“What kind of music you play, brother?” asked Tuck, the beloved panhandling fixture outside Starbucks Coffee Shop, after he’d dubbed me a light-metal man.
“Ground Star Shuffles” I replied.
He laughed like I wasn’t serious. That’s what I call the ditties I compose along my routes, my constellation trails. Sometimes I borrow pop songs. “Bauxite (instead of tin) can at my feet, think I’ll kick it down the street.” The ore used to make aluminum sounds better than the metal itself. Not here, though: “Oz never did give nothing to the Alum-man.” I’m not one-dimensional. I sell loose cigarettes, depending on the cost of a pack. I foresee a day when I’ll have to charge a buck a stick. If there’s a parade or similar event in torrid heat and I have some cash I’ll buy a Styrofoam cooler, ice and a case of soda, sell them for a fair markup. No cop’s stopped to check for a vendor license yet. I’ve had lawmen stop for a can and tip me besides.
I’m a Burger King man, easy refills. I’m not one to drop into a fancy caffeine trough like Starbucks, hell no, probably be asked to leave. A nearby dumpster in back of a pizza joint is bauxite good to me. I don’t bother taking the soda and beer cans I collect to a supermarket recycling center for a nickel per. Truth is I was banned from them all when a prick manager had me arrested for borrowing a cart for gathering — first one with four dependable wheels, don’t you know. He spread the word, ended the glass and plastic trade. No relief at small stores; only do business if beverages purchased there.
I’d wired two dented hubcaps I’d found, one to each side of my work buggy: Cadillac and BMW thank you. Sometimes kids in passing cars would have their faces pressed to the window wide-eyed at the sight of me. They probably got a lecture about ending up in my shoes. I am something to look at, six-foot-six; a mountain man, long beard. I never thought I’d be on this end of the aluminum trade. Once I worked in a factory that manufactured The Centipede, an aluminum walker for the elderly and infirm. I attached the rubber tips. The boss was named So-So. His brother Al led me to, according to him, the most important place in the building, when I was hired — a water-fountain that guaranteed brain freeze.
Hell, wasn’t I doing the city a favor ridding the streets of litter? Trash bags hold my cargo now which poses a problem. No cart baby seat to perch a gallon of water. The rope slung over a shoulder digs pretty deep and that big canteen bounces off my bad hip. I’m forced to take more breaks on benches at parks and bus stops than I used to. Good spots for downsizing cans, though. A flatbed truck stacked with compacted cars jogged my memory. I place a hand over the top of the can the other on the bottom and twist. I finish the procedure by using the heels of my hand to collapse it. It was the same method I used at the E.M. Club when I was in the Navy, stationed in Virginia Beach. A guy I knew who’d been to college told me his roommate decorated a wall with stacked Pabst Blue Ribbon cans. He claimed there were six in the sculpture that were full, and he’d chug them when he was sick of his art, or he fell against it drunk. The sixteen-ounce Buds and Old Milwaukee, etc. are a bit of a struggle. The twenty-ounce Aussie Foster bombs are impossible. I stomp them.
My drinking days I never had to deal with slugs and ants except for the hangovers that made me feel like akin to them. I’m able to judge by the feel of the can whether or not there are slimy residents that remind me of leeches, and I have suffered nightmares of them sucking my blood. I heard a couple of guys at the shelter argue about whether or not they are snails lacking shells. I’m always meaning to look that up at the library. I’ve perfected a move that tosses the corpses out the can pouring keyhole. Sometimes I feel like a Major League pitcher working on a flick of the wrist that will benefit a curve ball or slider. I’d never argue against a pie plate of beer in a garden to cut the slug population even though I’ve never had anything but a spider plant in my last studio apartment. Ants on the top of the cans I wipe away, I grant those busy inside immunity.
I remember when I used to be a regular blood donor there was a box at the canteen where tabs from the juice cans could be deposited for some charity deal. I’d always have an apple first followed by cranberry and orange. You wouldn’t think a man could be banned from the blood good deed because he whipped out a trash bag to relieve them of the empty juice cans. It’s a trek down to Barney’s Metal Salvage; cans minimized make for a heavy load. He’s a good guy. I know he’s fair because I found a financial station on my transistor radio that features a current scrap-metal-worth segment. I’ve been tempted to take a taxi back to the Red Rock Junkyard where I slip under the fence like a critter and sleep in the back seat of a car. But not yet, walking unburdened is a high. I keep a sleeping bag in my ’75 Impala with a sprung trunk lock. Also a big sack of dog treats for the German shepherd that roams the area. It took me a few days of tossing them over the fence to win his trust. I call him Caliper. The car seats beat the shelter life by miles. I do go back to St. Sebastian’s (slugs remind me of his arrow wounds) every other day for a shower and a meal. I use mall restrooms for relief and sprucing up. I do offer an occasional prayer to thank the Lord and that bull’s eye saint for being homeless in Rhode Island where I am a stranger instead Bridgeport, CT where I grew up.
