Chapter 2 - A Street Named Home
Nobody knew how Chuck's only friend Rubby ended up on the street. Really, it didn't matter. Everybody had their own life story. Sometimes it was even partly true.
Some folks said ol' Rub used to sing with a soul group back in the sixties. Others said he was nothing but a bum his whole life. But whatever happened in the past, Rubby's reality had years ago become the streets of Hollywood.
The wizened oldster looked like a raisin in rags, but his pride was intact. Sometimes he used to clean toilets and sweep floors to earn a few bucks.
"I'll do odd jobs in your store for a little bit of money, sir," Rubby meekly offered to the boss of a ratty little porn shop. "I may be a little old, but I'll work real hard for an honest dollar."
The ferret-faced manager impatiently fiddled with his clip-on tie. "Sorry old timer, but I've got all the cheap help I can use. There's lots of kids that can do the grunt work faster than you can. Maybe they don't speak English so good, but what does it take to sweep a floor or unload a truck? Give it up Grandpa and go back to your flophouse."
"What you talkin' about, flophouse? I got my pride. Only losers live in a flophouse, and I'm no loser. I'm an urban survivalist, that's what I am. Now you keep me in mind if you're ever needin' any help here, 'cause I'm your man."
Undaunted, Rubby sauntered up Hollywood Boulevard. Years of defeat gave him a slouch that made him look and act shorter than his medium height. His long, tattered coat was too heavy for the hot days, but it kept him warm at night. There was no place to store it except on his back, so he put up with the discomfort.
He got the same answer up and down each street. Most jobs for the hard working but unskilled old black man had gradually dried up as the suits realized they could get slave labor from illegal Central American aliens.
Besides, Rubby's vision wasn't what it used to be. Nobody wanted him stumbling around and getting hurt on their property. A smart lawyer could make himself rich that way.
Rubby usually relied on the kindness of people on the sidewalk to give him their spare change. He'd sing familiar songs with amazing beauty, despite his raspy baritone. The tourists loved it and often tossed coins at him. Sometimes even a whole dollar bill would come his way.
He'd rent a room for a couple weeks each month when his Social Security check came. It wasn't enough money to pay for a whole month's rent and food too, so Rubby ate when he could eat, and drank when he couldn't eat. Food is damned expensive, but not as expensive as rent. For Rubby, it wasn't a choice between alcohol and rent. His entire Social Security check was about the same size as the price of the cheapest room in town. If he rented, he couldn't eat. If he ate, he couldn't pay rent.
Rubby used to brag to other people on the street, "I outsmarted 'em all. I'm not like those losers over there." He'd point across the street, even if there was nobody on the other side. "They bought liquor and now they can't afford food."
Rubby could buy food and still have money left over for alcohol; isopropyl rubbing alcohol. He could get a pint for under a buck. It packs a kick too. A fortified wine or sherry is maybe 25% alcohol, tops; but a connoisseur of isopropyl could find a nice 90% alcohol in just about any store. It's a great buzz, just as long as you don't value your eyesight. Rubby had already seen more than enough during his life, so his vision didn't mean very much to him.
A lot of the guys wouldn't associate with Rubby. They said he gave them all a bad image. It seemed that he was always the one the TV news teams filmed during their annual It's Awful Being Homeless series. A lot of the Nielsen families would get a look at Rubby's time battered face and write off everybody on the street as lowlife.
Chuck saw Rubby from a different angle because he still held onto those old values he'd learned in grade school. "Take care of your brother. Every person is important to our democracy. America's greatness comes from the strong protecting the weak." Chuck's life had exposed it as a load of bullshit, but his gut still wanted to believe the valued platitudes.
That's probably why Chuck hit it off with old Rub right from the start. Chuck had nothing except a need to take care of someone;
that human desire to help the helpless. Despite Rubby's protests to the contrary, nobody needed help more than the Isopropyl King of Hollywood.
