Chapter 11 - Tattered Crusaders
Two years on the streets of Los Angeles had toughened Chuck's body, but he paid for it with strips cut from his soul. He knew he had to get away from his memories and start his life in the present again.
The horror he'd lived since his Christmas in Panama had to stop. He'd moped for months since Rubby died. The ennui of continuous self-pity really chewed at his guts.
It was an unusually beautiful Saturday. The mood of the whole city was too cheery to allow anybody room for gloom. Chuck got so agitated that he forced himself back onto the sidewalks among the crowds. As he hit the comer of Hollywood and Cahuenga, he spotted a pair of middle-aged men on their way out of the bank. They seemed to be good friends, maybe lovers, and they were ripe for the harvest. He moved in when they stopped to wait for the pedestrian light.
"Gentlemen, welcome to Hollywood. Is this your first visit to the Home of the Stars?"
The closest man acted as if Chuck was invisible, but the other guy, the one with the nicest tan, seemed intrigued and spoke up. "No, we're locals. Sometimes we just come down here to watch the people come and go. They're really quite interesting."
"Yeah, lots of neat people, that's for sure. Take me; I'm working as an extra right now, you know, between real jobs. We filmed all morning and then they told us we wouldn't get fed 'cause the catering got all screwed up. I didn't bring any money today. Extras always get fed by the production company, but you probably know that if you're locals." Chuck checked them both out with a glance and instantly realized that he was right with his hunch that they were show business people.
The not as nicely tanned man spoke up angrily. "Damn those people. It's hard enough to make a living in this town without the studios screwing the talent. You should take it up with SAG."
"Well, that's what I said too, but they promised to make it up to us tomorrow. I guess that's okay, but I'm out of luck today. I don't suppose you gentlemen could spare a couple of bucks so I could get some fried chicken?" Knowing the value of visual aids with any presentation, Chuck pointed across the street to the take-out restaurant.
Both men reached for their back pockets in unison. As each leafed through his money, the nicely tanned one spoke up, dismayed. "Oh, I don't have ones. George, can you lend me a couple bucks?"
The other inventoried his cash. "Sorry Dan, I only have two singles."
"Okay, tell you what, you give me the ones and I'll give him a five."
A rounded, black man in ministerial garb grinned and nodded when he passed the three men working out their finances. George handed Chuck the fiver, which made everybody happy.
"Thanks you two, I appreciate the help. We've got to take care of each other in this business, right?" The pair smiled and walked away on the green light.
Food talk made Chuck hungry. He'd criminally neglected his diet for quite awhile, and his appearance showed it. He hopped across Hollywood Boulevard and ordered the two dollar chicken lunch special.
He had an unwritten agreement with the restaurant; he didn't eat inside the store, and they didn't call the police. Chuck squatted against the nearby chain link fence to eat his lunch. The fence surrounded a pit. It looked as though the building that once lived on that lot decided to move away, leaving only its basement walls to mark the spot.
A high pitched rumble and clatter drew Chuck's gaze up the sidewalk. It was Bear pushing a shopping cart filled with his worldly possessions. Bear was a big man; not only burly, but fat. A wet spot leered out from the crotch of his pants. His mane of hair and a long beard made him look a bit like Grizzly Adams, which is how he got his nickname.
Chuck called out to him. "Hey, Bear, I haven't seen you in awhile, whatcha' been up to?"
The big man stopped his cart and leaned in Chuck's general direction. "I've been up to nothin', but every time I see you lately, you don't talk to me. I don't know if you're mad, doped up, drugged out, hung over, or what."
"Yeah, well sorry. I've been kind of bummed out lately. But I think I'm finally coming out of it. It's time for something new." Chuck changed mental gears as he crunched the drumstick. "So how have you been? Is that a new shopping cart."
Bear beamed proudly as he spoke. "Yeah, the old one wouldn't drive straight no more so I traded it in at the grocery. It's gettin' real hard to find a shopping cart that drives straight. I checked 'em all out in the parking lot, and this one's the best. I don't know how those people buyin' food in the store put up with carts that don't drive straight, but they can have 'em. I got me a good one and that's what counts. Now excuse me; I can't talk no more. They're hirin' guys to unload trucks over by the library and I got to get there and get me a job. See ya' later," he called as his wheels rumbled away down the sidewalk.