One block before the shelter, a woman in a bright flowered dress, hair long black and shiny sitting on a stool that looks homemade, begs. Her mirrored sunglasses are huge. I could shave in them back when that was a habit. Her sign has all the bases covered: “HOMELESS, HUNGARY AND SICK.” Another placard leans against a selection of clay plant pots, “FOR SALE.” She looks like a Sherpa in The National Geographic. I wonder if she dreams of mountains. Did she ever chew coca leaves? I think of her as wise even though I can’t study her eyes, someone who you’d find on a peak climbed to learn one or all the answers. Her assistant, likely a daughter has hair in braids, maybe four of five years old, her rosy cheeks are natural or from the autumn chill. She sits on a trashcan lid, wears a corduroy jacket and holds home plate: PORTRAITS. A new wrinkle. The first visit, she handed me a card saying they were deaf and mute. I remember getting a keychain from a guy with similar afflictions back home. No need for a chain anymore. I drop my usual change, rarely over two bits in the coffee can. The girl opens a loose leaf pad and quickly works five or six colored pencils. She rips the page out, hands it to me. She smiles like there’s no other place she’d rather be, nothing better worth doing as if she’s guessed the number of jellybeans in a fifty-five-gallon jar and won toys for life. My portrait’s not bad, except that I’m all body, good hands I must say, no head, though. Maybe she’s a Sleepy Hollow fan and has the headless horseman in mind. I part with a dime. She hands over her art and curtsies. A yellow floral barrette falls from her hair. I retrieve it for her. Her eyes are thankful and sincere. The duo had to be on the up and up, true signage, true silences. I wonder if llamas wander through her tiny dreams.
It turns out Starbucks Tuck spread the word of our metal exchange. As I walked up Goff Street Hill in the rain with an especially successful haul that felt transformed into the lead, a van made a quick U-turn at the armory, pulled up, lowered a window. “Hey Shuffles, need a lift?” I judged the driver by his vehicle that looked freshly waxed, raindrops beading like mercury spilled from a broken thermometer. The guy in such a nice ride wouldn’t be after singleton smokes. He had deep set eyes, long sideburns and the beginnings of a goatee. A tan snap-brimmed hat tilted to one side of his head. Given the weather, I accepted. He found a place for my bag; drove me to Barney’s then offered to buy lunch at Joyce’s Diner. Her empties never made it to the dumpster. She cashed them in at Pathmark Foods. My benefactor finally introduced himself, Jake. He’d once been a jockey, and it wouldn’t have taken too many guesses from his size. “Order anything you please,” he said. I feasted on meatloaf, three scoops of mashed potatoes with mushroom gravy and creamed corn. I finished off with a generous hunk of coconut cake. Sure, beat the hell out of canned Vienna sausage, franks and beans, Chef Boyardee’s menu and shelter grub.
Over strong coffee, Jake told me about his riding days; the favorite was a multiple stakes winner named Mr. Whimsy. Jake developed a fear of taking horses into tight quarters and was blackballed. Then he made a strange comment. “I’m not into the heavy metal yet, besides wouldn’t be ethical to endanger folks by exposing manholes. I’m a medium metal man, you dig?”
“Somewhere between aluminum and steel” I answered.
“I’m talking aluminum storm windows and doors on the exterior, inside copper piping and occasionally wiring. You can guess by looking at me I’d be happy to have a tall partner.” He’d taken on helpers before. One guy was in jail, a habitual offender. He’d defaced every art book in the public library, used a razor blade to remove masterpieces for panhandling bait and sale, even when provided a good payday. Crazy addiction but fortunately he had another habit, knew how to keep his mouth shut. Jake was a Bob Dylan fan. His favorite line was, “Don’t think twice, it’s all right,” sung or spoken.
