Wednesday, April 04, 2007

old bill

When I was 28 I ended a long term relationship. Looking back, it was either that or get married, and while the man was a very good man, he wasn't the man for me. Or better said, I simply wasn't ready for a good man yet. I could have handled it better, so as when it was over I was the one who needed to leave.

Problem was, I was working in a homeless shelter in one of the most expensive counties in the nation. I could not afford to rent my own place, not even a studio.

A co-worker came to my rescue. Bill was a Vietnam veteran, a former drug addict, and had lived on the streets. He cleaned up his act years ago and was my mentor and co-worker. He had a small one-bedroom walk up smack in the middle of downtown and offered to let me "rent" his couch for $100 a month. I had no other options, so I gratefully accepted. Ok, warily, but gratefully.

I gave up almost all of my belongings in the transition. Everything I owned fit into the back of my car, and most of that was books and clothes. Bill gave me one drawer and part of the closet for my clothes. Everything fit. I kind of liked only needing a drawer.

We were a strange pair - an old black man and a young white woman breaking bread and sharing a bathroom. At night I would watch the hookers earn their money in the alley below his apartment. It was vastly different from my living environment for the past four years, and I was happy and scared simultaneously. I felt small and big all at once, alone and everywhere at the same time.

Every once in a while I'd get a voice message from Bill asking me not to come home for awhile. That was one of our arrangements early on; that he'd entertain a lady friend (by the hour) from time to time and he wanted his privacy. We all need a little warmth sometimes, and if you can't come by it naturally, I'd imagine it would get lonely after awhile.

Sundays Bill would go to the neighborhood park and look for former friends from the streets. He'd round up three or four of these cats and bring them back for chicken dinner, because everyone deserves chicken dinner on sundays. I'd often come in to a group of guys playing chess or cards, drinking beer, listening to jazz. I liked those afternoons quite a bit.

After a few months I'd saved up enough to be able to rent a tiny studio in a rough part of town. We shared a last Sunday dinner and I moved out. Bill quit work the following year and I lost touch with him after that. A few years ago I heard things got rough for him; rumors of crack pipes and the streets. I could and couldn't believe it. I knew how lonely he was, but I didn't think he'd give up what he'd worked so hard to keep. I still don't really know. Some demons are too much for this world, and the old sly ones rooted in southeast asian wartime are especially tough to shake.

I will always love him, old Bill, for offering a girl a place to stay when she had nowhere else to go. His kindness allowed me to close one chapter and start another.

And I still think of those hookers in the alley and smile at the absurdity of it, working girls doing their best for most certainly not enough.

38 comments:

Mayberry said...

Thanks so much for opening my heart just a little more with your posts.

meno said...

You have had some unusual life experiences and we are the better for it.

Thailand Gal said...

Sounds like an interesting guy...


Peace,

~Chani

Redneck Mommy said...

I would have liked to known Bill.

Thank you for sharing him with us.

Gawd, I have such a bloggy crush on you!!

NotSoSage said...

Wow. It's amazing what people are willing to share, even when they have little. I hope that Bill has tackled his demons and the rumours are untrue.

I wonder if some day you'll find him.

Another lovely post.

acumamakiki said...

Wow girlfriend. Everytime I come here to read, I'm inspired and awed. I hope Bill has found peace and like redneck mommy, I'm totally crushing on you. It's probably good that we couldn't meet, I might have embarrassed myself. (=

metro mama said...

I hope what you heard was just rumour and Bill is still cooking chicken on Sunday.

Oh, and Jen? I love you.

QT said...

Woman, you and I have travelled many of the same paths. Gave my "good man" the boot at the same age, much to the chagrin of my family.

Bill sounds so awesome - he obviously left an impression on you, too. Hope someday you see him again.

mamatulip said...

This is why you are a daily read for me.

Julie Pippert said...

I hope that Bill is still making chicken on Sundays for people.

Very touching story. I guess it's true that it takes an amazing person to know an amazing person. :)

crazymumma said...

You make me want to burn a soundtrack for that part of your life.

What a visual post. I saw it, I imagined what I imagine you to look like. And I saw the chicken dinner, and the men sitting around the table.

You really made us part of this one Jen.

And in my imagination I see wayward angels in the disguise of a man with the name Bill.

jen said...

Mum, what are the songs you are thinking of? am curious.

