Winos share their Mickeys, pint bottles of port wine, which are swaddled in brown paper bags not to deceive the law but from kindness.
  • Winos share their Mickeys, pint bottles of port wine, which are swaddled in brown paper bags not to deceive the law but from kindness.
  • Mary Jane Seltzer

Except for his gap-toothed, gummy smile and his hair, which was tufted. Topsy-style, with the help of rubber bands, Jeffrey might have passed for a young Harry Belafonte. He was tall, slender, and handsome; his skin was the same rich cafe-au-lait brown. Even his manner of speaking, as I came to discover, was melodic, cade need, although I never heard him sing. When I first saw Jeffrey he was dead drunk, sprawled prone on the scuffed sod of Horton Plaza, beneath the uncritical palms, his eyes shut, nose snotty, a foolish, blissful grin splitting his face. One of the two brown-uniformed policemen who stood over him broke an ammonia ampule and held it to Jeffrey's nostrils. That opened his eyes. The officers lifted him to his feet, not ungently, and with minimal assistance from their burden bore him off to the patrol car. I could see that Jeffrey was trying to be helpful, but they were a long time stuffing him into the back seat. The departure had a certain dignity—Jeffrey, rigidly upright, straining for balance, the two liveried servants up front. I was reminded of a pillar of society being driven to his club.

By the time this incident occurred I was already something of a Horton Plaza regular, having arrived in San Diego with no purpose, with too little money and too much time. The Plaza was convenient to the downtown hotel where I had taken a room without bath, and it presented the only society that, at the time, I felt would enfold me unjudgmentally. There are three subcultures in the Plaza: Resigned and rootless old men, like me, who want no trouble and make none, who come there to ruminate and warm their bones; the winos, sharing their Mickeys, pint bottles of port wine, which are swaddled in brown paper bags not to deceive the law but from kindness (that way. no one knows and so need feel no guilt when he takes the last swallow left). They are considerate and thoughtful men who care for their own, after the manner of medical corpsmen administering morphine under fire. And. finally, the street preachers, profaning gospel against the noise of traffic, to deaf ears.

By Plaza standards the incident was so commonplace that my acquaintance with Jeffrey would have ended there, without echo, had he not reappeared a few mornings later, Richard and I were playing al fresco chess, with pieces so small that tweezers would have been useful. Despite his years, half of mine. Richard belonged to the same stratum as I. He lived on welfare and had no plans. Or if he did he kept them to himself. He kept everything to himself: his surname, his antecedence, his address. His eyes would not meet mine. When I suggested coffee he let me pay. When he suggested it he bought his own cup. Not mine. Not once.

“That's Jeffrey,” he said, as the latter approached our game. “You could do him a favor.”

“What favor?”

“Stake him, so he can get out of Dago. ” “Why should I do that?" I said. “Why don’t you stake him? I’m not much better off than you are."

“For your own good."

I found the statement insufferably patronizing. But before I could coin a withering response Jeffrey was there, slack and graceful as a cat. his mouth yawed in the all-embracing smile that was his signature. He was dressed in his unvarying costume: a heavy wool mackinaw, bluejeans faded to the color of a robin’s egg, and cracked brown leather laceless shoes a size too big, worn without socks. He seemed sober.

“Take the winner?" he asked. "I’m champion." It was a boast he made each time we played in the days that followed. Without a word. Richard tipped over his king, resigning a game he was losing anyway. "So long," I called spitefully after his retreating figure; by then I had met and parted from Richard on dozens of occasions without once hearing from him a hello or good-bye.

Jeffrey took his place and we arranged the pieces for a game. Out of courtesy I offered him the advantage of white, which makes the opening move. Jeffrey refused.

“No, sah," he said. “I'm black. I’m always black. I never gonna be nothing but black."

I advanced my king's pawn and we exchanged a few moves.

“I saw you the other day when the cops took you away," I said. “They didn't keep you long."

“Wouldn’t 'member that." said Jeffrey. “I taken eight falls since I come here from L.A. I mean falls; I don’ mean no detox stuff."

“What kind of falls?"

“Well, like, stealin’. Shopliftin'. Vagrant. They want you, man, they co-lek you." There was no heat in his voice. The subject bored him, and he changed it. “Trouble is, you kin always git some wine. There’s always some dude who'll pass you his Mickey if you ain't got one yourself. Food's different. Food costs money, man, and I ain't got none of that.”

“How do you eat then?”

“I eat Mickeys. That’s what I eat. When I ain’t got a Mickey I eat shit."

His moves were careless, and I easily beat him. We sat in the sun. On request he told me that he was twenty-three, a Baptist minister’s son from Alabama; he had knocked about the country for four years, unemployed, unemployable.

“I knows my Bible, but you can’t sell that,” he said. “My old daddy, he rammed it into me every chance he git. I had me a Bible once. Took it as far as Yuma. They busted me in Yuma and they never did give it back. What kind of law would want the Holy Book? I never figured that one out. They give me back my smokes and fourteen cents in change, but they kep’ my Holy Book. Why they do that? My shoelaces and my belt, they kep’ them, too.”

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