By Cat Jones
Daniel knew I was writing this story about him, before he disappeared. He even knew it was going to be about the bizarre stories he tells, and how I mostly don’t believe them. But we didn’t know that he would disappear then, so that’s an unexpected element to this story.
Before he disappeared, I meant for this to just be about a boy I know whose narrative is very hard to tell. Because it’s very hard to know what is real about him, except for the core, which is always true. The thing is, we normally glean the details about the people around us through the stories they tell us about themselves. And I have long ago decided that very few of the details in Daniel’s stories are ever true in the usual sense. He would argue with that, I think, but I’m pretty sure about it. That doesn’t make him a liar, though, as I had initially suspected. Because lying entails a certain element of manipulation, and it’s usually a very selfish and predatory thing. It’s a usurpation of someone else’s reality. This is not what Daniel’s doing when he tells his stories. He’s not trying to fuck you over with a false narrative; he’s creating something. But I probably need to explain that.
There is something honest and real at the heart of Daniel. He is who he is, and on the important things, I can count on him (which puts him far and away ahead of some of the people I had been jettisoning from my life around the time our friendship grew – some kinds of dishonesty are not benign and I have known at least one of the malignant kind of liar, and this is not Daniel).
I can explain better by introduction. And what I can tell you that I know about Lieutenant Dan comes mainly through stories we have shared. So I’ll tell you some of those.
The first concerns a dusky summer evening, and is the quintessential illustration of who he is to me. So step back with me to this night, back to the beginning of the summer….
A Boy in a Tree
I’m walking through the park with my two dogs, looking for Lieutenant Dan. I’m about to leave this country for awhile, and Daniel isn’t happy about that. For days, he has been either trying to avoid the subject, or trying to talk me out of leaving. “This town will not be the the same without your face,” he has said. (“There are plenty of other faces here,” I said back. “Go find one.” And he acknowledged that there are, indeed, a lot of other faces. “But I will miss yours,” he said. I have no idea how seriously to take him on this point, but our friendship is independent of the sorts of strings that would make an issue of the veracity of that. We’re not possessions.)
Tonight is the last time we will see each other for at least a month. I’m heading out before dawn tomorrow morning, and the moment has come for the goodbye I promised we would share before I leave. He knows this, and has been sending me sad, dejected texts all afternoon as I was packing and preparing to go. So it’s dark now and I’m walking through the thrill of a moonlit summer evening in New York, wandering Washington park, looking for my friend. I know right where to find him, and yes there he is. He’s lying on the lower branch of the enormous weeping ash tree here, his tree, a place I know that I can almost always find him. He’s sprawled out like an antique stole across that impossibly wide, welcoming branch; feet up, kicked back like he owns the place. (And he does. He’s the impish emperor of this park and everybody knows it.) I step over the newly erected “stay out of the tree” sign, with its associated rope perimeter, and walk right up to him before he hears me, because he’s listening to Lana Del Ray through his ear buds. (Both Daniel and I have a secret crush on the silky voice of Lana Del Ray. This embarrasses me, but not Daniel.)
When he opens his eyes and sees me, he jumps right up and smiles. He gives me a hug. We’re not gonna see each other for awhile, like I said, so there’s a little wistfulness as we go walking, two friends promenading arm in arm across the park beneath the ghostly moon. We’ll go kick around in the fountain after awhile, but for now we’re just walking. He says he’s trying not to think about me going. “Whatcha been up to all day?” I ask, conversationally, hoping to keep the mood a happy one.
“You want the honest version? Or the suave one?” He asks, in his characteristically quick, clipped, drawl.
“Why not both,” I say. “For comparison purposes.”
“I’ve been hob nobbing with the rich and famous,” he says. “Walking with ladies in bright dresses with parasols, and making witty remarks. I was wearing a tailored suit and a top hat, like yours. I even had a silver tipped walking stick. Everyone found me fascinating.”
A little girl runs across our path, trailing water drops and wet footprints, laughing. She’s been wading in the fountain. We smile at her.
“Then we all sat down around the lake,” he continues. “And I made paper ships and sailed them across the pond. We dined on fine wine and hors d’oeuvres, and there were tablecloths.”
“And waiters?” I ask.
“And waiters,” he says. “And I was the life of the party. A true gentleman. Everyone hung on my every word. Adoring admirers, all. Everybody loves me.”
We walk on in silence for awhile. We’re both picturing the scene. It’s easy to picture. Lieutenant Dan – tall and dashing, charming and well-dressed, all things considered – could easily wander through the world like that, if he believed in, or wanted, such a life for himself. After awhile, I glance over at him. There’s a faraway and beatific smile lingering in his features as we wander down the dusty path. He is lost in the illusion, imagining himself walking among parasols and adoring admirers. I’m lost in this one too. For a moment, anyway. After awhile, I speak.
“And?” I ask.
Daniel blinks. He looks at me through the fog of the dissipating dream, trying to place where he is.
“Hm?” He asks, lost.
“What about the honest version?” I prompt. (It’s pretty clear that wasn’t it.)
“Oh,” he says, jolted back to the outside world. His face falls, ever so slightly. “Homeless alcoholic, hanging out in a tree,” he says, shrugging matter-of-factly, as we watch the path disappearing under our feet like a pebble-covered Ouroboros. And then he smiles.
This is Daniel. He’s tall, good looking if you really want to look, and he lives in the park. Except at night, when he sleeps on top of a dumpster down State Street. Always dapper and dressed in black, usually festooned with a hat that’s almost as cool as mine; he’s the best dressed homeless boy I know. Don’t dismiss him in a soup of stereotypes for being homeless, though. Daniel isn’t down and out. He’s just not playing by the made-up rules of this world anymore. He’s chosen to step out of the common narrative and write his own story.