When Rubby was cold, Chuck found good spots where they could both spend the night. If money was tight, the old guy was always welcome to share whatever Chuck could get his hands on.
In return, the old man told great stories about people and places that nobody believed an ancient victim like Rubby could have ever seen in person. He'd treat Chuck to private acapella performances of dozens of classic soul songs.
The two friends lived by their wits in a hostile concrete and glass jungle, human counterparts to the gorillas who forage the few remaining natural jungles and plains in Africa. Unlike their jungle counterparts, these urban gorillas are neither actively hunted nor legally protected. If it weren't for the occasional bit of mail, the government probably wouldn't even acknowledge their existence.
It's tough to get mail in the urban jungle if you don't have a fixed address. Chuck had no problem with it, since he didn't want anybody to know where he was. However, Rubby needed a place he could receive his checks. Government agencies don't like to send checks to a post office box or General Delivery, so he turned to a new type of service. It was something he'd never seen in all his years in polite society; a private mailbox rental outfit.
The place was nothing but a shabby storefront with dozens of little metal doors outfitted with locks and tiny windows. It looked like a post office box lobby, but it was better. For one thing, anybody with enough money could rent one without the formal ID the post office requires. But more important, people who see the address think it's a suite or apartment number instead of a six by six inch mailbox. Rubby had Suite 692 at the little postal place, and he checked his tiny cubicle for mail and forms every week.
"Come on son, I'm gonna visit my suite," Rubby called out as he roused Chuck from a concrete dream. "Today's Social Security day and I'm lookin' for a little love from my Uncle Sam."
The younger man muttered unhappily, but eventually got up. Staggering as he stretched, he slowly awakened as he followed Rubby down the alley to the sidewalk. "You know, I hate to admit it, but I look forward to mail day. It's scary to think that this is about as interesting as my life gets."
"Well, hang onto your shorts son, here's where it gets real excitin'. We're about to go inside and open the box."
Rubby's check dutifully waited for him in the box, as did another government form. But most unexpected was a squarish, hand-addressed envelope. "My, my. Bless my soul, a letter from my little niece. Let's find out what this is all about." Rubby carefully opened the envelope, not even tearing the delicate paper. "Hmm...uh huh...mmmm...my my."
"Rubby, for christsakes, what's it say?"
"It seems my precious Nichelle wants to come out and visit me for her summer vacation. She's my little sister's youngest daughter... ten she is now. She says she'd like to stay at my house and take care of me 'cause she loves me and worries 'bout her favorite uncle bein' all alone out here in California."
Chuck looked amazed. "But how does a little kid like that know you? You told me you haven't been back home in almost twenty years.
"And I haven't, but I write to my little sister every now and then, just to keep in touch. She was always my favorite. Never had much use for the rest of my folks. Most of 'em didn't have any use for me until I started makin' money; then they pretended they didn't know me when times was tough again. But my little sister Rosie always thought I was the greatest, no matter how my life was goin'. That's why I made a point to send letters to her, no matter what.
Little Nichelle came along late. Rosie's other kids were already grown and gone, so she was special. I guess I was lonely too. Never had any youngsters of my own, and no grandchildren either, so I kind of adopted Nichelle. I have a few pictures, even though I've never laid eyes on her. Here, let me show you."
Chuck politely held the wallet photos as Rubby talked. He heard how much the old man needed to feel like a part of his family, even a family thousands of miles removed. "So if you've never seen each other, how come she's sending you love letters?"
"You don't have to be with somebody to love 'em. I've always sent Nichelle birthday cards with a five dollar bill in 'em; and Christmas presents too. Sometimes I even call her on the phone and talk to her on special occasions. Yeah, she's a little princess." Rubby smiled as he tenderly folded the photos back into his wallet. He carefully slipped the card into his pocket, and walked away from the mailbox place with Chuck.
"I take it your sister doesn't know that you don't have a home half the time."
