Two Dollar Coats

by Kenneth M. Muise, Jr.

You can get almost any coat you want for two bucks.  Don’t believe me?  It’s absolutely possible.  The odds are better than winnin’ the lottery. They’re even better than someone givin’ you crisp, green bills rather than quarters and dimes in the hat.

All right, all right…I’ll tell ya’.  But ya gotta promise to be careful, ‘cause if you’re not, then what happened to me could happen to you.  And then you’re up shit creek, worse off than you were before.  I’ll let you decide if the rewards are greater than the losses.

In Gloucester, Massachusetts, you can get a coat for two bucks.  And this is how.  I know. So listen close.

At the end of Roger’s Street, where it converges on Main and the Boulevard in a nest of activity, there is a CATA bus stop.  It sits right there on the sidewalk just off the big parkin’ lot that starts the area called “the fort.”  You can see the Ice Co. buildin’ and the wharf but not if you’re actually sitting down in the bus stop.  All that stuff would be behind ya.

If you’re actually sittin’ in the bus stop, you see exactly what I said before—a whole spaghetti bowl of a mess.  Four streets run into one another and there is a nice little traffic island in the middle with some cheap flowers planted in it. It’s actually the flowers that make the little traffic island a nice traffic island.

Anyways, like I was sayin’, there are four streets.  Was I saying that?  Doesn’t matter.  Rogers, Main, the Boulevard street (which I am sure has a name but I don’t know it), and Pleasant Streets.  All of ‘em filled with mostly happy people who usually have some place to go, somethin’ to eat, and someone to see.  Especially durin’ the summer, where, at the end of June, this area becomes a friggin’ annoyin’ hustle of people.  That damned St. Peter’s fiesta with all its carnival rides, priests and Italians runnin’ around carryin’ statues.  Jesus!  Just try to get a spot at the bus stop then!  You’d get run out by Gloucester’s finest faster than you could say, “Viva San Pietro!”

Packed in and around this huge intersection are two gas stations, a liquor store, and about thirty bars.  No shit.  Probably because this is one of the first areas all the fishermen will see as they get off the boat for the first time in two or three, ten or thirty days.  Them guys could drink the harbor dry!

So this bus stop sits right in the middle of all this hustle, and that’s great if you’re puttin’ out the hat for all the people who come by.  Sometimes you could make about two or three bucks; then hell, who knows where the road ends after that!

Which is exactly what got me into all that trouble that night.

I was sittin’ there all day sometime durin’ last March and man, let me tell you, that was one shitty month.  The winter wasn’t gone, (hell, it didn’t show any sign of leaving) but there was no snow on the ground.  But the damn ocean blew ice out of its ass and when you breathed through your nose too hard, your nostrils would actually freeze and stick together.  Imagine that shit!

I remember that day, not because it was so cold— like I said it was cold as hell all month—but because it was so damn bright.  The sun hung up there throwing down light like a constant nuke bomb, but all it did was give you the finger because it sure as hell wasn’t puttin’ out any heat.

But all in all there was enough foot traffic to put two dollars and thirty-seven cents in the hat.  I sat there, shakin’ and thinkin’ about all the things I could do with that money.  I could walk down Rogers or even Main (if I was brave enough to not care if I saw anyone I might have known) and grab a coffee at the Dunkin’ Donuts.  Or, I could even cross to the packy and get a coupla hard nips.  Maybe, even to the Store Two-Four where there was always somethin’ hot and cheap.

Then as the day and the people disappeared, and the night and the people came in, I started getting greedy.  It’s always like that, you know.  The night and day bring totally different types of people with it.  And at night, people’s brains start thinkin’ stuff that get ‘em in trouble.  Why d’ya think that almost sixty percent of all crime happens at night?

So, I started thinkin’ about buyin’ a scratch off lottery ticket, maybe two.  I might win five or twenty, or even a hundred bucks!

I could also lose all of it.

I think it must have been a Thursday, because the bars were alive but they weren’t Friday or Saturday night alive. People would come walkin’ from out of sight somewhere down on Main or Pleasant and go in to one of ‘em.  For a second, when the doors were open, I could see the dim yellowish lights comin’ outta those bars and I could hear the people laughin’ and talkin’ loudly inside.  The doors seemed to yell stuff at me on those long winter nights where it usually got dark about five or so, things like “HEAT” and “WARM” were the loudest, but I won’t lie to ya, I also heard stuff like “FUN” or “FRIENDS,” sometimes even “GIRLS!, GIRLS!, GIRLS!”  I’m not heartless, just homeless.

Heh, heh; just a little joke there.