And he makes up stories so that he can live in them.
There’s something so strangely, concurrently, happy and sad about this boy. He comes off as a free spirit to people who don’t know him. And in many ways he is. But sometimes I can see the sadness getting to him, and when that happens I see him quickly reassemble the smiling facade and then he tells another story. (He doesn’t like wallowing in dark moods, and occasionally when I’m feeling a good Irish melancholy creeping in, he stabs it through with humor. “You’re getting all, Winona Ryder,” he’ll say. “‘My whole life is one, big, dark, rooooommmm….'” And it’s funny, but that helps.)
When I first met him, the summer I moved back to New York, he was lounging in the park with Other Daniel, a guitar player and friend of mine who was also homeless at the time. Lt Dan didn’t make a very good impression on me upon that first meeting. I mean, I noticed he was handsome beneath the patina, but he was also shitty drunk, sprawled shirtless on the ground apparently without the capacity to sit up, and had the vibe of would-be “ladies man” about him. And I do not say that last as any kind of compliment. He kept trying to get me to sit down with the two of them, kept offering me a swig from a greasy pint of something never identified. I declined.
But I began to see a lot of him soon after that, and he quickly grew on me. I guess he had just come to live on the streets and in the park right about the time that I first met him. That was two years ago, and he’s well seasoned to it now. Like I said, that first impression wasn’t great, but the next time I saw him, he was sober and that changed my impression a lot. He turns out to be charming and intelligent, cleans up well, and is a witty conversationalist, especially when he is sober. He has a scary way of secretly seeing people all the way to their marrow… all games revealed. And he doesn’t necessarily tell them that he’s onto them, but he’ll play anyway. It’s one of his real superpowers, one that he doesn’t really mention, favoring instead to make up others to weave into his stories. It was pretty disconcerting to realize that he’s seeing who we really are, and not who we pretend to be. (Which, come to think of it, may be why he pretends so much… his silly stories are probably no sillier to the rest of us than ours are to him. But I’m getting ahead of the narrative here.)
After realizing that the incoherent Lothario parts of him were just the alcohol talking, it was easy to become friends, and even Natty Daddied Dan became someone I liked to run into. We would see a lot of each other, because we were running in the same circles – we both ate at Food Not Bombs now and then, we both love books and hang out at the library, we both wander around the park a lot, and we are both part of the rich tapestry of Lark Street. So it was inevitable that we would become friends, and it didn’t take long.
The only thing is, I thought, at first, that I was expected to actually believe the fanciful stories he embroiders in the air, and that would have made friendship difficult. I mean, they’re ridiculous stories. Self aggrandizing, impossible tales with all the drama, grandiosity and magical thinking of a mercurial toddler. In fact, many of his stories remind me for all the world of the wishful narratives I wove for my friends when I was in the third grade. I used to tell them I could fly, and that my best friend was my sister, and we had an elephant for a pet. I’d get just as lost in these stories as Daniel gets in his. But I was 8 or 9, and he’s 31. And the thing is, if there’s one thing I can’t handle in any kind of relationship, it’s a liar. So I was dubious of Daniel at first, even embarrassed for him when his easily falsifiable details didn’t match up.
There’s the one he still tenaciously clings to, where he poses as a former gallery owner who lost everything during a spat with a business partner and hundreds of thousands of dollars disappeared. (The story leaves unclear who took it.) I didn’t know him yet when he started telling me this one, and I was interested. He gave too many details, though, and the gallery he claimed to have once “owned” is a now-defunct art co-op that had been run by some friends of mine. They quickly confirmed he’d never been an owner, had only just hung out there a lot. His story fell apart. I gently called him on it, but he didn’t care. He just kept, absurdly, claiming to have owned it, and talking about things he’d allegedly done there.
There was the story about how he’d once literally torn someone’s arm off during a fight. Daniel’s no muscle man. He’s blessed with the tall and graceful form of a dancer, not the thick build of a bruiser. But he insisted this had happened.
“So… did the person die?” I asked skeptically.
“No,” said Daniel. “But he didn’t wanna fight anymore after that.”
“Because you know,” I pointed out, “People die from shit like that. There are arteries in arms. You can’t just tear one off without consequence.” I told him the story of a photographer who’d died when I was little. He’d been out at the dog track, photographing greyhounds, when he was hit by the mechanical rabbit, and it tore his arm off….
“Well I’m sure he went to the hospital after,” Daniel explained helpfully. “But he never did call the cops or anything.”
“Mmm,” I said. “So, what did you do with the arm?”
“I don’t remember,” said Daniel. Too many details.
“You, like, toss it into the car with him or something?” Daniel furrowed his brow, said he really couldn’t recall, and laughed.
One of his more bizarrely adolescent tales is one that he comes back to often, and it’s morphed along a lot since I first heard it. It concerns an event that allegedly took place during the almost unsurvivable brutality of the winter before last. He and some unnamed female climbed up onto the roof of the ornate and amazing old castle of the New York state Capitol building. The roof is incredibly steep, many floors up, and is made of copper. Daniel claims to have wiled away an icy, snowy, winter afternoon – 5 hours or so – up on that roof, naked, no less, “fucking and smoking pot.”
“No you didn’t,” I said simply.
“You’d have frozen to death.”
“We almost did. It was cold!”
“Yeh, no shit it was cold, and you’d have died.”
“We had to really work up some heat to survive.” (This he said with a wink.)
“The roof is copper. You’d have stuck to it like that kid’s tongue stuck to the frozen pipe in Christmas Story,” I said, picturing 2 naked bodies glued to the Capitol roof via frozen bodily fluids of various stripes.
He continues, to this day, to insist he really did this, and the dialogue continues. It gets more fantastic every time I hear it. The last few times, it ended with a batman move.
