

(When he looked me over as would any good teacher, as if that part had now been explained, I understood that certain explanations might remain inexplicable.)

So if you can’t get warm and dry tonight, if you came back in here, what would you do?

Normally, he said patiently, if you’re not bothering anyone, they don’t care.

But would they allow you to nod off at this table, or could you sit down in a corner somewhere? I mean, if you had to sleep . . .

Then I’d hide somewhere, like in one of the stalls.

He had it all figured out. After all, he had outwalked all sorts of perils.

I did a three-and-a-half-month spread in Knoxville, Tennessee, he began, so I felt the pressure coming on, and then black circles formed around me, like chalk circles, so I had to leave. So I walked three days to my sister’s. I just let God provide. I never been homeless until I was twenty-seven, when everyone started to give me an evil feeling, so I had to leave. Now, when I was homeless in Knoxville they said, hey, we watch the homeless, and a state trooper pulls up in Gatlinburg even though I wasn’t doing nothing against the law, so I tried to sleep in a church of Jesus Christ and woke up to the pastor opening the door, so I said I’m sorry and went and got lost in the Cherokees’ lake. In 2019 I was out here in front of Reno City Hall because I had been up for three days in the snow with no jacket and finally passed out on a grassy space and I got woke up from an ambassador for folks who are dead on arrival.

I said that this sounded lonely and he agreed that it was. That being the case, did he ever find a homeless girlfriend to keep him company?

Sooner or later, he replied, they always get another man.

That made me sorry. But maybe at least he had a comrade or two, to watch his bedroll when he got food or went behind a garbage can?

As for street friends, I talk to ’em but I don’t acknowledge ’em, he said flatly. I’ve tried to keep good company, but sometimes jealousy or something can clash, so instead of breaking the friendship I just cross the street.

He traveled light in all respects: When I sleep out I have just a couple blankets, not too heavy because otherwise they get too moist from breath and sweat. If I get tired of ’em I just leave ’em. I can always get more. The Catholics are the most generous.

Right after I had noted down that datum, here came another prerecorded cheer from the slot machine, perhaps because the barmaid in her blue-and-white-striped top went on majestically dreaming her way up and down her assigned position, gazing at the television, sipping coffee from a styrofoam cup, then staring out past me as if in search of a nonexistent horizon. As for my new friend, he looked simply nowhere, or at least nowhere known to me.

Had I been Roland, I would have been worrying about where to sleep without getting kicked, frozen, or soaked to death, but fortunately for me, Roland was Roland, who parted with me pleasantly, peaceably, indifferently. Why not? No doubt he would go on outwalking whichever black circles controlled the indoor people like me.

I went back out to Second Street. By now the temperature was noticeably below freezing. Beneath the red open sign of the nameless bar that watered down its whiskey, darkness and shimmery yellow beads of neon light half-heartedly aped what a corner of the Las Vegas Strip might have been thirty years ago. On First and Virginia someone in dark clothes was loading dark bundles into his shopping cart. He might have served my turn as third man but just then I preferred my warm safe bed.

That night the storm withheld itself. Now it was Thursday morning on Second Street, when behind the redbrick shoulders of Shifters bar white loops of cloud-gut continued piling themselves onto the nearest snow hill, and a man slowly leaned ever farther across his shopping cart as he pushed it. It was forty-odd degrees and sunny. Canada geese were pecking in the mud along the edge of the Truckee River. In California’s river towns I often saw tents along the shoreline, but not here in Reno.

I went down to some parts of the river, Roland had told me, but they’re not living down there no more, ’cause of flooding and cats comin’ down out of the mountains (he meant mountain lions) and, you know, they already seen a bear. After achieving the java jitters courtesy of that modestly sandbagged coffee shop where I sat each day to further my local education (for example, I now learned about the homeless from a fellow customer that the real big problem is when they won’t try to get clean), I set out to rent the mind of another doorway-inmate.