Two days later we’re on a casing cruise. Jake pointed out a possibility. He notices what my eyes miss. His mind obligates him to speechify and for my money he sounds like his troubadour hero. ”That TV antenna is dowsing old sitcoms and westerns from the wit wells of motorists, Route 1 both north and south. Its metal braces hugging the chimney are the last limbs of remembering. Fifty years ago that perched mockingbird, sporting up to 350 song imitations might be called a portent of dish networks if anyone could imagine such a thing. The sturdy brick house I bet is a victim of the cold eminent domain, guilty of blocking some politician’s tricky scheme. That used car stationed lower lawn under those trees in need of serious pruning gets a lot of looks. No dollars above or below the phone number on the sign poised back of the windshield like digits a felon might hold for a booking photo. Of course, the lawn is weedy, driveway crumbly. That spanking new sidewalk aids and abets the eyesore effect. I figure some curious children learn that the relic receiving link is an advertising gimmick for a deluxe kitchen mixer, giant bubble wand or the Beanstalk family rug beater. Yes indeed. I’m sharing the story I believe fits. What you got to add, Shuffles?”
“When I was a kid I bought a transistor radio shaped like a rocket ship. A clip-on metal grounded it. The antenna telescoped from the nose. Once I put the clip on high tension wires, best reception on the planet.”
“Ever climb that tower,” he asks.
“Five or ten feet all I dared,” I confessed lying a tad.
“One of those suckers classify as heavy metal, a dream collectible.”
“Ever stomp on cans when you were a kid, Jake, try to get them snug on your shoe heels?” I asked. “Walk around just for the noise of it.”
“No, did punch two holes top sides of coffee cans, slipped through clothesline ropes for handles, a set of mini-stilts. You can see I would have appreciated the lift,” Jake says, laughing.
“When the heck did cans go from tin to aluminum?”
“Sixties sometimes,” Jake reckons.
“Man, I went to a tinsmith exhibit at the Bridgewater Fair once. An angry man, ranting about how tin’s been insulted all its days; ‘tinny’ was the word he hated most. He waved around some beautiful stuff he’d made, especially the jewelry. I think he was sloshed.”
Jake’s eagle eyes kept our wallets healthy and clear of jail, made a nice score off a three deck tenement in Central Falls. I rented a room from a hippie couple, had kitchen privileges and a private bathroom.
Jake wasn’t sure if we’d bother emancipating the antenna and storms, but we would relieve that house of its copper pipes when the night sky allowed he swore. He knows the moon better than the man in it.
It was a chilly autumn night when we hit what I’d started to call the “Mockingbird” house. The sky showed a box cutter slice of moon. A big dumpster a parking spot distance from the front hid the van so well we did take the antenna and storms. Hell, he could have done it alone. Sometimes I believe he was just being charitable by hiring me, just wanted someone to talk and sing to. “I know a guy who could probably get a good price for it at an antique flea market,” I said.
“Think twice,” he replied, sawing it into manageable lengths. The storm windows and the doors were a snap. We piled them in the bed of the pickup whole. Jake knew a guy who liked them that way.
Inside we started in the kitchen. We worked with miner’s lights shining from our foreheads. Jake had schooled me on the ripping sheetrock with minimum noise. We used battery powered saws to cut through the copper pipe. Jake’s knack for working quietly was contagious. I did most of my part standing but had to resort to a milk crate occasionally. I imagined former residents having dinner, parents arguing with teens over what radio station to tune in. The sheetrock wasn’t very thick. Once a rush of water gushed out of a pipe and nearly hit me in the face, nasty stuff. I half-worried about a natural gas explosion but had faith enough in Jake to rip and saw with confidence. When I was working where the refrigerator used to be a bat flew off the top of the only remaining cabinet. A brief shadow appeared on the wall as it winged by my miner’s light. Even though I didn’t believe they’d attack a person’s hair, I was happy to have my Boston Red Sox cap on my head. I’d been meaning to pick up some dust masks but hadn’t gotten around to it. My mouth was rotten with sheetrock dust. It didn’t bother Jake. I did some spitting out a window with missing panes. Every pipe in the bathroom was dry. A fireplace in the living room made me think of Christmas not so much of childhood but a job I had a couple of Decembers selling trees on a corner near the Bridgeport / Fairfield line. We made quick work of the tiny dining room and two bedrooms I figured had been for kids. Just one more and we were golden. My eyes and throat were hurting, and so were my arms.