“I told her, this is gonna freak you out, but just trust me,” he said confidentially. “And then I slid all the way down, off the roof, and landed on the lawn.” (A lot of floors below.)
“So, somehow, you managed to break into the most heavily guarded building in the city, you found your way miraculously up to the roof, and you spent 5 hours naked up there.”
“And you survived without dying of exposure.”
“And nobody came looking for you.”
“Well they did, but I got away.”
“You left the woman up there, and you fled?”
“Well she came down a different way.”
“Chivalrous of you.”
“So, you know it’s REALLY high up, right? And that there are stairs, and walkways, and carvings and shit between the building and the lawn….”
“Where’d the rope come from?”
“The rope. There’s nothing around there for a rope to be attached to. Where’d it come from?”
“What was it tied to?”
“The rope. What was it secured to?”
“I dunno. I forget.”
“What was it made out of,” I asked skeptically. “That guy’s severed arm?”
And so forth. This is typical of the conversations that we have.
The thing is, though, as quickly became apparent to me, Daniel isn’t really much of a liar. In fact, he sucks at dishonesty. He never bothers to firm up details, he gives too many of them that are way too easy to check, and there is always that fantastical air of unbelievability about them all. Daniel isn’t a liar; he’s a storyteller. And this is the point which made him someone I could become good friends with after all. I quickly came to realize that manipulating me like a real liar was not his goal, and I came to regard Daniel’s stories as his own peculiar form of performance art. He says he is a sculptor, and I have seen some of his sculptures. But his real art form is in the enacting and the telling of these strange stories, that occasionally seem to reveal more about who he really is inside and how he perceives the rest of us than more accurate sets of words might ever do. He is creating worlds with his words. Happy places for him to climb into, for him to address the world from within. It’s a layer of imaginatively woven soul armor between himself and the world, keeping a little distance between him and anyone who can hurt him.
I get the feeling Daniel is not seated well in this life. He does all right here, but the world is something he just endures, albeit with a whimsical sense of humor and a craving for adventure. But the world isn’t real to him. He lives in his stories. He is a character there, and he escapes into them. He sometimes brings me with him into his imaginary landscapes, and we are safe there. He gets everything he needs from this life in those stories. He is a hero there. People care about him and look up to him. He can do great things there, nothing is ever boring, and his life is meaningful and worthwhile.
I do not know what Daniel’s life was like before he became homeless, because I can’t tell what is real from what’s a story through his words. He is more concrete to me than words. Our shared reality is in the adventures we create together, rather than in sets of words we pass back and forth. So his past is a mystery. I get a sense that there is some deep unhappiness back there somewhere, but I don’t know what it was. I know he loves his family, and he has told me a story about something that happened to him once that, if true, explains a lot. I won’t share it here, both because I have no idea whether it’s true or not, and because it’s a very personal story that I don’t feel would be appropriate for me to share. But something made Daniel very sad once, perhaps that, and it’s a visible stain that can’t be hidden even beneath conspiratorial grins and declarations that he “never worries about anything.” It’s a vein of hurt that runs through him, setting off the colors in him the way a thread of cadmium red can set off the colors of an otherwise earth-toned tapestry. It tempers his silliness into poignancy.
But there is a lot of silliness, too. And of that, I’ve got a lot of stories. Here is one of my favorites of those, concerning a moment that Lt Dan and I shared. Let’s go back to that day, too….
A Boy and His Dogs
It’s the morning of the 4th of July, and I am walking my dogs through the park on their usual morning jaunt. At this time of day, I almost always wander down Bench Row, because I know I can find Daniel there, sitting on one of the benches, reading. He reads ravenously. Everything he can find. Books from the library, books left in the laundromat, books people give him, books he found on the curb on recycle night. He’s always swallowing up one volume after another, and it’s fun to hear what he thinks of what he’s reading. So I make a point to look for him every morning, and to sit and talk with him awhile before I have to get to work, painting in my studio.
So it is, on this 4th of July. But he isn’t in his usual spot, with the usual cast of characters there. I see a lot of his friends: Al (“Harmonica Man”), Carlos, Other Daniel, and a lot of other friends of his milling around near the martial statue. But no Daniel. At first I think that he’s probably off on his usual series of beer runs to the nearby market. (Never too early for a Natty Daddy in Daniel’s world, and on the rare occasions that I have missed him on my morning walk, it’s usually been because he was stepping out to get a beer.) But then I notice him way off down the row, far away from anyone, not hunched over a book but leaning back and staring into the distance. This is not usual for him. Even when he’s reading, he’s never far from the rest of his crew if they’re around. He is an entirely social being.
“What’s up with him?” I ask John.
“Don’t know. He’s odd today,” says John.
So I wander down to the bench where he sits. He looks up the moment he hears the dogs. Daniel loves dogs. Mine love him back. He looks a little startled, though. “‘Sup,” I ask, sitting down next to him.
He turns to me with wide eyes and an electric grin. “I dropped acid,” he says simply. “Huh,” I say. “A lot of it,” he adds quietly. He looks a little shaky and pale.
“Good trip?” I ask. I can’t really tell from the panoply of expressions drifting across his pearling facade.
“I don’t know yet,” he says in a curious voice.
Ruby jumps up into his lap. He startles. He stares at her. Eventually, he realizes who she is and starts to pet her, but then starts staring at his hands instead. She jumps down, and he doesn’t notice. He’s still staring at his hands. “You all right?” I ask.
“Everything is vibrating,” he says, astonished, still staring at his hands.”I can feel the little drops of sweat poking out through the pores in my fingers.”