On the way I remembered that journalists are supposed to infuse their interviews with local color. Well, I was hardly a tourist in Reno for nothing. Second Street proffered enough hard, cold attractions to pad a guidebook, so why not describe them in this darling little essay? Thus motivated, I strolled lackadaisically toward the Cal Neva. Down at the corner of Second and West, gray digits spelled out 200 above a tan wall. The tombstone-shaped windows had been darkened on the inside. They lorded it over a bare sidewalk of that same dark gray as if its concrete were still fresh. Between the sidewalk and the street rose regularly planted silver stalks that bifurcated into blinking parking meters. And on the edge of the sidewalk ran a narrow strip of snow.

Another block down Second got me to Sierra, where I gazed riverward into colder shade and behind me along a higher and dirtier snow hill that dwindled all the way back to West. One more half-block down Second, just before Fulton Alley, got me to a yellowbrick edifice of a certain age, in whose sad dark upper window a switched-off neon sign promised something to do with pizza; while down in the darkness beneath the snow-hung, slanting awning, someone in a yellow slicker was sitting on the sidewalk next to someone in what might have been brown or gray. That couple had chosen not so bad a habitat, being not only shaded but even tucked in behind a low fence. The someone in yellow, who was a woman, gazed out at me as I stood there on the sidewalk. She declined to be interviewed, but each day she got friendlier. (You see, I was working my indoor magic, pretending that I cared about her.)

Taking in all that had been a full day’s work, at least for an aging indoor man, so I returned to my room to get warm. I felt drowsy. Come to think of it, I had been tired all year. Maybe my third man would be so well-spoken as to improve this essay into a prose poem, although what I actually wanted to improve was my bank balance—for I was slipping, you see. Everything wore me out. By then it was four in the afternoon. I sat looking out my window at the juniper trees, which lowered their heads, shook their necks, snorted, and trembled in the wind as if eager to become horses and gallop off to some dark ending.

I stayed warm for a long time, feeling sorry for myself. Just before dusk I reshouldered my pretenses and trudged back to the Cal Neva. The place was quieter and less smoky than it had been the previous afternoon, and I met another very pleasant barmaid with whom I commiserated because today, Thursday, was her Monday. By then I had acquired a new guest, guide, employee, leech, teacher, or victim named Jesse, who looked to have even more answers than the Cal Neva’s abundance of shining winking machines, so I hired him to be the third man—for the sooner I used him up, the sooner I could go to bed. Whether or not he actually was tall, he gave off a tallish impression. With his stern face and camouflage cap, this hard, lean character could almost have been a tin soldier.

I settled us around a high-top table and in a half-hearted sham of Nevada-boosting bought us “Icky” India Pale Ales, which were not bad. Not far beyond our jubilee, a hard-drinking woman kept coughing because her goddamn beer had gone down the wrong fucking pipe; while the machine named buffalo pimped out a herd of bison circling its cylinder. That was why neither Jesse nor I had anything to complain of regarding the Cal Neva’s entertainments—although I sometimes worry that he might have nursed complaints about me. It is not as if he uttered them—just as well for him, because dispraising the boss is an excellent way to get fired. All the same, his complaint-ish emanations existed and persisted in the smoky air between us. They bore, I am sorry to say, on my innate niggardliness. Now, for an indoor type I am not such a close-walleted fellow, at least by my standards, although if I slept in doorways I might rate myself differently. Jesse had a very elegant way of not stating the various ways in which I failed to observe the Golden Rule. His silence was nearly kind; for disappointing him constituted such an atrocious lapse of American morality that I had to keep it hidden from myself.

I sipped my beer and he took a pull at his. Then again he looked at me. He hoped (so I inferred) that sooner or later I would see my obligation. Unenlightened, I inquired into his preparation for the storm, whose landfall had been postponed again, and which never came that week, although for all I know, Reno flooded after I left (après moi le déluge). As it was, downtown felt plenty cold that night, with bursts of snow and rain, and winds that could make my face ache all the way to the skull. Thank goodness I was an indoor man! Although I might theoretically have belonged to the same species as that grubby little man now marching from the Cal Neva’s restroom out to the street with a grubby bag in his hand.