Then somethin’ that had never happened to me before starts irritating the shit out of me.  My feet and my hands started to itch and they got all tingly.  It felt like I had slept on the damn things wrong all night.  It wasn’t as severe as that, but it came off and on; just enough to get me to the point where I felt like kicking a hole in the CATA, but the big-wigs at the Cape Ann Transportation Authority—not to mention the boys in the police cruisers who drove by about a hundred times a night—wouldn’t be too happy with me for that.  So, I controlled myself.

I tried to pull myself deeper and tighter onto the bench.  I had my knees to my chin and my hands buried deep in to the gray zip sweat shirt I found down on the wharf last week.  The damn thing had smelled to hell and high water of seagull shit for somewhere near a day and a half until I hung it in the sun for a while.

My chest and stomach had goose bumps and my friggin’ nipples started to hurt.    As far as I knew, my nose and ears no longer existed.  I knew my cheeks were still there because I slapped them so hard until they started bleeding from hitting my teeth and I could taste the metallic liquid on my tongue.

And the more I lay there looking at the doors of all the warm bars open and close, and hearing all the people inside gettin’ drunk and havin’ a good time; and the longer I thought about what to do with the two plus bucks I had begged for, the more my damn feet and fingers and toes started to tingle.  And then I started to hurt.

I thought, maybe, that if I got up and started to move a li’l bit, then it would warm me up some.  That’s what they always say anyway.  Isn’t it?

So I got up and started to shuffle back and forth, inside that small little bus stop, and I learned three important lessons.  Number one was, that while a lot of smart guys might tell you to move around to stay warm, no matter how much you walk back and forth, it won’t help your hands at all.  Number two—if you’re trying to keep your feet warm by walking aroun’, then make sure you got more than a pair of canvas shoes.  The thin soles on them suns-a-bitches freeze faster than snow in Greenland in January.  And last but no fucking way the least—never, ever, for a second think that you can hide from a cold wind blowing at your ass from the northeast.

Brrrr!  Just thinking about that night now makes me wanna pull these nice clean hospital sheets up higher and tighter.

And I just couldn’t take any more of it.

I left the only home I had known for every night that winter.  That little bus stop wasn’t doing shit for me that night anyway.  If I remembered the day for its brightness, then I’ll always remember that night for the wind.  You better always respect a winter New England wind.  If you don’t, it could ruin you like a cancer.

I crossed the street to the nice little traffic island, waited for a car to pass, and then jogged across to the other side.  The whole time I was blowin’ on my hands, and bobbin’ up and down on my knees like I had to take the biggest piss of my life.  I didn’t think ‘bout it then, but I must’ve looked friggin’ ridiculous.

I got to Main and almost knocked over some lady walkin’ along with her girlfriends.  I said ‘excuse me,’ but the way they looked at me made me feel like knocking their teeth down their throat.  Girls or not.  I never understood how people could not care how they made a person feel.  It always pisses me off.

I crossed the road after the girls started gigglin’ and I was sure they weren’t gonna start screamin’ like they had witnessed a damn murder.  Before I knew it, I had reached the place I had been headin’ without even knowing that I had been headin’ there.

I was standing at the door of this little pub that I had been seein’ people comin’ in and out of for about three years.  The only thing I knew about it was that there was a big picture of  Nomar Garciappara right inside the door.  Even from the distance I had been at all those times this door had opened, I had eventually figured out who it was in the Red Sox uniform.  In the poster, Nomar had just hit a ball and he was still in the motion at the end of his swing, even as his front leg was leaving the batter’s box to head for first, and then, wherever else the ball might take him.

The door opened and I was scared, I almost ran I was so scared, but as the middle aged man and his mid-twenties companion slid by me, I entered the pub confident like.  Like everyone there would know my name.

Heh-heh, that’s just another li’l joke.

Anyways, I went in.  The smoke and the heat were the first things that hit me.  I loved both of ‘em.  I smoked for a while back in high school and all the way up until I was thirty-six.  And even then, I didn’t quit because I was worried about my friggin’ health.  I just couldn’t afford the damn things anymore.

And the heat!  Oh, the heat!  Immediately, my nose and ears started to burn and feel all fuzzy.  Even breathin’ the warm air hurt a li’l bit, but that was the kinda pain that I would take any night.

The place wasn’t a fire warden’s nightmare, but there was a lot of people there, anyways.  All of the tables in the place were packed.  Some had the called for four at each but at some, people had pulled over some extra chairs and were sitting five, six, and at one, seven deep.  The small round tables were full of empty and full glasses and beer bottles.  The bar was about two-thirds full.