“Is it a feeling you like?” I ask, concerned that he might be freaking out a little. He doesn’t answer. I’m starting to wonder whether he will be all right out here on his own all day, or whether I should look out for him. I’m trying to think what else I have to do today, consider dragging him back to my place til he can deal. But it suddenly occurs to me that he’s a big boy who is pretty good at taking care of himself, and this is a decision he made for his day. I’ll just make sure he’s feeling settled, and then I’ll get on with my own day. We’ll meet up later, on the evening walk or on my stoop, as usual. He can regale me then with tales of his adventures in universal communion. I’m eyeing him closely for some kind of cue as to whether it might be safe to leave him there awhile to his own devices.
“Everything is electric,” he says, turning to me with a wild and unsure smile. “In a good way?” I ask. He doesn’t answer, but he seems happy enough about it.
“My hair is being really weird,” he confides to me.
“In what way?” I ask.
“Well for one thing, it smells like rust,” he says, fingering a lock, one brow cocked in thoughtful bafflement.
“hm,” I say.
“And… it feels weird,” he says.
Ruby hops back up into his lap, and he stares at her in wide eyed astonishment. He reaches a tentative hand over to pet her again, but again the hand just stops in mid air. She eyes him suspiciously. He eyes his hand. And in a marvelous smile from the universe, it is just at that moment that a news crew comes bouncing across the park at us. I see them, Daniel does not. He’s too engrossed in the developing drama of his own hand. There is a compact and primly decorated woman clutching a microphone, and a disheveled man with a giant camera, both dangling cheery ID badges and station identification. “Good morning!” the woman coos. “Good morning,” I say.
“Would you mind answering a few questions for us?” She asks.
“Uh… what kind of questions?” I ask. I don’t usually talk to the corporate media.
She tells me they are doing a story about fireworks and dogs. And this actually is a subject that I care about today. Later on, there will be aggressive and thoughtless explosions all across the city, and it will terrify all the dogs and cats and squirrels and birds and urban wildlife for miles. Many of them will bolt away, and some will not find home again. I hate fireworks, for what they do to the animals. The reporter is mindful of the issue, and this news crew came to the park to interview people with dogs about this, thinking the place would be full of them right now. But it isn’t. We’re the only people with dogs in the entire park. Would we be willing to chat about this with them in an interview?
Hm. I turn to Daniel to see how he’s feeling, suddenly intrigued by the possibilities here. There’s no telling how this might work out. Daniel is still staring intently at his fingers, in open-mouthed horror now. Something is going on with them in the chemistry of his mind. Grinning broadly at the absurdity of it all, I turn back to the news person. “Sure,” I say confidently. (What could possibly go wrong?)
I do not really like the corporate media, and would ordinarily never have agreed to do an interview with them. But as they were doing an animal-friendly story about not terrorizing dogs with fireworks, and as Daniel’s current state promised some adventurous entertainment, yes, I consented, and by God we did do that interview together. I’ll leave the proceeding details to your imagination, or at least to your will to look up the footage, except to say he did pretty well, given the circumstances, and we did speak up for the dogs. Daniel, of course, forgave me for the setup when he came back to ground, as he’s as up for adventure as I am, and that was a fun little adventure.
He was down with the idea of helping dogs with the story, too. Daniel loves dogs. It’s one of the more pronounced qualities of his character (another reason why we hit it off so well). He has no sense about it, though. When he sees a dog, he goes running off, careening up to the dog, wanting to pet it and hug it and play with it… and in these times he is utterly heedless of what the dog might think about the attention of this unpredictable stranger. This has been a point of contention between us more than once.
Daniel gets bit by dogs a lot. Really. A lot. This is one reason why I have suggested to him that I think the empathy part of him might be a little wonky. It’s not that he doesn’t care about others’ feelings. And he definitely cares about dogs. But he doesn’t seem to read others’ body language very well, seems incapable of putting himself into their shoes and experiencing the world through their eyes a lot of the time. It baffles me how someone so sensitive that he can figure out how to get through a haze of mental illness and trauma to reach some of the most vulnerable of the people who live in the park can’t figure out that a 65 lb dog might not want a 150 lb human she doesn’t know running up into her face and grabbing her. But he cannot figure this one out, not even after having it explained to him repeatedly. Not even after people grouse at him for not asking before trying to accost their dogs. Not even after being bitten more than a half a dozen times just since I met him two years ago.
Last Easter, he and I were hanging out on my stoop with friends, and Daniel was acting out a lot of drunken resurrection performance art… mainly he kept lying on the sidewalk and in the street with his arms out, claiming to be a sacrificial Jesus. I was worried that he was going to get hit by a car, so I kept reeling him back to the stoop. In the middle of all this, a car went by with a huge, speckle-faced pitbull leering out of a back window. Suddenly, without warning, Daniel leapt up off the stoop and went careening out into traffic, “to pet the dog.” He chased down the car, which was now stopped at the light, and he ran right up to it and threw his arms into the car window and around the dog. I was watching in wide-eyed horror when I heard a unison of voices coming from inside the car: “Daniel! Danny boy!”
Whew! So Daniel knows these people, I thought, so it wasn’t as foolish and intrusive as it at first seemed. When he got back over to the stoop, smiling through a sheen of dog slobber, I mentioned that I was relieved, that I had thought he was dumb enough to run up to a complete stranger’s car and do that to a dog he had never even met. He grinned sheepishly and admitted to me that he had not noticed the people and had no idea that he knew them when he ran up to the car. All he saw was the dog face, and in his little boy reckoning, by God that dog needed petting.
“Such a toddler,” I remarked. I spoke with him again, and many times since, about the danger and folly of doing this. “Daniel, if that dog bites you, the dog is the one who has to go to the pound,” I said sternly. “You’ve got to stop doing this.”
But he wouldn’t. my dog bit him, and he’s never bitten anybody.