Chuck fastidiously gleaned every morsel from the chicken's bones, then munched his way to the bottom of a tiny cup of cole slaw. He knew he needed a more balanced diet, but with no kitchen, he relied on the nutritional sense of the local fast food restaurants. He considered himself lucky not to have scurvy.
He pushed the bones and wrappers into the colorful take-out bag, then tossed the entire mess into the abandoned basement behind the fence. A few crumbs fell from his jacket as he hiked back across Hollywood Boulevard to resume his post by the bank.
None of his best material brought in much money from the crowd made up mostly of locals. He could tell they were locals by their behavior...they don't make eye contact. Most locals intentionally avoided the gaze of strangers. This reduced the number of times they had to hear the singularly enlightened truth of Jesus, Muhammad, L. Ron Hubbard, Buddha, or even the dried up old guy on the comer with no teeth. However, the lack of tourists made it almost impossible for Chuck to bring in the income required to maintain his lifestyle.
Eventually, he decided to try the sympathy scam. Two sticks of stale gum came out of his jacket pocket. They softened up after a few minutes of vigorous chewing. As he chewed, a dirty bandana was unfurled from his pocket and twisted once or twice. Then he wrapped it under his chin and over the crown of his head and tied it so that it supported his jaw.
He'd barely gotten the wad of gum wrapped around his lower right gum when he noticed two women walking hand-in-hand toward him. He turned his back and pinched his right cheek several times to make it look bruised. As he turned back around, he knew that the women had noticed him.
They both had long, mousy blonde hair and could have benefited from a diet that wasn't quite so rich. The taller one wore black jeans and a black top, while the other sported blue jeans and a blue top.
Each had her own style of headgear. The one in blue was under a red visor that promoted 93 KHJ, a long defunct radio station. The hat atop the tall one was even more anachronistic. It was a velvet replica of an Elizabethan flat cap, with a lush purple feather and heliotrope trim. When they met his gaze, Chuck's hopes soared.
"Excuse me ladies, but could you help me?" he mumbled through a face full of chewing gum.
The woman in the visor feigned disinterest, while the taller one responded, "I don't know, it depends. What do you need?"
"I'm a little down on my luck right now. I've got an infected tooth that's probably got to come out. It really hurts, and you can see how it's all swollen," he conned, pointing to his cheek. "I don't have enough money for a dentist. Please, if you could help me, I'd sure appreciate it."
"Sandra, what do you think?" asked the anachronistically crowned lady.
"Well, he is the first one to ask today, and he seems to have some manners," replied the red-visored woman. She turned to address Chuck directly. "So, how much do you need?"
Chuck seemed stumped for a second, then blurted out, "Twenty bucks will take care of it, ma'am."
"Twenty bucks?" she shot back, amazed at his gall.
"But I'll take whatever you can spare," he interjected.
"Whadda' you think, Jennifer?"
"I say okay. Remember our policy."
Sandra dug through her purse and pulled out a five dollar bill. She ceremoniously handed it to Chuck.
"God bless you lady, this will really help me get this tooth fixed. But I'm curious. What's this about your policy?"
Jennifer happily enlightened Chuck. "Our policy is that we only give money to one person per day, the first one who asks and isn't an asshole. You seem okay. A little depressed perhaps, but okay otherwise."
"Besides," Sandra interjected, "You're the most entertaining person we've met on this street in months." As the duo continued on their way, she shouted back, "By the way, be careful not to swallow all that gum. Your dentist wouldn't like it."
As he laughed good-he artedly, Chuck realized that his transaction was being monitored. The minister who had walked past earlier had apparently come out of the offices above the bank. He had stopped to catch Chuck's act.
"Very impressive, sir. You are unquestionably an artist, and I applaud your talent," the dignified minister exuded.
"Hey, I'm just a guy trying to get by. It's tough living on the streets, and that means you've got to do your best just to stay alive." Chuck sized the man up. He was about six feet tall, somewhat muscular, and fairly young, maybe thirty years old. He had an evasive charisma, as well as a likeable charm when he spoke.
"I understand your plight, truly I do. I work with many men like yourself all the time. That's my calling." The man offered a handshake to Chuck as he continued. "I'm Reverend Matthew Matthius of the Second City Mission."
"Chuck Jackson's the name, Rev," came the reply as he offered his hand to the minister. "Pardon me for saying so, but aren't you a little far from headquarters? I thought you guys worked downtown."