"Son, I haven't told Rosie about a lot of my life, and I don't plan to. I want her to keep thinkin' of me as a star, the way I was when she was growin' up; and I want little Nichelle to respect me. They don't need to know what's happened to me in my old age. It wouldn't do nobody no good. It'd hurt 'em a lot."
"So to them, you're just a rich, retired uncle who lives in Hollywood," Chuck mused. " Well, why don't you go back there for a visit. If they like you that much, they'd take you in wouldn't they?"
Rubby's eyes filled with a mournful, distant look. "No, I can't never let them see me like this. Look at me; look at my clothes. If I spent the money it takes to get a bus ticket home, I'd be broke when I got there. They'd know everything I told 'em was a lie and they'd never trust me again. I can't have that. Now, let's go get this check cashed so I can get me a bottle and rent a fine hotel room for a couple weeks."
Chuck adroitly changed the subject. "Nice weather we're having, don't you think, Mr. Johnson?"
"Listen son, I do appreciate your bein' round when I do this."
"Why? Nobody ever mails you anything heavy, so it's not like you need my back."
"That's a fact. I hope I'm never so lame I need to rely on your back to keep me goin'." Rubby flashed his friendly evil grin at Chuck as he continued. "It's the other part that counts. I don't expect anybody's gonna try an' steal my money with you around. It used to happen to me before I met you, but they don't try it when you're beside me, at least not in the daytime."
Chuck let out a surprised laugh. "Hell, I've been robbed more times than I can count in this neighborhood. You've picked the wrong bodyguard."
"The way I see it, they leave me alone because you're my friend. Even if you wouldn't fight for yourself, the punks figure you'd fight to help your friend, so they leave us both alone. Don't knock it, it works."
The logic impressed Chuck, and he realized that Rubby was right. "Come to think of it, nobody has tried to rob either one of us when we're together. Sometimes you amaze me Rub."
They rounded the corner and stood in front of the check cashing store. Chuck opened the door for Rubby, then followed him in.
The dim place was about as friendly as a prison rape, with a similar cast of characters. Rubby headed for the shortest line. "It's always busy here when the government checks get mailed. I guess I'm not the only one who brings his Social Security checks down here."
"So why don't you just get a bank account? Then you could wait around where they at least have a guard." Having no source of income. Chuck didn't understand the intricacies of street finance.
"For one thing, I don't trust banks; never did. For another thing, banks don't trust me. They won't let me start an account 'cause I don't have enough cash. I tell 'em I'm gonna deposit my check to open the account and they want my driver's license, my credit cards and my blood. If I didn't know better, I'd say banks just didn't like my kind."
"So why come here? These guys charge you just to cash a government check. Hell, take it to the bank and cash it. It's a government check, they've gotta know it's good."
"Well, you're right, the banks used to cash 'em for me a few years back. But they started gettin' pickier and pickier about it. Finally, they stopped cashin' 'em for anybody who didn't have an account with 'em. I tried a couple of times, but they wanted all kinds of ID and said it'd cost me a ten dollar service charge. It just ain't worth it to me to fight with bank managers every time I get a check. These boys make it easier, and they don't charge me no monthly charges either."
The window was free, so Rubby stepped up to the bulletproof glass and conducted business through the slit at the bottom. He dug out his check cashing card and slipped it into the tray along with his check.
The sleazy man on the other side slapped the card and check onto a security camera, then snapped a picture of the papers and Rubby's mug. It was all without fanfare, and Rubby never even realized he was being photographically superimposed onto his check and ID card. According to the inconspicuous sign behind the counter, it was all for his protection; not that Rubby could have read the tiny scrawl anyway.
The bills and coins slipped back through a slot that was too small to stick a gun through, and too curved to offer any hope of a decent ricochet. It wasn't a very promising arrangement for a bandit. In fact, it wasn't a very promising arrangement for an honest man either.