I once watched him try to “play” with one of them by leaping on top of the dog as it gnawed on a bone. He thrust his face at the dog’s face while bearing his teeth and pretending to bite either the dog or the bone, I’m not clear which. The dog reacted to this affront by jerking its head around and snapping. I saw Daniel sit up in a lurch, silly and stunned look on his face.
“Did… did he just snap at you?” I asked, incredulously. Daniel didn’t answer. He just grinned a funny grin at me, looking guilty. And then three little red balloons of blood began to appear across his jaw.
“My God! He bit you!” I cried. Daniel kept absurdly telling me that it was his fault and not the dog’s. “Yeh, no SHIT,” I admonished, as I helped him clean the wound. “I TOLD you to quit doing shit like that!” “Well he shouldn’t get in trouble,” said Daniel. “No, you should,” I agreed. It was totally his fault that happened. But I still had to lay down the law for the dog, because biting is no small thing, and it could get a dog killed by the State if not addressed. I made the dog sit in the corner for a long while, with Daniel trying to intervene on his behalf the whole time.
A week later, I was sitting with my little chihuahua in my lap, and Daniel was sitting on the floor next to me. He kept leaning over into her face, trying to get her to “play” with him… utterly oblivious to her very clear body language that she did not want to play or be bothered by him. She was sitting very stiffly, trying very hard to ignore him, turning away from him, and being very clear about her feelings. I told Daniel to stop bothering her. “She likes it,” he said. “No, she wants you to leave her alone,” I said. He still kept doing that intrusive-drunk thing where you lean too close into someone else’s face and awkwardly try to engage them. “Leave her alone,” I said again.
He tried to stop, but then forgot and started bugging her again. By now she was trembling. I got up and carried her across the room and sat down elsewhere. Pretty soon, Daniel was sitting by my knees on the floor again, messing with my dog. I reminded him what happened when he wouldn’t leave the other dog alone. “That was my fault though,” he said helpfully. “Yes,” I said. “It was.” And I looked pointedly at him. Still, he kept poking at her. She started to growl a quiet, plaintive little warning at him.
“Get the FUCK away from my dog!” I snapped too. And then I had to put her in the corner and we all had to ignore her while she digested that this is never acceptable. Same thing as the previous week, Daniel kept trying to tell her she’s a good dog, kept trying to get me not to punish her, kept telling me it was his fault and not hers. And it was. But again, my dogs can NOT be aggressive toward people. Because of his dumb, intrusive behavior, she was now in trouble. She was the one who had to be censured for that, not because she had done anything unreasonable, but because I could not have this drunken fool training her it’s cool to growl at people when they bug you.
I think I finally made some headway with Daniel in this regard, at least concerning my dogs, because he finally did stop bothering them. And I have to say, yes, it really was dickish on his part to provoke them like he did, and I really was pretty mad about it. But the thing is, Daniel’s weird dog intrusions come from a childlike (if annoying) love of dogs and not from some mean-spirited poison of the heart. And this is important to me. To offer just a point on this… I had a horrific ex once, a footnote of a man really, nothing more, but he was abusive and mean to both me and my dogs. He was ridiculous. He would get mad at my dogs for looking at him. He was jealous of any attention I gave them, and interpreted everything they did through a weird, self-centered, warped and whiny lens. If Romeo wandered over to ask to be petted, that oaf would interpret it as Romeo “vibing” him out of jealousy for my attention (projecting, of course), and he would snap at him. He was constantly yelling and grousing at them, whining to me about how I like them better than him, and fighting with them like a fucking toddler. So, while I found Daniel’s foolishness about dog-primate behavior to be annoying, I also found it a little touching and it was easier to get past than the douche who was fighting with my dogs out of his own spiteful smallness.
After that one upset, during which each of my dogs had to be a little forceful about their legitimate boundaries, they all get along great now. Both dogs love Lt Dan. Sometimes I have to be pretty clear about boundaries with him, too, but I love him anyway, so I understand that.
A week after I left the country for awhile, I got a text from Dan. It said, “I miss yo face. I got bit by another dog today.”
And so he had. A mastiff. This one left scars on his arm that will likely not go away.
Not every shared adventure was a fun one….
As much as he claims otherwise, I know that being homeless gets to Daniel sometimes. I know, because I’ve been there. And it isn’t easy. It’s not just the concrete reality of it – the cold nights, the rainey days, the need to find resources to survive with. It’s also the stinging and unfair judgment from the rest of the world. As Lt Dan has put it more than once, it’s the isolation of it all. Most people don’t even look at you twice when you’re homeless, and when they do it’s often because they are trying to figure out what they can accuse you of when they call the cops on your poverty.
What I recall most glaringly from my own stint with homelessness is that the “Good Citizens” of the world can be pretty mean. Casting ignorant judgment without having a *clue* who you are or why you’re there, thinking just your audacity for being visibly poor should be enough to have you arrested, imagining themselves somehow in a position to look down upon you even when they really aren’t better than anyone… these are the behaviors of small, weak people who like to bully those whom they consider powerless because it makes them feel less small and less weak. They don’t even let you sleep anywhere. There’s a lot of that around, and it’s pretty sickening. Daniel puts up with it a lot, very stoically. But in our world, it is my upstairs neighbor, “Jim,” who most clearly epitomizes that whole stunted form of bigotry in a microcosm. Jim is a real bully when it comes to homeless people. I have written about him before. He has a vicious streak about this, and it was this streak that finally ended our precarious friendship. (Jim and I are very, very different people, from different worlds, and with different expectations regarding acceptable and unacceptable behavior and modes of argument. Jim is a Trump man, vehemently racist though he doesn’t think so, hates words like “socialism” and “anarchy” without knowing, not even a little bit, what those words even mean. He argues with opinion rather than fact, and does not recognize the difference between the two. So our friendship was already tenuous at best, but somehow we managed. Until it came to the way he treats homeless people, and specifically, my friend Daniel.)