You all would have liked Bill. He was the real deal.

PunditMom said...

That's a beautiful story. It made me think of people like that in my life, many years ago, who helped me when I was poor, had an abusive husband and needed a place to stay. Thanks for reminding me that I need to let them know (again) how much their love and kindness meant.

crazymumma said...

Tom Waits with Rickie Lee Jones sprang into my head. But not Tom alone, too predictable.

Carnival by 10,000 Maniacs perhaps.

Lucinda Williams, a song called Drunken Angel

Hurt by Johnny Cash, or Redemption Song with Joe Strummer and Johnny Cash.

Aimee Mann, Magnolia Soundtrack

Al Green

Mad World, Gary Jules

Junior Murvin

Wild Nights, Van the Man

World Party (Goodbye Jumbo album)

Maybe some Lou Reed and Marianne Faithfull and maybe some old Stones.

Those are the ones that spring to mind but I am pretty spontaneous putting things together.

Who are you thinking of?

Are you fishing for me to burn you a CD? Because I would be more than happy to. (Just ask Mama Tulip how good my mixes are)

Bob said...

what a rich life you've led to have had such friends.

Denguy said...

Slept on a couch for $100? The life you've had (so far), my oh my.

Laurie said...

I wish you'd write a book. It would be a very interesting and eye opening read.

Beck said...

I hope that Bill is okay, that it was just a bad rumour. He sounds like a good man.

ECR said...

I guess we're all hooking it, then. Doing our best for not enough.

slouching mom said...

What a good man!

It's awfully sad to imagine him no longer having his Sunday chicken dinners and his by-the-hour ladies.

Such an evocative post, Jen. I really enjoyed this.

Bon said...

yeh, i have a bloggy crush on you too, Jen.

people we intersect with and then slip away from, back into lives on very different paths, are always sites of such interesting questions. and stories. thanks for bringing Bill here.

Mrs. Chicky said...

I could like a man who believed everyone deserved a chicken dinner on Sundays.

Mad Hatter said...

Sometimes I think you must be 100 given the experiences you've had.

Oh, The Joys said...

I'm with mamatulip - this is an example of the great writer you are.

flutter said...

I never want to hear you say that you are no writer.
Bill, what an angel.

Cristi said...

We are all molded by our life experiences, some more colorful than others. Old Bill reminds me of Freddy, a war veteran who looked like Jesus and hung around my mother's coffee house when I was a kid. He actually lived in our backyard in an RV for a while. You keep making me remember... too much.

karrie said...

Great story. I hope wherever he is, that Bill is hanging in there.

I always liked knowing that all of my belongings fit into my battered, old Volvo. Owning stuff and being so solidly middle class and domestic now makes me nervous.

Hel said...

Your post so wowed me I started several comments but scraped them all as unworthy of your post.

What I would like to say is that both of you are amazing peole. He for offering and you for accepting his offer and seeing what an amazing person he truly is.

I also hope he is still eating chicken with friends.

Tabba said...

What a time for you - a great, interesting time of growth and self discovery, I bet.
And what a man, that Bill. I hope that where he is today is good.
Thanks for sharing this.

Lawyer Mama said...

Jen - I've read your blog on and off for awhile and I have to say that you amaze me. You've had such an interesting life and you truly try to make the world a better place. You don't just talk about it like so many of us do.

Alice said...

Beautiful. You have obviously lived your life with an open heart and have reaped the rewards.

Pendullum said...

Strange how people enter and exit our life...
I often think of them as waves... They certainly mark the sand... And can leave their mark... but then disappear into the vast, vast world...

Kyla said...

I absolutely love hearing stories from other chapters of a person's life. It so easy to get to know someone for the right now...but its a sepcial treat to hear about the back thens.

Momish said...

Isn't interesting how these slices of life are so often the most vivid of moments in the sea of years and years. You bring back what those times mean and how bittersweet and sacred they are.

liv said...

I read and read and sometimes wonder how you've crammed all this living into this life with still so much left to go and do! brava!

KC said...

It amazes me how angels can come in so many shapes and vices.

It really makes me think that deep down, we are all the same, of good hearts.

Jocelyn said...

I don't know if you'll get this comment on an "old" post (wow, like, a day old), but know that you've just made my heart beat a little differently.

urban-urchin said...

I hope that the rumors were just rumors.