While Jesse stared ruthlessly across our planet and into my soul, I watched the grubby little man go up and away from indoor glitter, up the sad stairs and beneath two horizontal strings of unwinking blue lights, out into the tans and grays of the street. He opened the door, and I heard that hateful wind. Right then I longed not to be of his genus or even of his phylum. I would rather pay people like him for stories, unconcerned about getting sad or ashamed, I being a champion at keeping such feelings outside to shiver and hide while I sat in my rented room watching an immense white toad-cloud rest its throat on the neighbor’s roof, gathering up its black-gray belly in preparation for occluding my window—a dramatic show for anyone with light and heat on command.

So where will you sleep? I asked Jesse, who gazed into my face and said: Man, I don’t even have a blanket. I don’t know; maybe I have to go to a motel, but the money, that’s tough. Where I was, it was a hundred bucks a night . . .

And he looked at me. I looked back at him. He lit a cigarette and started coughing.

I asked how he had become homeless.

I had it pretty good in assisted living, he said. And I drank too much, and I got into it with staff—and they were paying my rent! I was fed, had my own room, laundry, yadda yadda yadda. So I got into it with staff, and the main guy he came and took my bedroom door off so I said: Take me to Greyhound. I’ll go to Reno because it’s something different.

Obediently I wrote all this down.

I been on the road since 2008, he said. And I saved up. Now I’m off until the twenty-first.

What did he mean by off? Perhaps it implied that he would stay at the Cal Neva until that date. But somehow this datum struck me as delicate; and, besides, I had met him in a doorway on the street, so again I asked how he would meet the night.

I dunno, he said. Can you hook me up with a blanket?

He had gotten a beer and the promise of twenty dollars out of me. How much could a blanket be? Maybe I should have asked him, but he was already proposing that I drive him to the blanket place so that he would be spared from riding two buses. I said that I had no car. He stared at me.

Anyhow, I asked, how have you been managing without a blanket?

Tough it out, because toughness is all I got. My family’s in Ohio. I’m fifty-five years old; I don’t deserve this. There’s people out here with sleeping bags and everything. I think if I had one of those, that might be pretty neat.

And he stared at me.

I was just around here, he was saying, because I left my hotel at eleven o’clock this morning and I been on the street since then. I was gonna go to the river and hang out there, but it’s dark, so that may not be a good idea.

We both sipped our beers.

When I was cruising around the world for a good six years, he said, I had to hustle, sell my food stamps. I guess I had fun.

I could not decide what to think of that. He sat there in his thick dark jacket, fiddling with his cigarette, so I gave him his twenty dollars and he took it. Surely that would pay for his blanket. When I said goodbye he tried on a part-smile and fist-bumped me. The flickering border of the Little Shop of Horrors slot machine said its own bright goodbye. Out I went.

Across the street, a man’s silhouette leaned in a strangely bright doorway; at its feet I saw some night-clot which might have been a bedroll. I felt sorrier for this man than for Jesse, although had I troubled to chat with him he might for all I can tell have expressed half-baked serenity, in which case I would not need to feel sorry for him anymore. I would rather not be sorry about something when I am not going to do anything about it.

We do not speak of this among ourselves, but I believe that most inside people aspire to the same righteous peace for which I reached in the previous sentence. If this theory is correct then I could cheer everyone up with the case of Roland, who became homeless not only on account of those black circles and the evil feeling transmitted by his fellow citizens, but also, or so he recalled it, out of calculation: It’s not like I wanted to become homeless, he said, but why work and then pay rent?

That declaration might be effective at closing hearts. You see? in-the-know inside people could reassure one another. There’s no way we can help him, so why bother? He’s homeless by choice.

I would sleep better if I believed that. When my daughter, Lisa, became alcoholic by choice, I went on struggling to help her. So why not try to talk Roland into becoming a warm and happy indoor man like me?