Rubby smiled and thanked the cretinous creature as he grabbed the cash, minus two percent for the money changer. He slipped into the corner of the store for a moment and turned his back to the onlookers, then reappeared a few seconds later. "Now let's go pay the rent, Charles."
Chuck obediently followed along, ready to jump to Rubby's aid, but hoping he wouldn't be needed.
A cop foot patrol approached on their side of Hollywood Boulevard. Chuck and Rubby put on their friendliest faces. They were met by the look exterminators give cockroaches. Chuck averted his eyes while Rubby deepened his habitual slouch. This seemed to please the officers, who turned their attention to some especially slinky lingerie in a nearby shop window.
As the police receded into the background, Chuck noticed a particularly stereotypical gaggle of Midwestern tourists. He stopped for a second to arrange himself to use the Agent Orange veteran scam.
"Just what in the name of Hector are you doin'?" Rubby demanded.
"You just got paid, now it's my turn. A few representatives of America's patriotic heartland are straight ahead. They're always good for a couple of bucks if I'm the first one to get to 'em. You just stay here for a second and I'll be right back."
"You'll do no such thing. You're out here to help protect me an* my cash, remember? I'm not about to stand out here all alone while you're out workin the crowd. Now straighten up and fly right."
Chuck saw the iron determination on Rubby's wrinkled face and caved in like a plastic truck ramp. "Sorry, I just got carried away by the opportunity. Let's finish this mission Mr. Johnson."
A faint smile intersected the wrinkles on Rubby's face as the men continued their stroll up the boulevard. The tourists were intrigued by the pair. A sandy blond man with a slight paunch and nice manners stopped them. "Excuse me, but we just got to Hollywood from Iowa and we were wondering if we could take your pictures."
It would have been tough to decide whether Chuck or Rubby laughed first or loudest, but it was Chuck who responded directly. "Well, hell, why not. Just by luck, you picked a couple of the most interesting people you're gonna meet here in Hollywood. My friend here is Mr. Robby Johnson, one of the original Little Rascals. And me, I was the boy who starred in Lassie back in the '50s."
Two or three of the tourists seemed quite impressed by the story as the polite man brought a small camcorder up to his shoulder.
However, one smallish woman voiced her reservations petulantly. "Wait a minute, I thought you were killed in Viet Nam."
As the camera whined, the amateur director demanded, "Keep talking about your careers, the two of you, and be lifelike."
That was Rubby's cue. "I shouldn't tell you this, but back when LBJ was president, I was a singer. I started out singin' professional back in Georgia in the early '50s. I was just a dumb kid then, fresh off the farm..."
The Iowa contingent was already antsy when Chuck broke in. "An amazing life he's led, too; but that's all for the biography. We thank you folks very much, and if you'd care to make a small contribution to the Hollywood Fund for the Homeless, I'd be glad to accept it on their behalf."
The polite man looked amused and relieved. He lowered the camcorder and fished a five spot out of his wallet. "I've gotta tell you two, you're the most entertaining thing we've seen yet in Hollywood." He handed the bill to Chuck as he continued. "By the way, can you show us where the Chinese Theater is? We left the map in the station wagon."
Chuck pointed them west and said, "Just keep walking up this side of the street until the sidewalk's clogged with people taking each other's picture and you'll be there."
The polite man thanked Chuck and Rubby as the Iowa group headed off for the fabled Hollywood, cameras firmly in hand.
Meanwhile, Rubby and Chuck got back to their mission in the Hollywood of reality. They avoided their usual back alley shortcuts in deference to Rubby's cash, but the walk still only took a few minutes. They headed couple blocks east on Hollywood, then a block south toward Sunset. Their destination sported the skeleton of a sign that just displayed the peeling white word Hotel. A nervous neon tube snaked up the center of each letter.
Chuck loitered outside as Rubby made his way across the barf-dyed lobby carpet to the pathetic registration desk. The hotel's woodwork appeared untouched by man or pest for at least fifty years. Unemployed termites would take one look at the place and move on in dismay.