"That's exactly true. Normally, we confine our rescue efforts to the area near our shelter, but I'm here on a different mission...a mission for the mission, that is." Matthius chuckled at his feeble play on words.
Chuck smiled politely before he countered. "I went to one of the missions downtown when I first hit town a couple years ago. The bastards made me pray for an hour before they'd let me eat. If that's how you do business, you can leave me alone right now."
Matthius was shocked by the man's directness, but recovered quickly. "Some of my counterparts are, shall we say, somewhat aggressive in their approach to helping others, but that's not how I do things, believe me. Spirituality is important in any man's revival, but we must attend to practical matters as well. I think we can help one another, and I'd like to talk with you about it. Shall we do it here, or is there someplace nearby that would be more private?"
"I hate to say no to a deal before I've heard it, but I've got to make hay while the sun shines."
"Chuck, I understand your needs. What I have in mind will benefit you more handsomely than the enterprises in which I have seen you engaged today." He looked directly into Chuck's eyes as he spoke. "I need your aid in recruiting people for an important crusade that will help win legal rights for homeless men, women and children throughout this state, and I am willing to pay you for your skills." He gave an imperious nod to punctuate the earnestness of his job offer.
"Legal rights? Give me a break here. Most of the people down here don't need legal rights, they need self respect. They need confidence that they can do something right, that they can make it after all. Hell preacher, most of these people down here think they're losers, and thinking like that is what makes them losers. If you want an important crusade, come down here and help these people feel like they're somebody."
"That's part of the idea, Chuck. When we organize people to stick up for themselves, we give them a little self respect; and when people work together on a common goal, they get a sense of belonging to something important. And in the process, if I can lead some of these people back to Jesus, then we are all stronger and better."
"Interesting theory, Matthius. How well does it actually work?"
"You're certainly a cynical man aren't you?
"Hey, a cynic is just an optimist who's spent too much time in the real world."
The minister laughed in his deep, powerful way and slapped Chuck's back as he replied. "Stipulated, but listen to the deal before your brand of optimism gets the best of you. You know the people who live on these streets, and you know what motivates them. I will pay you to recruit these people and get them to join me in a rally next month at the state capital in Sacramento."
"So why next month? We've been here quite awhile already, and we're not going away by next month."
"There will be an assembly vote on homeless legal rights at that time, and my organizations plan to let the politicians and the press know that even the disempowered victims of the new world order are human beings. The homeless are being shaped into a growing power to be reckoned with. You can be a catalyst, a man who uses his God-given talents to help bring righteousness to the hearts of man."
Matthius' inspirational words and delivery made the hair stand up on Chuck's neck and arms. "I've gotta admit you came along at the right time. I really don't have anything else going right now. But you'll have to pay me in cash."
"I can arrange that easily enough. We will also provide you with room and board."
"Sorry Matthius, but I'd rather have extra cash. I can't very well communicate with the homeless if I've got a roof over my head and somebody's cooking my meals for me. I know I wouldn't trust somebody like that if the shoe was on the other foot."
"You are absolutely right. Yes, I think we can arrange things as you wish. Now how soon can you begin?"
"Show me some money and I'll start right now. It's not like I've got far to go to find people without a home."
"So be it." Matthius pulled a twenty dollar bill from the wallet in his suit's breast pocket. "You'll get one of these for every person you recruit for our protest. Five when you sign up and the rest when we all return from Sacramento."
"How, exactly, are we all getting to Sacramento. These people don't have cars you know. If they did, they'd be living in them."
"Have faith, my friend. A prominent member of the church has agreed to find a donor to provide transportation. You and I, and the rest of God's warriors, will be bused to the state capitol building exactly one month from today. Arrange to have your people on Vine Street, between Yucca and Hollywood at 6 p.m. on the nineteenth. They will be taken care of. We will feed them that evening, and throughout the protest. They will be home by the following night, God willing, of course."
Chuck looked thoughtful for a moment before speaking. "I've got to admit it sounds tempting. I think I can do it if I can offer people free meals and a safe place to spend one night. This sounds good, let's get started."
Matthius arranged to get Chuck a few signup sheets and a clipboard. They went over the details of a handout that could be passed around on the streets. Chuck approved a final draft that would be cranked through the church computer and photocopied en masse by the next afternoon.
Whether it was the popularity of the cause, the free food, or Chuck's great salesmanship was hard to establish. But whatever the reason nearly two thousand dollars in advances found Chuck over the next four weeks. Normally, he would have been overwhelmed by so much cash in his hands in such a short time, but he knew exactly what to do with it.