Of course, if someone (especially some stranger about whom I need not care) is homeless by choice, then I vote to respect his life unless he makes harmfully odious use of it, for instance by spreading feces and rats. Why not accept, or at least suspend disapproval of, Roland’s life (assuming that you define his impulsion as conscious choice instead of, say, mental illness), so long as he mitigates and conceals his social parasitism as well as any inside citizen? That way I can hand him twenty dollars and leave him to sleep outside. This is, I insist, not only convenient for me; it gives him what he claims to want. Remember that he never asked me for anything, and accepted the cash without avidity, so wasn’t I benevolent?

I don’t panhandle, he told me, because if I don’t need it then I’ll want it. To me that sounded not only sane, but commendable. Whenever he wanted money, he would hire on as a sheetrocker or a carpenter, with the caveat that he hated and therefore avoided finish carpentry. And because he was so good with his hands he had never regretted dropping out of school. And if he didn’t mind it, why was his homelessness my business?

Although the storm had been postponed again, come Friday morning a wind was flapping my hood off and tearing the cloth awning of the building called 200. That was on Second and West, where I almost slipped on a patch of black ice. Across the street, a garbage bag taped over a car’s smashed-in window began to free itself. Once a corner finally came loose, the wind’s cold fingers had a better chance of helping it along. I stood watching. Maybe I should have tried to re-secure the bag, but it did not occur to me, and I wouldn’t have known where to buy duct tape, and I might have gotten into trouble for tampering with the car, and, besides, I felt so tired and sorry for myself that I could barely keep walking.

Proceeding down the rainshiny sidewalk to Sierra Street, I found the snow much darkened, diminished, and decayed. A loud trickling enlivened the nearest alley, but in front of the nameless bar that watered down its whiskey, little gobs of snow still festooned the slush. Curious to see what the river did, I turned south onto First Street. The water was not only faster and higher than yesterday, but redder. The dancing whitecaps were pretty but somewhat ominous; at the coffee shop a man had assured me that the flood watch remained very much on. It was almost picturesque, this Truckee River. A snag that had been whirling along about as delightfully as, say, Jesse’s life now got caught in something and was consigned to twitch in the center of its own whitecap. A huge branch rushed from rapid to rapid; one could almost call them waterfalls. The snow remained white on that little island. Satisfied that I now knew my circumstances fairly well for an indoor man, I headed to the Cal Neva for a possible early-morning beer with the appropriate fourth man, and got a smile from the cleaning lady Samantha as she hustled from the sister casino, which was her baby. Her unselfish cheerfulness made me happy for an instant, but after she departed into the cigarette smoke I got anxious again: Was I perceiving and writing as I should?

You see, I aspired to compose this banal sketch about four men because I really, truly needed to start making money again. On that score (and several others) I had been quietly failing, because in 2022, some months after the Cal Neva reopened, my only child finally drank herself to death. She had been homeless now and then; she had lied, stolen, and worse; it required years of anguish to destroy herself, and all the while I did everything I could think of to help her—I would have cut my heart out for her—but she wanted to die, and so I failed her. Well, maybe I was incapable of helping anyone anyhow. In my indoor fashion I had written about poor people, torture victims, and sufferers of all sorts. What good had that done except pay my heating bill? Lisa was dead—dead, autopsied, and cremated. So I spent most of 2022 and some of 2023 in bed, staring at the wall. I cannot know whether my stare was more or less fixed than Jesse’s, because sometimes it is better not to look in the mirror.

My point is that, as you can imagine, in 2022 I had checked off ever so many accomplishments, which my adjusted federal income represented as follows: zero dollars and zero cents. My accountant warned that if I did no better in 2023 (or did I have until 2024? You see, since Lisa’s death I kept having memory troubles; you would be impressed by all the times I mislaid my raincoat, keys, train tickets, passport, and mind), the Internal Revenue Service would no longer tolerate my clever little write-offs. So much for my writing business. Well, that scared me, and should even have motivated me, but next week the relatives would be coming to Sacramento to celebrate the first anniversary of Lisa’s lovely little cerebral hemorrhage, and when I thought about that, I got back into bed. Why do anything? My property was paid off, as much as property can be; better yet, if and when my deductions ran out, I could begin collecting Social Security income, so with luck I could remain an indoor man, even if I had to live meagerly . . .