Daniel spends a lot of time at my place (when he is not missing, anyway) on my stoop in the evenings, or in my room watching movies with me on rainy nights. Jim never had an issue with him. Not until the night we were sitting around talking about something or other on the ArtHaus stoop, and the subject of Daniel’s homelessness came up. Daniel and I were innocently discussing the relative impacts of the previous two winters upon him as a homeless person. (This most recent, globally-warmed winter was so much less brutal and life-threatening than that of the previous year had been, and I was remarking upon how worried I’d been about him a time or two the year before.) Jim looked baffled by the conversation. “Danny lives in the park,” I explained, thinking I was just talking to another human being and not a bigoted, judgmental, shit-headed bully. But Jim’s entire countenance changed darkly and immediately. He began to silently glower at Daniel. Later, when Daniel asked Jim a question, Jim sullenly refused to answer. Daniel looked at me and shrugged. He knows this one, he’s used to it. But I felt sickeningly betrayed by Jim’s bullshit, and more to the point, I felt like I had betrayed Daniel for mentioning that he lives in the park to a dumb fucking jerk like that.
“It’s all right,” Dan whispered to me behind Jim’s sullen back. “It doesn’t bother me.” And I knew that’s what he wanted me to believe, but I also knew it wasn’t true. Of course it bothers him, to be unfairly judged, looked down upon by a dick like that, by an entire, garbage-headed genre of stupid, bigoted, shitheads like that, simply because of economic happenstance.
“What’s your problem, man?” I asked Jim, after Daniel left.
“An able-bodied man like that should be working,” Jim self-righteously scowled.
“How do you know he isn’t,” I asked. (Daniel has many ways of supporting himself, not that it’s any of Jim’s business. Nor has he ever asked Jim, me, or anyone else to my knowledge for a handout, not that there would have been anything wrong with that.) “And what business is it of yours?”
“He shouldn’t be living in the park,” said Jim. Then he went off on a rant about how homeless people are allegedly “destroying the city.” (Along with Black Lives Matter people, overly uppity women, socialists, and people who care about animals… all of whom have also previously been pegged by this guy for “destroying our city.”) I tried to talk gently to him at first. I bit back my disgust for a man like that, petty and sad, who would think he had the right to pass such judgment on others, and instead I tried to reason with him. I reminded Jim that he had no problem with Daniel before finding out that he was homeless. Daniel has never been disrespectful of Jim, or of any one of our neighbors. So WHAT, I asked Jim, was his problem with how Daniel lives his own life?
All he could do was revolve right back around to how “able bodied” Daniel appears to be, and how it is thus somehow immoral for him to be homeless.
“You don’t know his story,” I pointed out. “You never know another person’s story. So it’s wisest not to judge them over shit that’s none of your business.”
But Jim insisted that it *is* his business how homeless people live, because they are in violation of some sort of social contract he thinks they have with him. They are not “working,” (clueless idiot), which is a moral fault. They are sleeping places where they shouldn’t be. They leave garbage and commit crimes, and they beg for money. They’re “bringing down quality of life in this city.”
What a crock of nonsense. First of all, anyone who thinks this city has any “homeless problem” (as homeless people are frequently described by bullies) should go out west, where the climate is more temperate all year. There are so many more people openly living on the streets out west than there are here. And so what?! If you don’t want to see homeless people around, then fight the capitalist disease that causes people to be homeless. Don’t fight the people who have been victimized by that disease. But Jim is, stupidly and inexplicably, a staunch supporter of capitalism even if he doesn’t actually know what that word means either.
I pointed out that Daniel had never once been rude to Jim. Had never harmed him in any way. Had never committed any crimes around him, had never left garbage behind on any of his visits, had never disrupted Jim’s life in any way. In fact, Daniel has never even asked him for a single thing, not even a thin dime. That’s why Jim did not know he was homeless, why he does not know about a lot of people who are homeless, until the subject came up, no thanks to me. “Daniel has never bothered you, and he takes care of himself. So, again,” I asked Jim, “What is your problem?”
Arguing with Jim is pointlessly frustrating. As I said, he doesn’t get that there is a difference between fact and opinion, so challenging his dumb assed opinions by pointing out facts that refute them – an otherwise useful tool for creating a common understanding – is useless with him. He is drowning in Fox “news” indoctrination. Facts do not penetrate there. So he never could articulate any real reason to hate on Daniel. But he had plenty of opinions, all founded on gibberish.
In the following days, Jim’s relentless attempts to bully and shame Daniel (and everyone else on our street who is homeless) brought our precarious friendship to an end. Jim had always been shitty to homeless people, but since discovering “One of Them” in his own circle, he became rabid about it. A couple of days after he found out that Danny was homeless, Jim sat out on the stoop busking, and I went out to enjoy the music… right up until I saw the “No Homeless People on This Street” sign that he had taped to his amplifier. I was livid. I tore the sign down and admonished him severely for it.
“How dare you sit out here and insult and harass my friends and neighbors like this, from our very stoop!” I cried.
Jim responded that he felt it was “the vagrants” who were harassing people. He claimed he had “gotta a lotta community support” for his classist, hateful sign. “There’s families, kids and stuff, who want to be out here,” he said. “And these bums scare them away. They’re GRATEFUL I’m out here doing this.”
I was spitting mad. First of all, the only family with young children on our entire stretch of street is headed by a woman who was herself homeless not so long ago, who advocates powerfully for houseless people, and who set up a free clothing exchange specifically to keep poor people warm all winter. I, too, am a mother, and when my child was small, I taught him to respect everyone and to avoid this kind of bigotry. This jackass is NOT speaking for her, nor for me, nor for any other families in our neighborhood. Second, anyone who is “scared” of people for being homeless should probably just not venture out at all. And someone who can’t handle poor people *certainly* doesn’t belong in any city. There are all kinds of people in this world, with all kinds of different lives, living situations, and economic backgrounds, and none of them owes anyone else some kind of conformity with narrow economic expectations. Fuck that.
