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How three homeless men's lives came together in a plastic encampment just off West Main Street in Durham

The Family 

How three homeless men's lives came together in a plastic encampment just off West Main Street in Durham

click to enlarge The makeshift tent just off West Main Street and Broad Street in Durham that Mike, Mark and Concrete call home - PHOTO BY LISSA GOTWALS
  • Photo by Lissa Gotwals
  • The makeshift tent just off West Main Street and Broad Street in Durham that Mike, Mark and Concrete call home

Every night when the sun goes down in Durham, three men sit in the woods by the train tracks and try to keep warm. That's Mark, sitting there cross-legged, splitting sticks for kindling between long draws from a 40-ounce bottle of malt liquor. Just to his right is Mike, the one who looks a little like George Carlin, small and wiry, a casual beard, and thin white hair pulled straight back across his scalp. He's lying with blankets pulled up to his chest to keep his slight frame warm, leaning back against the tree that serves as their shelter's support column. He takes the last Doral Menthol out of a wrinkled pack and labors to light it. Mike slipped on a root and fell on his shoulder yesterday; it still hurts to move.

Now look across from Mike, and that's Concrete, sitting on an upturned bucket. No one knows his real name, no one pries. They call him Concrete because that's what he slept on for so many years--a bench outside the jailhouse--and because he's tough, and strong, and the list goes on. But right now he's leaning back against the plastic, dark eyes sunk into leathery flesh and turned up toward nothing in particular. His skin is ageless and coal-colored, his beard a physical hint that he's been around awhile; it's patched with white tufts and descends into a single, braided dreadlock. He's waiting patiently for Mark to pass him the liquor, and he mumbles quiet abstractions that are hard to hear and harder still to comprehend.

The three are protected from the elements by a thin layer of blackened industrial plastic, scavenged from construction sites and hung over a make-shift joist--a two-by-four resting in the Y of the tree Mike leans against. Their shelter is tucked into a blind of cleared woodland among the chutes and thicket that garnish the gravel railway bed looking out onto Main Street in central Durham. They lay their heads a stone's throw from Mad Hatter's, that quietly high-born café that's been gradually annexed as a de facto Duke conference room and is the cornerstone of a shopping center for young and affluent Durhamites featuring franchises known for their wholesome corporate citizenry: Ben and Jerry's, Whole Foods. Then an upscale Italian restaurant and the Hair Cuttery, then of course the retail walk down Ninth Street, all frequented by people who couldn't be--or couldn't seem to be--more different than the three homeless men on display right across Main Street. But the three of them endure at the disposal of a live-and-let-live mentality that pervades the area, and just as they have excavated a clearing for themselves in the woods, they have nosed themselves into a niche in the community, carefully maintaining a casual symbiosis with storeowners and clientele alike. They know who the "bad news bums" are, the crack dealers, the aggressive derelicts, the ones who hassle and threaten. Those are the guys who bring heat down on the whole neighborhood and sour the begging for Mike, so Mark, a bear of a man conditioned to haul 18-inch lead pipe--one of his former gigs--keeps the bad apples moving, keeps them away from the storefronts, keeps them from harassing the waitresses at Charlie's. But when darkness falls and they lower the flap facing Main Street so the flames lapping over the sides of their fire bucket don't attract attention, they have, for a time, withdrawn from society.

As the sun slips down over Main Street one evening and darkness begins to fall, bringing with it the brisk bite of the midwinter wind, Mark is already comfortably drunk. He's talking about an elementary school student who paid him $5 to take his picture and write an essay about a homeless man for a Thanksgiving assignment. "She won. The whole essay. What ... what it means to be Thanksgiving. Kinda makes me feel bad. 'Well, if you go give this guy something, this poor miserable fucker. ...' She got number one in her class."

click to enlarge Mike, holding forth on the tracks near his home - PHOTO BY LISSA GOTWALS

"That was cool," Mike says. "We always need money because we smoke cigarettes and drink beer."

"I ain't gonna say, I ain't gonna say," Mark says, trying not to think about the things he needs or wants. He relents. "My people up in the mountains, they used to sit up in the outhouse and read the Sears catalogue, and it'd have all the stuff in it, call it the wish book. 'Boy I wish I had that, I wish I had that.' Then they'd tear the pages out and wipe their ass with it."

