Back in Michigan where I grew up, Ann Arbor was the place to go when there was nothing else to do.
|image taken from mlive.
When we were underage, a trip there mostly consisted of going to Pinball Pete’s or walking around campus, not exactly pretending to be a student at UofM but not exactly not either. Occasionally we’d try to get into frat parties. Sometimes we were successful.
Once we got older, after I’d moved away but still visited frequently because I was a gypsy of a girl that couldn’t sit still, Ann Arbor was the spot. Between the parties and the pubs and the bars and the clubs, it was basically a boozy sort of heaven for a twenty-something with a legal ID. God, the nights we spent there, buzzing and laughing and stumbling over each other. It was there on those streets, surrounded by my drunken brethren, that I first fell in love with the idea of New Adult. The magic in the years when we were still too young to be expected to have our shit entirely together but old enough our parents were no longer looking over our shoulders quite so closely. That age and that idea gave birth to a shelf where possibilities are endless and the future stretches out shiny and hopeful ahead. I loved those years. I still love those years. I love my life now, I love who I’ve become, but that girl was forged on cobblestone streets with jazz and rap and country spilling out of the bars that stood over her.
And it was there on one of those street corners that I met the man who would later become my inspiration for Preach, the homeless junkie in WILD ONES.
My friends and I had been standing there, waiting for the crosswalk signal to change. I’d been at the back of the group, smoking a cigarette. It took my friend shifting slightly to his left for me to notice the haggard guy siting there. He was dressed in a pair of jeans that probably had been blue at one time, but were now so covered in filth they could have been black. His shirt was torn and yellowed and his beard was long and scraggly and I could tell by the way others were giving him a wide berth that he probably didn’t smell the sweetest. But if he’d noticed, he didn’t act offended by it. He was just sitting there with a pleasant look on his face and occasionally he’d smile and say something to whoever was closest to him too low for me to hear.
I don’t remember if I purposely moved closer. I’d like to think I did but truthfully, the light probably changed and I was just following the flow. But when I drew even with him, he flashed a smile at me and I smiled back.
“Spare some change?”
I was already digging in my purse.
One of the girls I was with turned suddenly and grabbed my arm. “Don’t,” she barked out. “He’s just gonna use it to buy alcohol or drugs.”
I glanced back at the man, but he was already averting his eyes, his smile still in place, and for some reason, that fired me up. Without another word, I marched across the street to a convenience store, probably jay-walking in the process.
“I want a pint. Vodka. Whatever’s cheap.”
The clerk, a middle-aged man who had probably worked there long enough to not be taken by surprise by bossy girls in too-tall heels, handed me over a bottle. I paid for it and stomped right back out and across the street.
“Here,” I said, handing the pint cloaked in a brown paper bag, so stereotypical, to the man. Then I fished out a five from my purse. It wasn’t much, but I didn’t have much then. “You can use this for dinner.”
Then I turned and shot my fiercest look at my friend. “Now he doesn’t have to use it to buy booze. And who gives a shit if he would have? If I were in his situation, I’d drink.”
My friend, bless her, had the decency to look at least a little ashamed.
I was prepared to go, fall back once again to the outskirts of my group while they led the way to whichever bar we would hole up in that night when the man stopped me. He held out the unopened bottle to me and I put my hand up, thinking he was attempting to give it back. I hadn’t meant to make him feel bad, if I had. I hadn’t meant to cause even a minor scene. I just had a temper and sometimes it came bursting out before I could stop it.
“Please? It’s been a long time since a pretty girl even talked to me. I couldn’t tell you how long it’s been since I had the honor of sharing a drink with one.”
So I sat down. There on that street corner, leaned up against a post, I sat down and opened the bottle then took a swig and passed it back to him. He took a drink and then he started talking. Eventually, the others sat down too and he told us he’d been a musician once, had played in some of the bars we’d planned on visiting that night. Never went anywhere though. As much as he tried and as hard as he worked, it never panned out further than tiny gigs that he barely got paid for. “Kept doing it though. At least until I couldn’t. Eventually sold my guitar. Had to eat,” he added, a hint of both pride and shame in his voice that was now laced with cheap vodka. There’d been a woman once, he explained. There was always a woman. But she didn’t like competing with his first love. He never bothered trying to find her after it’d all gone south. “What’s the point? Had more to offer her then than I do now.” He turned down the cigarette I’d offered him. “It’ll ruin your voice, kid,” he’d said. “I haven’t given up enough to let that get shot to hell like the rest of me.” He looked at my friend, the one who had originally stopped me from giving him money and was now sitting across from him. “She’s right though. I do drink a lot. Sometimes to keep warm. Sometimes to make me forget. Sometimes -” He shrugged. “Not sure what else to do.”
I understood that. Hell. I drank for the same reasons. I could tell by the looks on my friends’ faces around me they could too. Were we so different than him in the scheme of things? Not really. If he was broken, so were we.
I’ve thought a lot about that night over the years. I’ve wondered if the others who’d been there had walked away feeling any different. If it stuck with them like it did me. If they’d been more inclined to dig out a few dollars whenever they passed someone on the street who needed it. Did they think of the man they’d met one chilly autumn night who spoke about music and dreams in a voice usually reserved for talking about a lover? I hope so. Even if they never once gave money to someone else, I hope they remembered his story, remembered that others have one too, and I hope they at least smile at them. Maybe strike up a conversation.
Out of that encounter and that hope, Preach was born. A man with demons and a story behind them, who befriend a pretty young waitress and, though troubled, became both an almost father figure to her and, at one point, her crooked savior. I painted him in shades of gray and I crossed my fingers that maybe, just maybe, someone would walk away from WILD ONES looking at others like him a little differently. That they wouldn’t be quite so quick to judge or dismiss. That maybe, just maybe, they’d move a little closer to them on the street while others were skirting away. I said a prayer that at least one person would stop next time they saw someone in dirty, ill-fitting rags and talk for a minute. Maybe even share a drink if they had time.
Because we’re all kinda broken, some are just a little more broken than others. We’re all human and we all have a story and we’re all looking for someone to tell it to.
Because I’m always looking for an excuse to share it: take a moment to check out the blog Humans of New York. It’s a wonderful, touching project and I’m such a huge fan of what Brandon Staton is doing and the stories that are being told. It also inspired an Ann Arbor version that I check daily, always looking for a glimpse of Paul, that lovely musician I had the honor of sharing a drink and a few hours with.