But finally, the irony was staggering. Here’s this dumb jackass, sitting here on our stoop, with a begging bowl out, expecting passersby to drop change in for him. That’s busking. Performing for tips. But in the eyes of anyone who might have otherwise agreed with Jim’s narrow, bigoted worldview, that’s begging. I know, because I have literally fought for the right to busk in this town.
Last year, I was attacked and assaulted by a police officer for busking. While the person I was with at the time mugged for cameras and tried to leverage the entire event into a cheap celebrity moment for himself, I instead eschewed the cameras and literally fought city hall and the police state behind the scenes over this issue, and gained real change. I demanded the city to explain, by what authority this officer was harassing people for busking and how they thought they had the right to tell buskers they can’t perform when the supreme courts have consistently ruled busking to be constitutionally protected free expression. It was eventually uncovered that the officer who had attacked me had, in fact, been harassing, assaulting, and illegally arresting and fining anyone who appeared to be “indigent” downtown for years. He was doing so without authority, and was simply charging people with things like “disorderly conduct” or “resisting arrest” when they tried to stand up for their right to be there. In his eyes, and in the eyes of everyone who looks down on “beggars,” busking is begging. So the extreme irony of this jerk out here busking on our stoop with an anti-“beggar” sign on his amp, thinking he was superior, thinking anyone was about to thank him for that, was just staggering.
On that day, I just tore down the sign, and then stood behind him with a sign I’d made that read, “Don’t Support This Classist Douche; He Hates Poor People.” We came to a detente wherein it was decided that he would never again affix and anti-poor sign to our building, and in exchange, I would not follow him around with an anti-Douche sign. (Ah, artists. We might have our differences, but we’re fun to watch.) Daniel had not seen the sign, and I did not tell him about it that day.
But later, Jim continued to be rude to Daniel. Every time he saw him, he’d make faces at him, he’d wave his hand in Daniel’s face to call attention to the fact that he hadn’t had a shower in awhile. He’d cluck his tongue at him if he dared to be out on the stoop with me. He’d shit-talk Daniel to anyone else out on the stoop. And on one memorable occasion, he threatened me that he would “call the cops on him” if he saw Daniel anywhere near our building again. I had to point out to the stupid jackass that, despite what a lot of people want, poverty isn’t actually illegal. Daniel is my guest, and is thus not trespassing, and he would have a hard time explaining to the police why he called them on someone who was not breaking any law. People like that just think they get to be bullies, and they’re usually such ridiculous and privileged little cowards that they think they can call out the might of the police state on anyone they don’t like. (Nope. The person actually has to have committed a crime. If they are white, anyway.)
Then, one night, Jim dropped by my studio to see what I was up to. It wasn’t an unusual visit… despite our differences, we’re both artists living in the same building together, and we really have tried to get along. But it happened that Daniel was over, and we were watching a film together. When I opened the door, I saw that it was Jim and actually invited him in. But the second he saw Daniel, he blew a tube somewhere in his neck. Just threw a fit! Stomped away in disgust, complaining all the way up the stairs. And the next day, I found a long, insulting, offensive, bigoted, sexist, mansplaining load of bullshit in my inbox from him. “Lady, what are you DOING?!” That’s how it began. And it went downhill from there, presuming to inform me that Daniel, my friend, “is only using you” and “will just use you for whatever he can get and then throw you away.” It was shockingly filled with unquestioned assumptions about me, about Daniel, about my inability to navigate my own relationships, about my alleged need, as a “vulnerable female,” for someone like JIM to “protect” me, because he “cares about” me, by telling me how to conduct my private, personal life. He seemed to be under the utterly incorrect delusion that he was somehow entitled to enforce his notion of “safety” upon me by chasing away any and all (younger, better looking) men who might come near me, because obviously I can’t manage to make such decisions for myself.
It was truly offensive on every possible level. I have a special kind of anathema for mansplaining, and this diatribe was filled with it. Just as I was finishing the message, I heard Jim coming down the stairs to go to work. I pulled my door open and lit into him with full Irish fury. “What on EARTH do you think gives you the right to speak to me like that?” I demanded. “How DARE you assume you are more capable than I am at determining other peoples’ motives and navigating my personal relationships and conduct! How DARE YOU!” I was barely coherent, I was so angry, and we had an enormous falling out that was the end of our friendship.
Since then, Jim wanders by with his head down, timidly but still audibly muttering words like, “disgusting” and “sickening” every time he passes either of us in the hall or on the stoop.
It would be one thing if this dumb jerk were the only one. But the world is filled with bigots like this, and Daniel has to cheerfully navigate them all. I don’t know how he does it. It hurts me to the quick to watch losers like Jim exercising what little economic or civic might they can muster against the innocent and the powerless. Fucking bullies, all.
Lieutenant Dan Disappears
One day in mid summer, I was sitting in the park with Daniel. He was uncharacteristically gloomy. He began talking about a friend of his who had killed himself a couple of years before, around the time that Daniel had stepped off the wheel and gone homeless. “He disappeared for ten days,” Daniel said sadly. “They found him still wrapped in the blanket I’d given him.”