Other than Rubby, only one life form was visible in the place. If you didn't look too closely, you might mistake him for human. It was the wizened hotel clerk.
"Yo, Rubby, good to see ya' again. I take it the ol' check was on time again this month." Despite how well his appearance matched his execrable surroundings, the man liked most of the old timers who lived in his hotel.
"Dom, you old fart, why haven't they arrested you yet?" Rubby chided.
"Arrest me? Hell, they was here lookin' for you. So are ya' set for the month this time, or what? The boss raised the rent again, you know," he related sadly.
"So what reason did the old thief give this time? Did he replace the roaches with somethin' better? Or maybe he made the walls thinner?"
"Yeah, both a' those. An' there's more light in most a' the rooms now 'cause he had me take down the rest a' the curtains."
"Sounds like it's time to find another hotel."
"You know I'd tell ya' about one that's better for the money, but there ain't one, least not around here. Everybody else raised their price, same day they found out ours went up. If ya' spend what ya' been spendin', I can only give ya' two weeks."
Rubby looked grim, but shrugged acceptingly. "I guess the Good Lord just keeps testin' me to see what I'm made of. Well, I'm not sure what I'm made of, but whatever it is, it gets a little tougher and a little bit stronger every month."
"You're not alone, paisano. I almost can't afford it here anymore myself. The rent goes up faster than my pension, but so far, the boss gives me just a big enough raise so I can meet the new price. If I didn't have this job, I guess I'd have to follow you around on the street a couple weeks a month. But enjoy it while you can. Boss says he's tryin' to sell this dump to a guy who wants to rip it down and put up some high hat apartments. If he does, you an' me are both on the street."
Rubby started to reminisce about the times before his street life. "Now you 'n me both remember when times was fat here. My checks was enough to keep me here full time, and we didn't have punks kickin' in doors and beatin' people up for no reason at all. I tell you, the whole world's gone crazy the last few years, 'cept maybe me and you, and I'm not sure about you."
"It's got me bad scared. If they close this place, I'm better off dead. I can't live out there like you. I'm a tough old bird, but I ain't that tough." The fear showed in Dom's tortured old eyes.
Rubby looked at him soberly. "The street's not so bad if you know how to use it. It's the learnin' how that can get you killed if you're not careful and real lucky. Livin' here's not much safer than out there anyway. You'd do just fine if you had to. Besides, Chuck and me'd show you the ropes."
"Yeah, where is that guy anyway. Have ya' snuck him upstairs ta' use the shower yet today?"
Rubby grinned. "You know I'd never break the rules and have a guest without tellin' you, Dom."
"Yeah, right, I forgot. Personally, I don't mind. In fact, the more street people gettin' a bath, the better. But the boss'd have my nuts for a necklace if he found out they were doin' it here an' not payin'. If ya' sneak him in, don't let me catch ya'."
"You haven't so far."
"Yeah, thanks to some good moves on my part. You guys are about as sneaky as a Sherman tank. Just be more careful, okay?"
"Well, I'm not sayin' I ever did before, but you got my word I'll be real careful from now on." Rubby smiled and Dom smiled back as if they shared a powerful secret. The fact is, they did, but maybe trust isn't exactly a secret anyway.
"Seein' as bein' clean's important to me, and seein' as I can only have a room two weeks a month, what you say I pay for this week, and the week after next. At least then it's only a week between baths, and that's a lot better than most of these folks can manage."
"Hell Rub, I've got people who live here full time who go a lot longer than a week between baths. The boss himself does, and he lives in a big house in Westwood. Stay here a week, stay away a week, come back the next week; it's good with me. Set it up how ya' want it, an' ya' got it...just so the boss man gets his money in cash, up front."
Rubby dug a wad of fresh bills out of his underwear and tossed it onto the moonscaped countertop. "Take the rent out, and keep the rest safe for me, okay?"
"Is that where ya' stash your cash these days?" Dom asked incredulously.