But I’d much rather keep fattening on tragedies. Why not flail around in defense of my all-American single proprietorship? In other words, why not go to Reno and make money from the sufferings of homeless men? I had pulled that con before, and the Wheel of Fortune kept whirling in perfect syncopation with these noble plans. I even won Samantha’s blessing: Awright now, sweetie. You have a good day and I’m goin’ back to work.

That very night, at the very same high-top in the Cal Neva as before, sat, of all people, Jesse, playing the part of Jesse awfully well, with those trademarked closed hands, missing teeth, alert eyes, and low-pulled hat. He had a tall beer and a plate of food beside him, so I figured he was doing pretty well, maybe even better than Roland. (He must have thought the same about me.) So I smiled at him, and he waved me over, which pleased me, because I have always looked up to effective operators. Right away he began hitting me up for that blanket. I promised him another twenty, and again he proposed that I drive him to a blanket place he knew, because otherwise he would need to take two buses. Again I told him that I lacked a car. It was half past five and approaching dusk, but he seemed in no hurry to shelter himself—perhaps because working on indoor people like me was his proven method. I asked the barmaid where he could get blankets, and she said: Any one of these liquor stores’ll sell him a hoodie or a throw rug. A hoodie! He dismissed this news, and I perceived that I was breaking his heart with my cruelty, but for some reason I still aspired to continue living with myself. For a fact, nobody deserves to sleep in a doorway, and since Jesse looked more likely than I to be forced into that, I might have spared him more cash than I did. But I simply did not want to. By the end of our acquaintance he had made a good forty-five cash dollars, and was I his keeper?

Well, you know I can’t move around too much, he said. I can’t move the way I used to. The cold hurts, and with no sleep it’s a rough, bad life, man. Be glad to get out of here and get back to normal.

I asked where he would like to go in order to get back to normal, at which he advised me in detail: Don’t have nothing. Don’t have nobody. Maybe one day I’ll get somebody, but she wasn’t in Florida and she wasn’t in Nashville. Maybe she’ll be in Reno, he said, sorrowfully smiling over the barricade of his folded arms.

To me it sounded as if he might well stay where and what he was. He never asked about me—none of the three men did—so I went on asking about him. Did I care about him? When I am feeling saddest it recuperates me to be kind to others—or it used to. Maybe I will feel that way again someday. I looked back at Jesse’s face with more interest than empathy, trying to figure him out. Here was someone of my sort, and Lisa’s: a person with a stunted heart. But who was I to even think of comparing my infirmities to his? He was vastly worse off, so why should my troubles get his sympathy? Forget about that; the business of America is business; it was therefore time to inquire into his previous night, which might pad out a paragraph of my essay about four men—and wouldn’t it be fabulous if I got paid by the word?

I suspect that because I had a soft touch he assumed that I was addicted to organized religion. Ever so many bleeding hearts are. He now related that last night he and a friend (unlike Roland he had friends!) had set out for a certain riverside church in which he had formerly slept, because it was (and here he studied me with extra diligence, I assume to learn if this might make me feel sorrier for him) God’s house; but unfortunately some degenerates had blocked the route, so those two vagrant-heroes went the other way, and then, never mind that for months he had inhabited this simple Western American grid, Jesse could not for the life of him find the church again.

That was why he and his friend perforce got into a certain building, but even though I merely went on writing, for I knew too little to approve or disapprove, he might have thought that I disliked this burglarious act, for he quickly corrected himself to say that they had not actually gotten in, but merely laid themselves down in some undescribed passageway through which other human beings inexplicably tramped all night. When I asked whether he planned to meet his friend again tonight he reminded me that he had no friends since he didn’t have nothing or nobody. As I have said, I liked Jesse but neither believed nor respected him any more than I did myself.