"That's why they call Sears the wish book," Mike affirms. "Wish I had some toilet paper."

"I heard of people using corncob. That's hardcore. I know some of the baddest fuckers on earth," Mark says. Concrete lets out a faint laugh. Everyone loves it when Concrete laughs. "Even Concrete goes 'What?' Even he's not going for that one."

The conversation shifts to their own bathroom facilities, the BP across the street. "BP are cool, as long as you don't steal beer from them, they're cool."

"I'll tell you what's nice ... the hand dryer," Mike says. "You hit that, take your coat and put it up there, it warms you up."

"Like toast."

With the sun now gone, a streetlight across the tracks casts a silhouette of the trees on the plastic, a dim latticework of branches and twigs that serves as a temporary décor. Everything is temporary in the life of a homeless man; you can't quite get by without believing your situation is a transient one, that you've been dealt a blow and just need some time to get back up. "I put my time in, I put my time in," Mark nods to himself. "And I'll be back, I'll be back on my feet."

Mike finds some solace in the fact that just being alive is a remarkable accomplishment. "You just learn to survive. Two hundred years ago we'd be pioneers and adventurers. Anyone who can do this, survive off the land, was considered a pioneer and an adventurer. Today, we're considered homeless, scum, bums, whatever. Two hundred years ago we'd be considered great adventurers."

And if life isn't fickle enough, their home, the closest thing to a place of peace for these men, can be swept away by any number of Durham authorities tomorrow, uprooting them again and throwing them back into the fray of homeless shelters all three have tried and found less satisfactory than a plastic cocoon in the woods. For these men, losing their shelter would mean more than just finding a new place to sleep. It would mean losing the connection that has evolved between them, the unique bond that has allowed them to get by, to look after each other when no one else will.

click to enlarge Both Mike and Mark (pictured here) are honest about their need for money to support their smoking and drinking habits. - PHOTO BY LISSA GOTWALS
  • Photo by Lissa Gotwals
  • Both Mike and Mark (pictured here) are honest about their need for money to support their smoking and drinking habits.

Between Mark's experience from forestry school and Mike's knowledge from being a Boy Scout way back when, they were able to put together a place to live and carry on some semblance of a life for themselves. Mike had to clear the thicket out, leaving a few branches standing to hang things on and serve as natural handrails "when one of us has had a beer too many." They have some scraps of carpet that Mark picked up from an installation job when a woman had wall-to-wall put down and taken out the next week because her office chair didn't roll well enough. They eat off the $142 a month in food stamps Mark still gets from his broken neck, and drink and smoke off the money from begging. And they've learned how to make being homeless more manageable.

"When you're homeless, always have gloves," Mark explains one day while pulling scrap wood from the foliage near the dumpsters behind Sam's Quik Stop. "The thing about winter is that at least you don't have to worry about bugs."

The shelter's centerpiece is a partially melted black bucket. "I was walking down the railroad tracks one day and I found this bucket. That's how we stay warm, and we cook in it." Mike explains how it works. "You take the bucket and put railroad rocks in it to insulate it from the ground so it's a contained fire but it's safe, it doesn't make the ground hot."

When it's cold, they sleep in rotation to make sure someone is up to keep the fire going. They keep two buckets full of twigs and kindling, a pile of scrapped sticks outside, and when all else fails, they tear pages out of the free Auto Trader magazines or use the Independent to keep the fire going. The inside of the tent is covered by a layer of thin grunge, because when they use too much paper, the bucket spews ash toward the roof and then it cools and rains down on them like gray snow; they often wake up covered in soot. You can't stand up in the tent for more than a few seconds without getting woozy from smoke inhalation, but a small gap where the wall plastic is jerry-rigged to the makeshift roof with twine allows enough smoke to escape that when they lie down, pulling their blankets up over their heads, they can get some sleep.

For Mike, a kind, fragile man who begins to cry every time he mentions the kids he hasn't seen since his divorce five years ago, you get the sense that losing "the house" would probably be the last blow he could withstand. For that reason he has protected it with everything he has. Once some clothes in the tent caught fire. "I had a beer, so I started pouring the beer on it . . . then you go 'Well wait a minute, that's the only beer I got,' so then you start beating it out with your hand."

