25 September 2006

My Own Days As A Pigeon

The first time I remember hearing Rod Stewart's song "Maggie May" was while I was cutting across the Cadillac dealer's lot on E. Huron Street in Ann Arbor in - when else? - late September of 1971. Which of course doesn't make much sense; how could I have heard a song playing out in the middle of a car lot?

So it must have been playing in my head, and it couldn't have been the first time, either, because I already knew most of the lyrics, including the line about, "It's late September and I really should be back in school." It was nagging at my conscience, that line was. It had been a couple years since I'd set foot in anything resembling a school - assuming jail doesn't count - and many years before I would again, and I was feeling antsy.

Ann Arbor being first and foremost a college town, the sight of thousands of fresh - and not so fresh - faced U of M students flooding back to classes was as sure a sign of autumn as the football crowds and the bright yellow tinge creeping onto the edges of the mostly still green leaves overhead. The night had been chilly, but now, in mid-morning, the sunlight was pounding down from a crisp and deep blue sky; it was going to be a hot day, almost like midsummer.

But I'd lived in Michigan long enough to know that weather like this was deceptively, heartbreakingly fleeting. Some years it might linger on into October, most years not, but either way, it was only a matter of days, or a week or two at most, before the winds would come howling down from Canada, freezing life in its tracks and putting a swift clampdown on my mostly carefree life on the streets.

Winter's not such a big deal if you've got someplace warm to curl up with a big pile of books, which was partly why the life of a student looked better than it had in a while. But by now I'd been kicked out of college three times and flunked out another, so even my fairly thick head had finally gotten itself around the idea that I might not be cut out for academic life. The last time I'd been in a classroom was 1969, and that was as a janitor at U of M, which also happened to be the last job I'd had.

Which might help explain why I had no place to live, not a good situation to be in with winter drawing near. So far I hadn't had to spend any nights on the streets - if I did, it was because I was too drunk or high to bother going in - but I was completely reliant on the generosity of friends, random acquaintances, and sometimes outright strangers. At the beginning of summer there'd been 12 of us piled into a two-bedroom apartment over by Campus Corners, an apartment that had technically belonged to... well, since nobody was paying rent, I guess nobody.

But that was gone now, and the same crowd, minus one guy who'd OD'd, were now crammed into a one-bedroom basement apartment at the other end of the block. Somebody actually was paying rent here, and regularly let it be known that people couldn't expect to keep crashing there all winter. It was too claustrophobic anyway, so I spent as much time as possible anywhere else I could. This particular morning I was tearing across town in pursuit of some minor-league dope deal that I hoped might net me 10 or 15 bucks, of which I'd volunteer to kick in maybe half toward expenses back at the crash pad and thus maybe buy myself a few more days or weeks.

I can't remember if the dope deal ever worked out - there'd been an incredible dry spell that year, which was why most of us were so broke - but I do remember spending the next few days brooding about where my life was going. That was something I hadn't been giving much thought to for the past couple years; I'd just sort of figured things would always work out somehow. But watching the students go back to class, and realizing that they'd have college diplomas before they were as old as I was, made me wonder, in a very scary way, if I'd taken a wrong turn.

Well, I knew I had, actually; as near as I could tell, my whole life thus far had been a series of wrong turns. But suddenly it felt a lot more out of control, and a bit more threatening than it ever had before. Not knowing what else to do, I decided it was time to get out of town, and hitchhiked down to Kent, Ohio, where I'd spent some time hiding out from the law back in 1968, and where I still knew a couple people.

They took me in, gave me a soft spot on their basement floor, and fed me breakfast, lunch and dinner; hippies no longer, they'd taken jobs and ate on a schedule like normal working people. It was more food than I'd eaten in years, and I was soon growing as fat as them. Fat, and sickly. It might have been all the drugs I was taking, but I was convinced I was coming down with scurvy from a lack of fresh vegetables, and took to digging up dandelion greens from the yard. Which kept me going until the first real snow and ice storm blew in around the first of November.

At that point, it finally sunk in that I might have to do something to look after myself, that I couldn't rely forever on handouts and the kindness of others. I stayed up all night high on speed, wrote a several-pages-long epic poem in iambic pentameter, and just before dawn had a blinding revelation. I was finally going to take responsibility for myself. Too impatient to wait for the others to wake up, I went barging into the upstairs bedroom at about 6 am and announced, "I figured out what I'm going to do with my life. I'm going to apply for welfare."

1 comment:

Wesley said...

I should have seen that coming.