It was late dusk, and the temperature was most definitely below freezing. Out I went. Sitting in the doorway, with his beautiful golden-red hair and beard and mustache lending him the part of some ancient Celtic hero and his face sodden with sweat, rain, or tears, a soft-spoken man assured me that he needed nothing and was not afraid. I think he was religious.

By Saturday morning neither high wind nor flood had yet assaulted downtown, and there were even sunny intervals, but flurries of snow, sleet, and rain continued their work, making the river more gray-green than before, almost like liquid jadeite, its voice not so much louder as lusher where it thickly, smoothly, irresistibly oozed over its waterfall curves, all the while fingering at its reed-island, from which it shoplifted mud and sticks for the sake of general principles; while on Second Street every last brick of the nameless bar that watered down its whiskey shone a muddy gold. At Second and West the building so ostentatiously numbered 200 presented its usual tans and grays to me in shades of yellow in that sun-teased drizzle, with not a loiterer in sight. Where was everybody? The Shelter Census Dashboard was reporting zero of forty-five units available today at Safe Camp. But I should have mentioned the kindred refuge called Our Place; of its one hundred sixty beds and rooms, two remained, earmarked for some lucky pair, never mind the fate of whoever stood behind them in the queue; while a third Washoe County entity, the Emergency Shelter, still offered twenty of five hundred seventy-five beds; hence Saturday, March 11, 2023, was indeed, as I would shortly be advised by a man who had slept in a doorway on Second and Sierra, another day in Paradise. (We told each other to stay dry if we could.)

In a doorway on Second and Virginia a fellow named Happily sat within the tumulus of his stinky blanket, doing nothing that I could see, so why not induct him into this essay as my fourth man? Then I could go home and let the relatives show me pictures of Lisa, each one guaranteed to be painful, after which her ashes would be served into several little urns. I tried to stop thinking about her. If I thought about Happily instead, maybe some of my empathy would return. I did not like the way I felt about Jesse. Until Lisa died I never thought less of someone for trying to con me. Once upon a time, in Bangkok, having paid and photographed an armless man for a book of mine, at the close of business I happened by him on a pedestrian overpass, right when he was unbinding his arms from behind his back. I felt neither betrayed nor sorry for him but mildly admiring of his acumen. And that beggar woman in Mexicali who at my approach would always pinch her baby to make it scream, then put on a woeful look while holding out her paper cup—well, in her case I occupied myself in deciding whether to reward her cruelty with a few pesos or ignore their misery (I paid, of course; I generally do), all the while pitying them, even the baby, only as members of a general class, because so many other desperate, patient, sad, or threatening people vied for my pesos! At least Happily did not con or even beg.

At first I mistook him for the vagrant who had settled in that doorway the night before, for he was another red-haired, red-bearded Celtic warrior, but his mustache had started to go white, and the other man . . . Or were they the same? Thanks to my new tired or shallow indifference to others, I could not differentiate their faces and voices, and Happily appeared not to recollect me either. I asked where he had slept, and he said: Uh, I don’t remember. But I do stay in that alley over there. That’s my spot. I’ve only got like four or five best spots, but I wanna be ready.

Ready for God or death might have been his meaning, for he continued: Where my heart feels the best, that’s at Saint Thomas Aquinas (that double-towered brick cathedral farther up on Second Street; I passed it every day, en route to the Cal Neva casino and then back toward Shifters). Within three minutes he had, on my advice, stashed his blanket in that alley over there and situated himself in my pop-up office, slowly fumbling through his vest and under his scarf and into his pocket until he had brought back into the world a polka-dot pipe.

What’s the best place to sleep outside if it floods? After reinterring the pipe he replied: Pretty much anyplace is your heart’s best nurture.