Michael Kelly gets up at 6:30 every morning to beg for money on Ninth Street. "That's my job, that's what I do. I ain't proud of it. I'm laughing and acting like I am, but I ain't. But that's how I get money." Sometimes people give him bagels, which he can't chew because he has bad teeth. So he gives them to Mark, who sells them to friends.

Mike came out of Covington, Va., and went to vocational school for data entry at Virginia Western Community College in Roanoke. After school he got a job managing a warehouse, met a pretty redhead, got married, had three kids. The money was decent, things were going pretty well, and they were happy. Mike got by all right, but he heard the pay was better down around the Triangle, so he found another warehouse job, packed the family up and moved south. But Mike's a slight man, and pushing shipping crates around was wearing his back down, so after 10 years working warehouses, he convinced his boss to let him take one of the company trucks for a license test, and he passed on the first try.

Mike started driving for a freight company doing local pick-up and delivery, what the trade guys call pedaling freight. He made $17.25 an hour and could earn about $225 a day if he worked long enough, then on the weekends he was booking extra board pulling 30 cents on the mile and making up to $300. But the trips were long and exhausting--a typical circuit had him leaving Raleigh for Greensboro, then from Greensboro north to Norfolk, Norfolk on to Richmond, Richmond down to Wilson, then Wilson back to Raleigh. And then all over again on Sunday. He'd get home exhausted, and as soon as he walked in the door his wife was asking him to run errands. "We had our friction that way."

Mike was on the road and away from the family, and he began to overhear things about another man. Then he started to "see things in the house that didn't belong there," but "she had an excuse for everything." One day his nephew knocked on the door and asked him where his kids were. "I guess they're still at the park," Mike said. His nephew laughed.

"Yup, guess they're still at the park, with Paul." When they got home Mike asked his youngest son if he had a good time with Paul. He said yes, and his brother yelled at him. "Mom said she'd beat you if you told Dad!"

Things got worse from there, he says. Mike hired a private investigator who ran plates on the man and found he was holding two identities. He says he tried to confront his wife but she carried on, and things got worse and worse until one day she decided to go down to the courthouse and ask a judge for a restraining order. She said she was afraid to go to bed at night, because she thought Mike might stab her in her sleep. Those were the magic words--later that day, he says sheriff's deputies showed up at his house and gave him five minutes to collect his possessions and leave. He left on foot with a plastic grocery bag and his shaving kit. That was the last he ever saw his house or any of his possessions.

Mike says he represented himself in the hearings, and although he had witnesses from the family testifying against his wife, he didn't understand court procedures, didn't really know how to handle a witness, and he botched the case. He says he lost the car, the money, and most importantly, he was denied all visitation rights. He couldn't see his children.

Mike had always drunk a little, but with his family gone, it got worse. He fell into depression, drank more, fell deeper. He says he managed to keep himself together, enough to stay on the road driving. He switched to another trucking company hauling loads from New York to Dallas on weekends, and because he was never home, he says he had his paychecks sent to his sister-in-law who was supposed to be forwarding money to his child support. But she never did.So Mike was sent a court summons he says he never received because he was on the road and his sister-in-law didn't bother to tell him because she liked getting his paychecks. He got slapped with Failure to Appear, and the man who says he'd never so much as wished ill will on anyone did his first 30 days in a Durham jail.

When he got out, Mike was still torn up as ever. He was living with his 21-year-old son in Butner, but he hadn't seen his others kids since the divorce. The drinking got worse. He was still working, a new company again, hauling glass from demolition sites to a processing plant. Then, when the trucks kept breaking down, he quit to start training for a tanker truck company carrying tar from Norfolk to Butner.

Between jobs he had no commitments, and with idle time on his hands he missed his kids more than ever. He says when a handicapped friend said he'd buy him a case of beer to drive him around and help do some errands, he thought what the hell, at least it's some company. They finished at the man's house and opened a couple of beers. Mike had nowhere to go, and his friend went through two more, so Mike opened another, too. When a Butner police officer pulled them over coming out of a Pizza Hut an hour later, Mike was taken in for DUI, lost his license, and had to do another 30 days. Thirty turned to 60, he says, when his sister-in-law neglected to tell Social Services that he couldn't pay child support from jail. By the time he got out, his son had moved to Texas, and he had no choice but to go live with his sister-in-law and then move with her when she was evicted. But she had a crack problem, and on top of that, when her son got out of jail, there wasn't any space for Mike. With no home, no driver's license, no job and an alcohol habit that fed a consuming depression, he checked into the Urban Ministries homeless shelter in Durham.