The door on the master bedroom looked locked to me. I figured we’d break it down like cops in movies. I was wrong. The hardware was missing. Jake made a show of pushing the flimsy door with his little finger. We both jumped back. Mrs. Sherpa and child were sitting on a blanket against pillows braced by a wall. Neither one looked rattled. It was as if we were expected. They did some quick sign language moves that I was happy to see. The child was wearing seahorse-patterned pajamas. Mom was wrapped in a blanket that looked Navajo. The room was ablaze with candlelight, had to be twenty-five or thirty thick ones of many colors. I couldn’t distinguish any particular scent with the dust that lingered in my nostrils. Some flickered, jerked and jumped furiously as if sick of their wick leashes. I looked around for a snuffer. In that tinsmith’s display at the fair, a long handled number like altar boys use was displayed. Were there aluminum versions? There’s a project! Three artificial floral cemetery pieces were piled in a corner next to a variety of clay pots. Did the couple bathe in the river behind Mt. St. Mary’s Cemetery? The bathtub had been smashed to bits. What was I thinking? They probably shelter showered as I used to do. Two grey shower curtains, angelfish design, served as drapes. Some gallon jugs of water were stacked up on the wall they faced. I thought of my shopping cart canteen days and the dorm room with the wall of beer cans. Two sleeping bags were laid out. A sly smile lit the mother’s face. Was it a “Got here first,” claim? Without the sunglasses, she looked, even more, the guru at the top of Mountain of all Knowing. A piece of gold front tooth showed. The girl put on a maroon bathrobe before picking up her pad. I noticed pewter rectangular studs in her ears that could pass for aluminum. She worked quickly, ripped off the page, handed it to Jake. A pretty good job but she’d placed his snap-brimmed hat backward. The startling thing about the drawing was that there was no body and the head was at the bottom of the page. It was as if she’d finished me off with Jake’s head, made him tall! “What now?” I whispered to Jake. He pulled out his wallet, dropped one ten and then another. “Twice and all right,” he said. The girl held up a “Thank You” sign. They both waved goodbye. The candle flames lit mom’s gold tooth like a porch lamp on a dollhouse. I figured with the dumpster out front their boarding days were numbered.
Jake drove around country roads in Seekonk. I worried cops would stop us, find all the copper and storms and want an explanation. He had me open the glove compartment where I found a Bob Dylan Tape, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. He’d bought it that very afternoon. “Don’t Think Twice” over and over. He didn’t sing nor did he complain about my lack of whistling talent. He turned onto a dark dirt road, drove at ten or fifteen miles per hour. I was puzzled but kept my mouth shut. Jake knew the moon; it followed he knew the night just as well. Another turn put us on what was more like a path than a road. When we came to a stop, Jake reached under his seat for a long silver flashlight. After twigs slapped my face like someone trying to bring me out of a faint, the beam shined on what looked like a still. What a copper concoction! Jake opened a wooden box, took out two collapsible stools then went about building a fire. Back at the box, he found two cans of beer, held one to the firelight for me to see, Iron City. I shook his hand. “Fitting and just,” I said, “Iron in aluminum.” We opened them, toasted his brand choice and took long swigs. I hadn’t had alcohol in months, my mind jangled. From the treasure chest, he removed a pint bottle. “Homemade,” he announced. Our drinks became boilermakers. I figured the hooch would make the cans off limits to slugs. Jake talked about the heavens and all the metal floating around from U.S., Russian and other space trespassers. “Something sacred about that stuff,” he said.
“Divine and untouchable,” I added.
“Unless there’s a power out there that’s like us, a gathering energy that comes together someday for better or worse, a nighttime wonder or crash course meteorite.”
I had nothing to add just asked, “How did ‘Don’t Think Twice’ get to be your favorite song?” Maybe he’d gush about a wife or girlfriend he’d thrown over.
“No favorite,” he explained. “It’s like our quiet friends back there. The words are squatters in my head.”
Our Iron City cans were done. “Fair enough,” I said, holding the empties up to the sky as if a silent lyric.
Thomas M. McDade is a former plumbing industry computer programmer / analyst residing in Fredericksburg, VA, previously CT & RI. He is married; no kids or pets.
He is a graduate of Fairfield University, Fairfield, CT. McDade’s a veteran of two tours of duty in the U. S. Navy, serving ashore at the Fleet Anti-Air Warfare Training Center, Dam Neck, Virginia Beach, and at sea on the USS Mullinnix DD-944 and USS Miller DE/FF 1091.