Happily was as serene about looming stormy inconveniences as Roland. In company with ever so many homeless men here in the West, he could have passed for a nineteenth-century soldier or pioneer. Fate had grimed, smoked, frozen, and sunburned him behind his whiskers; had somebody daguerreotyped him, he could almost have been one of Ulysses S. Grant’s officers. Perhaps his main point of difference with those dead men was his lack of resolute alertness. He must have either triumphed or adapted. He was the sweetest of my three new brothers, and I felt that he actually meant me well.

At the same time, he seemed as incurious as Roland about his surroundings and even his meal ticket, not that I could blame him, because if any place at all is one’s heart’s best nurture, why then, easy come, easy go. He tried to bring me to Jesus, upon which it was my turn to lose interest, so we sat in genial dullness over the watery domestic pilsner that he had chosen, and he murmured of godly things right there on the edge of that aquarium of dark carpet and seaweedlike upcurving stalks of neon or neon-esque light; and to enhance the illusion of life, little lights winked and blinked, sometimes clockwise and sometimes the other way, around the one-cent slot machines.

Jesse just happened to be there, brooding over a Mexican lager and a half-smoked cigarette. He saw me and I saw him. Because I had nearsightedly walked past him, he stayed out of my business, staring into that grotto of busy lights and long odds. His expressionlessness might have been a predatory mask, or he might have been bored, or far away. I’ll never know whether he ruminated or simply watched. Meanwhile, I could barely hear Happily’s gentle mumbles, although that man remained a pleasure to watch. I still hoped that if I wrote the right kind of essay, I could make money out of him, real money, although I would rather have made money out of Jesse. Something somehow had something to do, Happily was explaining, with unicorns. I nodded, just to show that I could be a good sport. Then, drawing up his filthy knees, he borrowed my pen and wrote something about Mary Ann and licorice eyes. You’re special, he assured me. Like Roland, he forgot how long he had been in Reno.

I paid him, shook his hand, and left him there, half-smiling. Figuring that Jesse should not be neglected, I now nipped over to his high-top and asked where he had slept last night.

It was crummy out there, he bitterly said.

I wondered if he had actually slept inside, maybe even here in the casino. I wondered that because I am not a nice man and have no hope of figuring out either Jesse or myself. Why not believe him? Somehow I simply didn’t.

Sometimes I wonder why I didn’t buy him a blanket. But he looked clean, and I never saw him with a bedroll; I think he must have had a room for at least some of the week. And he could afford to eat and drink well. As it was, I must have paid him enough for several blankets, so what gave him the right to keep staring at me in that hard, sad way of his? I guess I could have given him another twenty, although I’ll bet you all my hypothetical winnings from the Wheel of Fortune that even then he would not have desisted from looking at me in that accusing way that outdoor people can put on, as if we owe them something. Not that he was exactly accusing me—or was he? Maybe that gaze explains why so many of us blame the homeless for their suffering. I was not quite that callous, but maybe I was not so noble, either. I kept lying in bed with my eyes fixed on the ceiling.

When Lisa’s protracted dying grew undeniable I bought a burner phone so that I could check in on her. We made an agreement that when she was on the street or I was away I would call her at noon every day or so, and more often if she wished; but I could only afford to do that on domestic trips. (In those years I was away for good stretches, making money out of, for instance, Japan’s bereaved tsunami survivors and radiation evacuees. On those trips I called her from pay phones every now and then.) So I would call my daughter when I could and get her voicemail, or else she would answer listlessly and groggily, lying in her bed of drunkenness. In 2021 there came an American trip when I called her every day at noon for a week and she never answered, so hadn’t I done my duty?

On the day before my return I called, and again she did not answer. So I told her that I would see her in a day, and that I loved her. Wasn’t that enough? But as drunks will, she mixed up the dates and thought that I was at my studio. On the previous night the paramedics had taken her to the emergency room just as they found her, that is without shoes. They intubated her and let her sleep it off, because as a policeman had long since told me, she was a known drunk. In the morning, when she was hydrated and somewhat sober, she refused counseling for alcoholism, so out she went, in her stocking feet. Why not write her off, alongside Roland, as homeless by choice? It was only two or three miles to my studio, but it happened to be raining. She waited for me in the parking lot for hours. (I torture myself over and over with this.) Then a kind homeless man gave her water and led her to the women’s shelter, where a crazy lady threatened her all night and tried to attack her.