Mike has no contact with any family members anymore. The last time he talked to anyone was when he borrowed someone's phone to call his sister. "God, Mike," she sobbed to him, "it's been so long since I heard from you, I thought you were dead."

So Mark and Concrete are, for the most part, the only family Mike has. "But I hope to get some sort of job and be able to make a little bit of money. I'd like to be able to get a decent enough job that I can pay for the fees and all the things I'm supposed to pay to get my driver's license reinstated, and maybe go back to driving a truck. You gotta crawl before you walk. I need a job."

Despite the gritty physicality of his appearance, Mark Land disarms people with his consistent and rhythmic laugh, his way of exuding generosity that's credible even for a man who has nothing to give. For those who know Mark, there is a collective appreciation of his goodness, of his respect for people he has no reason to respect. Even in the way he makes passes at an attractive young waitress at Charlie's Pub and Grille on Ninth Street, he maintains a level of class by accepting his role as something of a character, even a mascot--he's Durham's jovial homeless guy. Being objectified in this way doesn't bother him; he seems to enjoy seeing people happy, and he has the unfortunate inability to stomach other people's pain. When Mike and Mark, already pressed for space inside the house, noticed that Concrete was still sleeping on the steps outside the jailhouse after seven bouts with frostbite, they begged him for a week straight to come stay with them. For a man strong enough to move a few thousand pounds of pipe and the size to scatter those who might seek trouble with him, Mark avoids confrontation.

click to enlarge Mark examines the structure of "the house"—sticks and Pringles cans. - PHOTO BY LISSA GOTWALS

There are two exceptions to Mark's passivity. One is Concrete, whom he loves "to death. If someone bothers him, they bother me." The second is, naturally, officers of the law. He tells the story from a few years ago when he got taken in for drunken disorderly at a parking lot by Brightleaf Square. It was during a winter storm, the lot was iced over, and Mark began kicking the ground, flicking ice at the flat-soled shoes of the arresting officers. He upended a few of them and sent them sprawling across the ice on their backsides before they finally took him in, and it landed Mark in court for assaulting an officer. Representing himself, Mark says he thought it prudent to flex his facility with legal philosophy, so during questioning he interrupted the prosecutor and says he proudly stated, "I plead the Fifth Amendment. Anything I say can be used to incriminate me."

The prosecutor stopped talking, he says, raised her eyebrows, and stared dumbly at the judge.

"Boy, you tell that lawyer what she wants to hear," he recalls the judge saying.

"Well damn. Always worked on fucking Law & Order."

Mark's problem's all derive from a volatile amalgam of alcohol and authority--a concept he has trouble grasping. So when he joined the Army back in 1979, he says he had it somewhere in the back of his mind that it might not be a good fit.

He had gone to forestry school at Hocking Technical College up in Nelsonville, Ohio, he says, so when he reported for basic training at Fort McClellan in northern Alabama, he entered the 95 Bravo Company as an E3--private first class--while all his peers were E1. "All that means," he says one of his superiors told him the first day, "is a couple more stripes they can take away from you." Mark says he survived 180 sober days of military seasoning before they took the soldiers to a post exchange and let them buy anything they wanted. Mark chose what any alcoholic coming off of six sober months would: "Nyquil. Twenty-five percent alcohol. Nyquil will put a hurting on you. I drank two bottles, hit me like a rock." The next morning, he says a colonel found the private who was supposed to be on guard duty high-stepping around and flailing his arms in what at the time seemed like a pretty damn good impersonation of "a goddamn Nazi fucking storm trooper."

"What the hell are you doing, soldier?"

"Controlling the perimeter!"

Mark was summarily dismissed from the military, but he has the lush's requisite knack to find the silver lining in every booze-induced fall from grace. "I woulda been at Abu Gawby prison or whatever the hell that shit is. Sure some of the guys I was with are there. I'm glad I got kicked out."