With a little help from Matthius, the mission set him up with some new clothes and presentable shoes. After a much needed shower and shave, he dressed himself up properly in the mission.
"So what do you think, Matthius? Am I a man of substance who should be taken seriously?"
"You always have been, Chuck, but now you look the part. I wish I could accompany you on your mission of mercy, but my many duties keep me here at the mission."
"No problem. This is something nobody can do but me. Thanks for the clothes and the shower. I'll see you on the lead bus tonight." Chuck nodded goodbye and made his way to the RTD bus stop.
At his destination, he noted the pleasant, sterile artificiality of the showroom. Every time he thought of Rubby's unheralded death and unmarked grave, a shiver of sorrow and anger crawled through his guts. He had nearly two thousand dollars in cash and an obsessive need to see his friend remembered, however slightly, throughout the ages.
"May I be of assistance sir?" asked the officious man who emerged from an office door.
"Yes...yes you can. I need to purchase one of your best grave markers. A close friend of mine passed away a few months ago, and I was shocked to find that he had not yet been given a marker. I want to rectify that problem as quickly as possible."
The salesman eyed him uncertainly, but decided to try for whatever kind of commission he might be able to make. "We have one of the best selections of stones in Southern California sir. Let me show you examples of our work. Then we can take a look at the catalogue to help you make your final choice."
As they wandered through the slabs of granite and marble, Chuck slowly realized that his two thousand dollars only allowed him a narrow selection. It hurt him to realize that even in death, Rubby had to settle for less than the best. But he rationalized that Rubby would forgive him if he couldn't afford the most expensive tombstone. It was far better than lying in an unmarked grave for eternity, or at least until somebody dug up the whole cemetery and put up a mini-mall.
Problems sneaked in when the salesman asked Chuck for the exact location of Rubby's grave. A phone call to the city pinpointed the grave's location. Or at least, the person at the cemetery thought it was probably the location of the grave, given the minimal attention given to welfare burials by the city.
Once arrangements for engraving and delivery were completed, Chuck plopped his cash onto the counter. The salesman thanked him ingenuously as he walked out, headed for the bus stop.
It was nearly six o'clock when his bus rolled to a stop at Vine Street. As he walked north to the gathering place, he saw Matthius in his Sunday suit. He was mobbed by scores of raggedy people.
As Chuck approached, Matthius relievedly called out. "Charles, I am pleased to see that you could make it. I trust everything went well this afternoon. Please take over and get some kind of head count. My, but your many friends have a powerful aroma, haven't they?"
"Matthius, you've dealt with this at the mission, so just relax. I'm sure most of these folks would be happy to take a shower right now if you'd give them a place to do it."
"The mission doesn't have the facilities for this many people, or I'd make a side trip there just to clear the air."
"Hey, we're just the great unwashed masses, longing to be free. I can't wait until you're on a nice crowded bus with us all. By the way, where are the buses?"
"They will be here shortly. They are busy with a sightseeing tour in Orange County. No doubt they have been delayed in traffic." Matthius looked up and smiled, motioning toward the street corner with his head. "No, correct that, I see one coming now, oh ye of little faith."
Chuck grabbed the clipboard from Matthius and started roll call. A steady stream of stragglers forced several false starts. When the count was complete, slightly over half of the 400 recruits on the list actually showed up. He was about to herd a batch onto the first bus when Matthius stopped him.
"Not yet, Chuck. We're going to use the first bus to get you and your top aides over to the salon. A group of hair stylists have volunteered to cut, trim and style ten of your group before you leave for Sacramento. I want the leaders to look like leaders."
"Sounds okay to me, but everybody gets fed, right?"
"I am a man of God. I always honor my word." Matthius seemed pained that his integrity would be questioned, but he quickly recovered. "You and the group leaders will be fed on the bus on the way to the salon, while the others will be taken by bus and fed at a church in North Hollywood. We will all regroup at the church and begin our journey from that point. The details have all been worked out."
"Vega, Rudy, come on over here," Chuck yelled. "Morgan, you and your college men can stay here and keep things organized. We'll meet you at the church after dinner." Chuck got his lieutenants onto the salon bus, then threw in a few guys he figured would enjoy a nice shave and haircut.
"Sacramento, here we come. You'd better hide your daughters, your good whiskey and your refrigerators," Chuck cackled.
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