Directly to my right was the poster of Nomar.  He looked so serious and gallant in his full motion pose as his head and eyes looked towards the ball he had just hit, which was somewhere in right-center field.  If you ever go in the place, look and tell me if you agree.  He held the bat behind him and it was actually already being let go of.  You could see the bat hangin’ freely in his loosely cupped hand.  His left leg was already heading towards first base line and his free hand was held across his chest as it got ready to start pumpin’ back and forth to help carry him forward.

I started to trace the letters of his name that ran across the top of the poster.  Bright yellow letters with a red trim, all capital letters.  Then I saw the bartender starin’ at me and I decided that if I wanted to stay all toasty for a little while, then I should probably stop strokin’ the letters of this guys name.

The only reason that I probably didn’ get kicked out of the place, no matter how bad I smelled or looked, was because like I said, these bars usually got a lot of fishermen right off the boat.  And that was probably what the bartender guessed I was.

I walked over to the bar and grabbed a seat at the end where there was no one within three stools.

The bartender walked over, put down a paper napkin and an ashtray.

“Whadd’ya have, skip?”  he asked.

I didn’t know what the going rate of any thing was these days, but I pretty much figured that if I ordered a water I’d probably got my ass kicked out real quick.

“How much for a Bud?” I asked him.

“Two bucks, Cap’n.”  he told me.

I had no intention of blowin’ my whole wad in this place, only of warming up a bit, but I found myself noddin’ my head anyway, and he walked over to the tap and began to draw a glass for me.

He put the glass down in front of me with the froth spilling over the top and dribbling down one side.  He knocked once on the bar and sat there lookin’ at me.  No matter what or who he took me for, it wasn’t someone he trusted.

I dug deep into the old dirty jeans and picked out a dollar, three quarters, a dime and three nickels. He cast a sideways glance at me as he counted but he went to the register and rang it up anyway.

I took a sip of the beer; it was good but it didn’t do much in the way of thawin’ out my gut like a nip of whiskey or vodka would have done.  And the cheaper the liquor, the warmin’ was quicker.  Cheap booze burns like diesel goin’ down.

Then the heat made me start to make me feel all friggin’ whoopsy.  It was like taking a pain med after a coupla days of bein’ up all night with a bad toothache.  The comfort that it caused was so great that it made you wanna sleep.  I got this constant grin on my face and I started to look around the bar like I had a whole bunch of business bein’ there.

I was dammed happy that night.

And then I saw the coat rack.  It was down at the other end of the bar and it stood right in between the two bathroom entrances.  There were coats there that looked so warm I thought I wouldn’ have to shiver the rest of the winter if I had one of those coats.  There were a lot of ‘em, but the one that caught my eye was a thing of beauty.  If I only had it.

There was a brown, below the waist coat, with big ole cone buttons that hook through thick string and a zipper.  I could see this tan fur, trimmin’ the hood and the sleeve cuffs.  It was the best lookin’ coat I had ever seen.  It wasn’t one of those trench length jobs, but it would hang  down to ‘bout the middle of my upper leg.

If I only had it.

I sipped slowly on the beer, enjoyin’ the hell out of it, but mostly I was just savorin’ the heat in the place.  I got ‘bout half way through the brew when I found myself starin’ at that coat again.  I saw the way the elbow on one of the sleeves was worn and darker than the rest, and how it was startin’ to wear a li’l at the bottom and these li’l strings were hangin’ down in some places.

I know whatcha thinkin’.  I know, I know.  You’re thinkin’ that most guys go into a bar and have a beer and end up starin’ at some broad somewhere.  But I’m here to tell ya’ that coat was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.  Better lookin’ than any dame I had ever seen, anyway.  But it was the situation that made the man.  Heh-heh.

So,  eventually I see the bartender startin’ to stare me down again.  He walks over and I threw the bait out.  I wanted to see if the plan I was workin’ on would work.

“Ready for another, skip?” he asked.

“Not right now,” I told him.  “Where’s the bathroom?”

He looked at me kinda’ funny because he had been lookin’ at me stare down in the direction of the coats and the two doors to the bathrooms.

I thought fast.

“Are those them down there?”  I pointed in the direction of the coats.

He nodded.

“Oh,” I said, “I thought they might be, but I couldn’t read the signs from down here.  Eyes aren’t what they used to be.”

I guess it worked because he nodded again, went to serve on someone else, and he didn’t look at me funny for the rest of the night.

I got up and went to the bathroom, and I really had to go now, with all the talking I had been doin’ ‘bout the damn pisser.  On my way by the jacket, I put my hand out as I pulled the door open, as if I was seeking some balance.  The jacket was soft and it radiated comfort.

I went into the bathroom and drained the ole pant python.  I used the time at the sink to scrub some of the dirt off my face with the free soap they put out.  As I looked at the man in the mirror, I thought it was Charles Manson lookin’ back at me.