One of Mark's brothers gave him a good job working the assembly line for a company that made trucks, and again he employed an uncanny ingenuity to get himself tossed. "I used to take bottles of Tropicana orange juice and a half-gallon of vodka into work. I would get my shit together so I would have an empty bottle of Tropicana, fill it up with vodka, and shake it up. I'm sure they thought, man that's one healthy son of a bitch. He's got his vitamins." Mike starts laughing. "Remember that," he points a finger, "when you're going down the road, and you see a damned big rig in the rearview mirror, I was putting the brakes on that thing, drunker than hell."

Mark lived in Raleigh for a while, then came down to Durham "chasing a woman. Damn good woman." But she was one of the tragic types, intriguing in her restless self-destruction and doomed from the very beginning. When Mark first met her father, he was watching a football game with a beer in his hand and a remote in the other. "I'm gonna tell you something, boy. My old lady's crazy," he said. "I think my daughter's gonna turn out the same way."

And he was right. "She drank as much as I did. What really killed me, she liked Librium, lithium, all those 'l' words, those ones when you go to the doctor ... all that good shit. I called up the doctor, I said, 'I tell you what. You give her any more of those drugs I'm coming to kick your ass. You're trying to get her off drinking ...'" Mark trails off. "They gave her all them 'l' words, she drank with 'em. Man, this is making shit hard. Lived with her for 14 years."

During the mid-'90s, Mark says he was making $17.25 an hour doing high-purity pipe fitting for a company in Research Triangle Park.He was at his peak then, he says, had about 10 grand in the bank, got himself a '64 Plymouth Fury with 318 under the hood and earned a "king of the hill" reputation in Durham because he liked to see people having as good a time as he was. If you went to Devine's during the '90s, chances are Mark Land bought you a round.

But even went Mark wasn't pipe fitting, he usually found something interesting to do, meeting people, making friends, stockpiling stories. He worked for a circus for a few years, Carden International, setting up lighting equipment for the shows. He traveled all over the country with them, has a story about a show in Green Bay when the elephants were kept across from Lambeau Field and began eating the green and yellow pom-poms stored there for an upcoming Packers game. "During the show, they got three elephants running in a circle, the guys snapping the whip, you know, getting them to stand up, and the elephants are all three of them running in a circle, and they start shitting green and yellow." Mike perseveres through his own riotous laughter. "The fucking crowd goes ape-shit, 'cause there's Green Bay Packers shit! It looked like we planned it."

Mark was even a chef from '89 to '91 at Anotherthyme in Durham. "I've known how to cook since I was born."

"Any man his size is gonna eat," Mike says. "He's gotta learn how to cook."

"Mary Bacon. She'd hire me now. Except she knows half the stuff they cook you gotta put wine in it."

But there are only so many opportunities out there for a man with a low skill-set and a penchant for hard drinking. Mark was good at finding them while they lasted, but they couldn't last forever. Money leaked from his bank account one happy hour at a time, and it got harder and harder to stop the bleeding because the revolving door of jobs began to slow down.

"You're looking at pure first-class, grade-A alcoholic." He's even gotten himself kicked out of homeless shelters for drinking, and although he can look back and laugh at all his misadventures, he fully appreciates the tragedy he is unable to separate himself from. "I fucked it up. I fucked it up, I messed it up, I messed it up. Alcohol."

A few months ago, Mark got drunk and fell down a stairway, fracturing his third and fourth cervical vertebrae. He had a halo screwed into his head, so he couldn't shower, couldn't really sit down and look at an interviewer straight-faced, sure as hell couldn't get a job. It was hard to sleep, and if he leaned up even a little, the vest dug into his stomach beneath his rib cage and he couldn't breath. So Mark spent so much time on the streets with the contraption bolted to his head that people took to calling him "Halo."

He talks with a thickened Southern accent woven into the mountain man drawl he absorbed while growing up first in the mountains of North Carolina and then Ohio, where he moved when his mother remarried a furniture salesman after Mark's father died. He speaks in an excited staggering jaunt so that he's always tripping himself up in a kind of verbal arrhythmia, but the slapdash flow of his words endear him to people even more. And if his tempo is off, the gentle melody of his accent quickly confirmshis sincerity. Children smile at him when he talks to them, a Great Dane pup runs up to him on Ninth Street and buries its head into Mark's leg. Mark is the kind of guy every man would cherish as a drinking buddy, every wife would entrust with the duty of chaperoning, if it weren't for the uncomfortable fact that he sleeps in the woods, his fingernails are black with grime, and he doesn't get to shower very often.

