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.”
“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.”
I invited him to quote from the Scriptures.
“Well, lessee now. Revelations. That's my favorite book. Maybe because it’s the shortest. Ole David, he's got the key, see" — his voice took on the solemnity appropriate to quotation—“ ‘he opens and no one shall shut. He shuts and no one shall open.' You think he talkin' about a door, man, but you wrong. Got a cigarette?”
I gave him one. He caressed it with loving fingers, a tailor-made, a prize, and put it away.
“Then there’s this here one," he went on. “ ‘The harlots and the publicans will enter Heaven first.' But that's shit, man."
“You don't believe in God?"
Jeffrey considered before answering. “Iffen you got a drink and can't drink it, iffen you got a dollah and can't spend it, iffen you got a boss and can’t ride it—well, man, that's the way it is with me and God." He pointed at the Pacific Milestone, a five-foot stele dedicated by Calvin
Coolidge in 1923. “I kin see that stone and I kin touch it. But I can't see God and I can’t touch him neither.”
“So you don't believe in God.”
“Oh, yeah, man, I believe. But do He?"
Richard returned with two packets of Bugler tobacco and gave one to Jeffrey, who accepted the gift without thanks and expertly rolled three cigarettes, moistening the paper with a coral tongue. We smoked. Presently he said:
“Anybody got thirty-five cents? I need me some wine." While Richard fished his pocket I gave Jeffrey a quarter and a dime. Richard produced a fat fistful of coins and poured them into Jeffrey’s pink palm without counting their sum.
“I suppose now you want your thirty-five cents back.” Jeffrey said to me. I said I didn't, and he wandered off for wine. I expected him to come back, but he didn't.
The next time I saw him was late of an afternoon, and he was drunk again. Even though the sun had not set, there was a damp chill to the air; a hostile wind ruffled the feathers of the pigeons on the Plaza fountain, that muttered like old men with no thoughts. From Richard I knew that Jeffrey had no pad. Lacking identity papers of any kind and a month's paid rent receipt, he could not qualify for welfare.
“Going to be a cold night," I said. “Where you going to sleep?”
Jeffrey grinned. “Gonna sleep in Chicago tonight," he said. “Or maybe Frisco. Or Memphis. Warmer in Memphis." He caught the disbelief in my look and laughed.
“You think I'm kiddin' man? Down Second Avenue, that's where the Greyhound buses sleep nights, in the yard there. And that's where I sleep, too. Chicago Greyhound, Frisco Greyhound—any place I like.”
But how did he get in?
“Ain't no way to lock a bus. man. You ever see a bus driver unlock a bus with a key? How you think he git in? He git in same way I git in. He pry open the door with his fingers."
“But what if they catch you in the morning?"
“They'll call the law.”
“Then what happen?”
“They put you in jail.” ‘
“And then what happen?”
At last I caught on. “Then they give you a free feed and a free Hop."
Jeffrey only grinned.
Some time passed before I saw him again. I had gone to the Plaza to read a stale newspaper abandoned in my hotel lobby, and I saw Richard and Jeffrey standing some distance off. I deliberately ignored them. For weeks now Richard had been prodding me to stake Jeffrey so that he could leave town. I was tired of the campaign, and I was tired of refusing.
Richard broke away from Jeffrey and came up to me, a look of determination on his bearded face.
“I want to know what you're going to do about Jeffrey. ”
I kept a sullen silence, which grew. Then I took my currency out and peeled off a ten-dollar bill. Richard did not take it.
“Can you make it twenty?”
“No I can't. I can't even afford this.”
Richard went away and returned with Jeffrey. I passed the bill to him. He took it. It dangled from his fingers like a rumpled guidon on a still day. Nobody said anything.
“What are you going to do now?” I said to Jeffrey.
“Well. I wanna git to El Paso and after that Florida."
“It's warm there. I don’t like cold weather. ”
“No warmer than here," I said ungraciously. I regretted my gift — which was no more a gift than the coin you drop on the red velvet of the church collection plate. It was a tip, conscience money, an extortion in the name of Christian charity.
“I kin git a job in Tampa, working on the docks," Jeffrey said. And that was an offering, too. His gratitude.
“Ten bucks won’t get you out of this county. ”
Jeffrey folded the bill into a jacket pocket and he and Richard left together. They talked a while, and then Jeffrey was gone. I never saw him again.
I never saw Richard again either. Out of the corner of my eye I saw him heading back towards me. But whatever he had to say — and I could guess — I didn't want to hear. I rose and walked away from him; walked out of Horton Plaza and didn't go back. I can't. What if I saw Jeffrey there?
John Koffend was a writer and editor for Time magazine, who after a divorce, quit Time and went to American Samoa. He wrote the book, A Letter to My Wife (1972, Saturday Review Press), which was excerpted for the article in New York Magazine, titled "A Letter to My Wife on the Break-up of Our Marriage," Apr. 10, 1972. Koffend died not long after he wrote this story for the Reader.