I know you could never tell now, I been shavin’ every day in here for a week; but on that night I had a full six months worth of hair all over the place.  My hair was tussled and sticking out all over the place and the beard and moustache hung down to my shirt and it had little bits of all kinds of crud stuck in it all over the place.  I took some time after I was done washin’ to pick some of it out.

I left the bathroom and made it a point to not look at the jacket on the way out.  I went back to my spot at the bar and sat back down in front of my beer.  It was getting used to the warm air of the bar as fast as I was.

I occasionally glanced at the jacket, but only after I checked the bartender to make sure he wasn’t watchin’ me.  I stayed there maybe another twenty minutes more, and I coulda’ probably stayed longer with no one askin’ any questions, but I was so damn excited ‘bout gettin’ that jacket that I gulped down the rest of the beer.  I put the cup down and slapped my hand on the counter, getting the bartenders attention.

“Thanks.  See ya’ tomorrow.”  I said to him as I was gettin’ up.

“Sure thing,” he says and goes back to cuttin’ orange quarters.

I headed back to the bathroom.  What true drinker doesn’t piss one last time before he leaves the bar, right?  I went into the guys’ room and looked into the mirror as I counted to fifty.

I wasn’t scared, mind ya’.  I had committed a little crime in my time, but when you’re a homeless guy, all that kinda stuff pretty much changes.  You become lower than the rest of the people with the houses, cars, money, and food.  You’re looked upon with scorn and disgust, and everyone pretty much blames it on you that you’re in the shit hole.  And most of the time, they’re right.

No. The only reason I took a li’l while to just walk out and take the jacket was because I was worried ‘bout what I would thinka myself after I had done it.  I didn’t wanna think of myself as all those other people who don’t know me think of me.  But in the end, all I really needed to think about was the CATA stop and the wind blowin’ in off the harbor with the smell of dead fish and seaweed.

So, I walk out the door to the bathroom, grab the jacket, and start to put it on as I was leavin’.  I got it on quickly and, as I was passin’ the poster of Nomar Garciapparra, I kissed my fingers and slapped them on Nomar’s leg.

“Thanks,” I said under my breath.

When I walked outside, the only place I felt cold was my hands and head.  After I pulled my hood up and pulled the string to tighten around my cheeks, that pretty much took care of my head and face.  Then I buried my hands deep into the pockets and that took care of my hands.

As I walked down Main, headin’ for the Dunkin’ order to beg for ninety-eight cents for a small coffee, I thought about searchin’ the pockets.  I hadn’t taken the coat for that reason but I figured, What the hell?

There was nothing but a pack of gum in there anyway.  I put a piece in my mouth and started to chew.  It felt just like I had brushed my teeth.  I was having a good night.  Bird bath, teeth and mouth feelin’ clean, and a brand new jacket.

That’s when I went up shit creek without a paddle, boat, and no legs or arms.

Someone yelled, “Hey!” from somewhere behind me.  I didn’t turn around until I heard several feet bearing down on me at a run.  By the time I did turn, there was at least three dudes on top of me.

I don’t remember much, just like I told the police when they questioned me a few days ago.  Some words, maybe, and the blows that they laid on my poor ass.

“Fuckin’ scum bag…,” and a kick to the face.

“Dirty, nasty li’l shit…,” and someone grabbed my hair in order to punch me in the eye.

“Probably stunk up the jacket, you li’l flea shit . . . ,” and several kicks to stomach, chest, back and groin.

That’s all I remember.

The police say some guy called the station and reported some guy hurt real bad on the sidewalk on Main St. but when the ambulance got there, all they found was me and no one who had reported it.  I dunno if it was one of them guys who did it to me or not.

I doubt it.

The police said that the bartender at the Peppermint Pub on Main had reported an old, dirty fisherman who couldn’t see real well that night.  And he said it was kinda odd that someone like that would go into a gay bar.

Can you believe that shit?  I was in a damned queer bar and had probably got my ass knocked to hell by three of them sodomizin’ ninnies.

Anyways, after hearin’ that, I told the police that I hadn’t been there and I didn’t know who had jumped me.  One lie, one truth.  They don’t seem to care much either because they haven’t had the bartender come to identify me, or anything.

Anyway, that’s how you can get a coat for two bucks in Gloucester, Massachusetts, and if you’re careful and you don’t get careless and you stop to look who might be watchin’ you, you could probably get away with it.  I know I’m sure as hell gonna try again, as soon as I get out of this hospital.  Not at the same place though; that would be stupid, and this time I’ll try to make sure that the bar I go into is, how would you say it?  Safe and straight.

Heh, heh, I’m a comedian today, huh?

So, tell me, what happened to your leg?

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