Walking down Ninth Street, Mark sees three small children trailing their father. "Look at all these young'uns, it's a young'un convention!" A clean-cut man pushing a stroller looks at Mark nervously and beckons his children on. Then he pauses, looks back, and his face changes. "Hey, it's you," the man says, "you got your brace off!" Mark nods and laughs.

"Yeah, I did." Then he extends a hand toward the kids. "You still got your braces. They'll last a lot longer than mine."

"Aw, but mine are more fun!" The father smiles and continues down Ninth Street with his kids.

Down at Charlie's, an explosion interrupts Mark and a man on a chopper twitches his throttle back and forth, sending the engine's throaty growl reverberating down Ninth Street. "Whoa," says Land. He smiles toward the biker. "They spend a whole lot of money trying to make them that loud." There's no irony in his voice. And this is key--siphoning off any temptation to self-pity is vital to his livelihood. He has no axe to grind for his situation; when Mark is asked if his situation embitters him to anybody, he swallows and jabs a thumb at himself. Then he ponders the question and qualifies his answer. "Well, Reagan kinda pissed me off."

But Mark's attitude allows him to validate people. When you come out of a coffee shop on Ninth Street and a homeless man smiles at you and shares a laugh, you don't feel so bad that you just spent $6 on a latte. So you hand him a dollar and atone for a week's worth of frivolity. Here's a street bum, but he seems to be getting by all right. Mark Land is the cure for the common conscience, a prescription paid for in beer money.

Inside "the house," the three are an unlikely family of journeymen brought together each by their own misadventure and tragedy, each fulfilling distinct roles to ensure that at the end of the day they have some food, some beer and some tobacco. They've lived in "the house" for the better part of a year now, curtained in plastic, hoping they are far enough removed to keep themselves from slipping over the fine line between benign presence and public nuisance.

click to enlarge Mike enjoys a smoke in the tent. - PHOTO BY LISSA GOTWALS

Today was unproductive. Mark didn't get much firewood, Mike got a few dollars, but then he bought a bus pass and went to McDonald's to get a couple of cheeseburgers. "I came back and slept the afternoon away. So I messed up by sleeping the afternoon, but hey, it was good to have a few cheeseburgers in my belly. That's what caused me to go to sleep, I ate good. When you're homeless you don't always eat good. Two cheeseburgers will knock you out."

"That fucking shit you're talking about, McDonald's fucking horseshit." Mark does his math in beer money, so two cheeseburgers and a bus pass are extravagances when he's ornery and needs a fix. Mark always rags on Mike, but when he's genuinely upset at Mike he won't confront him. He's mad that Mike wasted a few dollars, so he'll go off on a tirade about McDonald's, not Mike.

"I could make a cheeseburger that McDonald's can't touch. You know I can."

"I know, it was just easier for me to get on the bus and go down and get them cheeseburgers."

"Yeah, a bunch of goddamn fried up fucking cardboard. You're gonna spend money to go down to McDonald's and eat that fucking horseshit."

"It was easy!"

Concrete now says his first words--"What time is it?"--and his role is instantly clear. His question has nothing to do with McDonald's, or sleeping, or money, and at first blush, is just more evidence that he's off in his own world. But then a curious thing happens: Mike and Mark both dig into their pockets, and Mark finds the time. "Six-thirty. That's really bad. No wonder I feel like I do." Mark and Mike now start riding themselves for letting it get so late without getting anything done. As tension begins to build, Concrete delicately diverts the conversation to something neutral. Concrete's role in the family is subtle but extremely important, and there may be one more reason they call him Concrete: He keeps them together.

Concrete doesn't seem to care about the answer, and he draws from a bottle sheathed in a brown paper bag, empties most of it in two or three swigs, then slows down for the last few ounces. He closes his eyes and mouth and stretches back, leaning against the plastic. The liquor fortifies his elusive character and he withdraws back into his own world, immersed in thoughts and calculations and drawn into his own solitary reverie; Mike and Mark let him go, and his presence is again solely physical. But he bears a hardened wisdom he keeps close, and yet it is wholly evident from the deliberate way he carries himself, the slow steady strides in his walk that emanate the pornographic intrigue of pain. He is almost invisible but still fascinating, he seems to be somewhere else entirely, where he has accumulated an intellect that is astute but inappropriate for this place. He makes fleeting reference to a past no one is sure of.