"As a rule, it's about the only place they don't check if somebody rolls me when I'm sleepin'. I figure if I keep a couple bucks in my pockets, they'll just take that and stop lookin for more."
"I'll be dipped in shit. You're a sneaky ol' goat, I'll give you that." Dom hesitated, then added, "I can't guarantee the hotel safe's as safe as your underwear, but at least it's insured. Besides, ya' got me ta' guard the safe. After all, that's where my cash goes too."
"Now that we're done with the formal stuff, where's my key? I need somethin' to sleep in before it gets dark, you hear what I'm sayin?"
Dom slapped the counter. When he lifted his hand, a key appeared among the pocks and grooves of the hideous old wood.
"Same room as last time. Nice and close ta' the shower, just in case you try ta' sneak somebody in who ain't supposed ta' be here." Dom grinned and it made his face look like somebody had slashed a horizontal half moon into a giant, partly rotted potato.
"Now you know I'd never try a thing like that, Dom. Especially not until about nine o'clock tonight. Now you be careful 'bout how you spend that money of mine. I'll be back to check up on you in a little while." Rubby slipped the key into his shoe and went out to collect Chuck, who had deserted his post at the hotel in favor of the sidewalk next to a nearby restaurant.
Chuck saw his pal come out the hotel and shouted, "Hey Rubby, I'm down here." It was useless to wave, since the old man couldn't see that far anymore. Fortunately, Rubby's hearing was still excellent. His eardrums were happy that he got out of the music business before the age of high powered amplifiers.
"Charles Jackson, you are harder to keep track of than a bad girl's panties. What're doin' up here, as if I didn't know."
"Hey, I saw some tourists come out of this place and I decided to help them get rid of some of their guilt by giving me money. It's a fair exchange. When we're done, they feel better, and I feel better. It's what they call your 'Win-Win Situation'. So are you all set with a room?"
"Yeah, but they raised the rent again. I get one less day a month for the same money. I tell ya', they either gotta start sendin' me more money or else take a few days outa' each month. I'd go to another hotel, but I'm tired of changin' every month. It's just too confusin', and they all cost about the same anyway. I'm just lucky I'm an old man. If I had to live much longer, I just plain couldn't afford it."
"Take it easy Rub, you've got a lot of good years left. Things are gonna get better, you'll see."
"Son, things is alright now. They're just expensive, that's all. Besides, nobody's gonna make it better for me. Those fancy politicians and lawyers don't even know we exist. They don't care one lick about us. We gotta' take care of ourselves. Uncle Sammy ain't gonna send me bigger checks just to keep me alive. He's busy spendin' it on other folks. I ain't complainin', I'm just tellin' it like it is."
"Well, I for one, didn't vote for any of the assholes that won last time. Not that it really would have made much difference which asshole won and which one lost. My point is, none of 'em give a rat's ass about people living on the edge the way we do, and they're not going to until we grab 'em by the nuts and make 'em say Mommy."
Rubby stepped away from Chuck slightly and gave him the stare of disapproval. "Son, you can grab 'em wherever you wanna' grab 'em, but you ain't gonna change 'em if the rest of the people aren't right there with you, squeezin' along. I've voted in every election they've had since the day it was legal for me and my people to vote. I'm proud to be a registered voter, but it makes me sad to see how heartless the whole country got in my lifetime.
Don't go blamin' our system for our problems. If you wanna' see who's flushin' this country down the toilet, you look at the people walkin' down this here street, and the ones in that restaurant; and don't forget the one you see when you look in a mirror. We're doin' it to ourselves son. I figure some part of us likes it or we'd stop. Now let's go get us some sandwiches and somethin' to drink before I get real upset."
The younger man shut his mouth, joined Rubby, and started to consider the possibility that his senior partner might be right. They aimed their toes toward The Submarine Dive, Home of the Fattest Subs this side of Hollywood. Nobody knew what the slogan meant, but everybody agreed it was catchy.
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