Had I been where she imagined or hoped I was, I would have rushed to hide the alcohol, as usual, then fed her, wrapped her in blankets on my sofa (being also bulimic she was thin and got cold easily), and stayed beside her, postponing for another day my brilliant monetizations of the miseries of others. (Oh, I was plenty compassionate, all right; I had written books to prove it.)

So I had found my three men and paid them; hadn’t I been good? What else could I have done? I had failed Lisa, so why not fail them as other indoor people did?

I am an evil person. I tried this on to see if I believed it. If that was so, then what about the indoor man at the coffee shop who had long since run out of pity for the homeless? Maybe I was better, because I paid for their stories and tried to raise other indoor people’s so-called awareness; or maybe I was worse, because I knew that the system was against them, yet did not help them more than I did. I considered this matter some more. Then, at least for five minutes, I stopped caring.

When Lisa was in elementary school, the mother of one of her classmates proudly told me how she poured boiling water out of her window onto a passed-out homeless man, because he made me so scared. She must be even more scared now, because in Sacramento we had rather suddenly begun to see whole rows of tents along the sidewalks. I myself most certainly would never become homeless by choice, for I had it pretty good as an indoor man; so I had better look out for Number One, especially considering that at the end of 2022 my publisher had fired me, partly because I declined to abridge my latest long book, which would have slightly increased its minuscule chance of commercial success, and partly because upon being informed that it contained too many different fonts—and fonts cost money—I replied that with Lisa dead I had less to lose, so I might as well keep standing up for myself; and that since I was already poorly remunerated I just did not feel like saving my publisher a few cents on fonts.

Now, the previous autobiographical snippet, like those of the other three men, may have omitted certain discreditable matters. Maybe my book was just not very good. After seven hundred pages, its protagonist remained unborn, and my editor found that tedious; on the phone he got sharp about it. It definitely contained more typographical errors than usual, because my concentration had fallen off. And just possibly, in company with Happily and Roland, I acted less than sane in my business negotiations, for grief is a witch-hag who rides in on bad winds.

Indeed, I sternly said out loud to my editor what Jesse merely grimly intimated; and making defiant personal demands is never sane. So after nearly forty years he and I parted ways, and I felt proud and brave and relieved, maybe not unlike the way Roland might have when he turned his back on those evil black circles. I’d stood up for myself; I’d shown them. And I still had money in the bank. But where was it going? I bought that round-trip Amtrak ticket to Reno in order to write a funny little story about four men, but when the train got canceled due to Sierra snowstorms I had to shell out for last-minute airfare. By then, as I have told you, I had begun misplacing my keys and passport pretty often; I kept forgetting obligations, but there was nothing wrong with me. For the first time in my life I fell behind on a utility bill. Oh, my, the woes of an indoor man!

Everything was going as it had to and therefore as it should. What could I do about it? I got into bed and watched the sleet strike my window, grateful to be inside for a while longer. Then I thought some more about Jesse’s blanket. That way I could add another paragraph to this essay, and maybe earn an extra fifty cents.

Roland and Happily asked for nothing, so I must have done right by them; any day now I’ll get a medal. A blanket was all Jesse kept asking for. Sure, he was using me, and a blanket would hardly have enabled him to get out of here and get back to normal. But I should have bought him a blanket all the same, and I should have come home a day earlier when Lisa was standing in her socks in the rain. I should have, could have, would have. . . . Fortunately, it was too late to extend myself. I pulled the covers up to my chin and closed my eyes.

’s essay “Just Keep Going North” appeared in the July 2019 issue of Harper’s Magazine.


More from

| View All Issues |

March 2015

Close
“An unexpectedly excellent magazine that stands out amid a homogenized media landscape.” —the New York Times
Subscribe now

Debug