Rumors on the street hold that he was a pusher back in the day, three-piece suits, a Caddy and all, butting heads with another bagman cutting into the action. So he rounded up some of his guys, so the story goes, and went to shoot up the competitor's house--warning shots, that's all. But one person was killed. And that was when Concrete learned that his own son had been a friend of his rival's child--and that he'd killed him. Concrete diverts the conversation when it nears the subject of his past, and although he's been on the street for seven years, no one knows his real name.

Concrete calls Mike and Mark "boss man" and "sir" and often leaves the tent saying he's "going out to the yard," all habits of the once-incarcerated. Still, he only reluctantly admits he went to jail, and even then insists it was for shoplifting. He speaks of the world hating him, preventing him from being with a woman, and of being under surveillance, but when asked by whom, he can be no more specific than "the world." He feels he is a black hole of negative energy, that all the sin around him is either directed toward him or attributed to him; he feels he is a scapegoat. Sometimes in the tent he will hold his forefinger and thumb like a pistol, look at it quizzically. "I didn't even own a gun," he says other times with no context but in apparent affirmation. He is convinced people want him dead, and that this has something to do with everyone rejecting God. He thinks that people see him and blame him for whatever they need someone to blame, otherwise they ignore him. This is the extent of his relationship with society. This dynamic is not as easy for Concrete as it is for Mark, which is why when Concrete begs, he never actually talks.

Concrete is not an angry man, nor is he bitter. He is hurt, and he feels used. He is stalwart in his refusals to be photographed, because "you're trying to get me, but it's gonna be someone else in the picture," and because "the closer you try to get to me the farther you are, you know?" He talks occasionally of religion, and maybe it's that if he still accepts God after his son fell to his own hand--assuming the sensational Greek tragedy of his life has any truth to it at all--then it is a searing wound to feel victimized by those who haven't. So he talks in quieted poetic tones with discordant words that waver unsteadily between the profound and the unintelligible. His message is insoluble to most, and he knows this, knows that even when Mike and Mark try to translate for him they don't get it, either, they can't, so he is ungenerous with his words. And this is the tragedy about Concrete, more than anything else. Because his words, the few he allows, mean something somewhere, and he's bestowed with the aura of a prophetic figure delivering a message that, while not falling on deaf ears, is falling on ears that can't possibly understand him and don't believe him anyway. So he's given up trying and instead waits patiently for whatever he knows will happen, maintaining as a fixture who will forever just get by. People give him money without him asking; if they see he looks especially bad, they give him more money. But if they give him too much he will no longer be Concrete, that comfortably consistent presence in the community that can be looked through or looked at depending on the need of the man with the cash. Concrete then, the institution, if not the man, is sustained by a sort of perverse equilibrium. And the man has been somewhere else for some time.

Mark reaches over and snags Mike's beer. "Possession is nine-tenths of the law."

"That was my beer to start with."

"C'est la vie. You know what that means?" He looks at Mike. "You know what it means?"

"It means you fucked me."

"You know everything, I'd figure you'd know what c'est la vie means. It's French."

"Of course I know that."

"The cheese-eating surrender monkeys. That's what Bart Simpson called them. It got over to France, they went ape-shit." Mark is chuckling. "Such is life."

"Is that what it means?"

"Great saying, they use it for everything. Stub your toe, drop a dish, wreck a car, kill your wife. They use it for everything."

Mark now empties a small, red sack, sifts through the items. "Can opener. The most important thing a homeless man can have. He had one," Mark gestures across to Mike, "but he pawned it for crack."

"I did not. Larry stole it. I don't know what the fuck Larry did with it. I think it might be in the tent. The weird part is Larry came back with another can opener and it doesn't work at all."

"You pawned that one for crack, too."

click to enlarge Mike, in Duke Hospital with a hairline fracture in his shoulder, a bleeding ulcer and an organism in his system they cant identify. - PHOTO BY LISSA GOTWALS
  • Photo by Lissa Gotwals
  • Mike, in Duke Hospital with a hairline fracture in his shoulder, a bleeding ulcer and an organism in his system they cant identify.

Mike lies on a mechanical bed in Duke Hospital room 8329, admitted for what he thought was food poisoning from a bad peanut butter and jelly sandwich. He tried to "survive it," spent a day vomiting blood, then what he thought was bile, into a bucket inside the tent. Around 5:30 p.m., two Durham police squad cars showed up, lights spinning and all, because someone had seen Concrete outside with an axe and called 911. Concrete was disassembling a couple of wooden crates for firewood; he didn't do it after dark because he didn't want to step on nails. But when Mike heard the cops come, he knew they were all on thin ice; Durham police have been tolerant of them but nobody knows how deep that runs, and Concrete gets paranoid and volatile when confronted. Mike labored to pull himself up and go outside to talk through the situation with the police, desperately hoping he wouldn't vomit or collapse in front of them. Finally they left, Mark came back, said he saw the cops from across the street. "Just glad it wasn't an eviction notice. They run my rap sheet, computer be going for half an hour." Concrete is not so lighthearted about the incident. "Every time I see somebody, they think I'm something to kill. The world's designed to hold me captive, put me anywhere they can...."

The tension was just enough to put Mike over the edge. By midnight, he couldn't move without wrenching his stomach into a torturous knot and losing whatever was left inside it. The doctors told him if had come in an hour later, he would have been dead.

Mike's skin is pale as ever, and his features, long and gaunt, pull away from his face. His skin seems to be barely clinging to his frame. Mike has lost weight, he is weak. They've put a kind of elevated potty next to his bed because the last time he got sick he didn't make it to the bathroom in time, even though it's only five feet away. They're trying to discharge him tomorrow; it's expensive to keep an uncompensated patient under 24-hour watch and care, and it's time to send him back to wherever he came from. But Mike is not close to recovered.

There are three different drips hanging from a hat rack on wheels, and Mike's skeletal frame is loosely concealed by a starched white sheet. The light is off, the door open, and light from a wall-mounted TV dances quietly. He sleeps, snores softly. A nurse comes by to wake him up, and his eyes open slowly, glassy, glazed. He eases himself to a sitting position, lowers himself painfully from the bed. He shuffles slowly to where his jacket and shoes are sitting on a chair, but he loses his balance and collapses against the bathroom door. He gets himself up, hovers over a chair, tumbles into it. He takes fully 15 minutes to get dressed, painstakingly slipping each foot into the leg hole of his sweatpants, sliding them under his gown and putting his coat over it. He's heavily drugged. He puts his wool hat on his head and rolls unevenly into the hallway.

Mike has learned that he has a hairline fracture in his shoulder from a fall 10 days ago. He has been put on a cocktail of drugs and narcotic painkillers, some administered through an IV drip, others injected with a syringe. He's had his stomach pumped, a few pints of blood put in him, had a nurse tell him they found an organism in his system they can't identify, and he's been told that, at best, he has a bleeding ulcer. But right now, he's going out for a smoke.

A man passes him going the other way, fitting a few dollar bills back in his wallet. "Hey, how are you sir?" The man, taken off guard, manages "Fine, thanks" and hurries past too fast to smile back. Mike wobbles into the elevator, and six other people try to sustain polite smiles for an eight-story ride shoulder-to-shoulder with a bum. In the lobby, he still doesn't have his sea legs. Someone brushes by his left and he tries to shift to the right to make way, but his knee buckles and he falls to the ground again, brushing a girl who speeds on without acknowledging his apology. People look away uncomfortably as Mike peels himself from the ground in the middle of the busy hospital lobby and gets to his knees then back to his feet. Finally Mike makes it to the Promised Land, and he is able to stand outside and smoke a single cigarette. He mentions some of the offers he's received while he's been at the hospital--New Hope Housing, people saying how nice it would be to help him reform. He's open-minded but skeptical, and of course he "wouldn't want to break up the family." He wonders how Mark and Concrete are doing without him and then starts thinking again about the shelters. "They don't help the people who need it. Durham tries so hard to help the women and children, and that's great, because they need to be protected." Mike is genuine about this, even given the catalyst to his own downfall. "But a lot of times, they forget about the people who really need help. The system needs to be redone."

EPILOGUE: After a second stay in the hospital, Mike is working with Housing for New Hope, an assistance group for the homeless in Durham. Mark and Concrete still live in "the house."

  • How three homeless men's lives came together in a plastic encampment just off West Main Street in Durham

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