Due to the strange nature of our relationship, I’m never sure what to do with stories like this one. As I said before, our shared reality consists of shared adventure, not words. There are, indeed, a lot of words because both of us have some blarney. But the words form a different dimension of our friendship – a means by which we entertain ourselves and connect with each other, but not something I would usually consider to be “reality.” I generally treat his word balloons as if they are all part of his elaborate body of performance art. Even sad stories, sometimes mishandled, I have assumed are mostly made up unless I am personally familiar with the details. So I do not know if Daniel really had a friend who really killed himself two years ago, or if that person was really found wrapped up in a blanket Daniel had given him. But the sentiment that was written firmly in his features as he told this tale was sincere. And that is its own kind of honesty, a communication more poignant than words. I could feel his sadness. Despair. Every now and then, I can. But it’s not a side he likes to expose very often.
So, we sat in silence awhile, just sitting with his sadness. And that’s an aspect of Daniel’s stories that I do not think I mentioned adequately yet. That the words are often metaphorical, pointing to states of mind or artifacts of reality not easily revealed through verbal references to concrete fact. Whatever Daniel was feeling right then was well-expressed in the story of his friend, whether or not that friend had ever really lived and died on the streets of this city. Again, his stories have a clarity and a purpose of expression that transcend mere articulated facts, and there is a sense in which they are never dishonest. So yes. I could feel some stabbing pain in these words, and we just sat with them.
“If I just disappeared,” he finally said somberly to some point off in the distance, “Nobody would even care.”
“Not true,” I said. “I would care.” But something about the way he’d said it was haunting, and there was a whole rush surging along beneath the surface of our park bench communion right then. I was wondering how much I would care, how much he would want me to, picking apart the puzzle of our friendship, obsessively wanting my words to express the exact truth every bit as much as he generally ignores exact truth with his own words. I was wondering whether I should be worried about him, noting to myself that he really did seem to be depressed, and wondering what collection of words would most accurately reflect the scenarios I was playing in my mind. If he really did disappear, what would that really mean to me?
It’s not like we are bound by any strings in our relationship. We are held together by an honest bond of mutual regard, not by any rules and not by that glue of fear and possession and control that is an unacknowledged thing in so many other kinds of relationship. So on the days when I don’t see him in my wanderings, I have not really worried about it that much. I’ve assumed he was off having his own adventures, a big boy I do not need to be responsible for. Did I “care”? Well Jesus, of COURSE I did. But in what sense was he asking? Did he mean, for a day or two? Or was he talking long term? It didn’t bother me that I sometimes didn’t see him for a day or two because I assumed he was all right, but I would miss his face sometimes. Other times, I just went on with my day and he went on with his, and I didn’t give it a thought. But clearly, Daniel was talking about something bigger here. He was not talking about just being out of sight for a day or so. He was talking about “disappearing.” And he was saying it in the context of a story about a painful suicide, where no one cared enough to save the person, and no one even cared enough to find the body for more than a week. God, of COURSE I would care about something like that. How could he think otherwise?
There was a creeping sense of unease growing behind my eyebrows as I considered what he was saying to me, and what kinds of word balloons I should be offering back.
“No one would even notice,” he said quietly.
“Oh, not true,” I said, finally able to offer up an unqualified assertion of fact. “I’d definitely notice.” And after a moment of thought, I added, “Everybody would notice.” And that part is true. Daniel is ubiquitous. Everybody knows him. Everyone is used to seeing him in his daily haunts, wandering up and down Lark street, lounging around in the park, giggling noisily from a perch somewhere or surreptitiously heading out on one of his many “secret missions” through the city. He is a fixture here. A “character.” As much a part of the strange social-scape of this city as Ricky Stixx, who played the city with drumsticks before he disappeared last winter, and we’ve certainly all noticed that Ricky hasn’t been around. As important to the plot line of this town as Ben the Dog, as Harmonica Man, as His Honor the Mayor of Lark Street, or the Grant Street Mayor, or all the other royal refugees here on the edge. Yes, we would all definitely notice the disappearance of Daniel from this narrative.
He didn’t seem convinced. And I didn’t feel very helpful.
“Don’t disappear,” I said to him that day.
And the following day… he did.
Noticing the Hole
The following day was a Friday. Although, as an artist and a homeless boy, neither I nor Daniel have to be on any kind of schedule, Friday in the summer time tends to be a big night on the ArtHaus stoop. The city is electric and alive on Friday nights, and everyone likes to stop by. It’s a good busking night on Beer Island, a good time for catching up with neighbors, and a good excuse for a gathering. The people-watching is fine, and there is an air of celebration emanating from the college kids and the workaholics, suddenly unbridled in the many bars along this street. Daniel’s is one of the faces I always expect to see out there on Friday night. But I did not see him on that day or night at all. Not wandering through the park with the dogs, and not later when we all gathered on the steps outside my building. I assumed, as I normally did, that he must have found a grand adventure, and would be by to regale us with stories about it when he got around to it.
But the next day was an even bigger day for my Center Square neighborhood. It was a huge and eclectic art festival called Art on Lark that shuts down my street and brings tens of thousands of people flooding into my community for live bands and art shows and merch-merch-merchandise. I’d been furiously working to get ready for that festival all month. It’s one of two bookend festivals that keep the artists here flush. On Saturday morning, I dragged out a big table and some chairs, and my easel so that I would have something to do. I brought out dozens of paintings and prints – it’s always a thing to try to figure out which of my work to bring out for this. I don’t want my best work sitting out on the street, nor do most festival-goers want to kick down for the kind of art that well-heeled collectors in galleries can afford… but I certainly don’t want crappy work out there representing me as an artist. So this is a fine and frustrating balance that I must struggle to find, and it had taken me most of the month to get everything together. I dragged everything down on Saturday morning and set up shop on my stoop. (What a location! I made the rent that day, so that was a good one.)
I live-painted some on Fallujah, a painting I’ve been working on for some time. I do that when I’m showing and there are a lot of people around, not because I’m brave enough to paint in front of people, but because I feel too stressed out by social interactions to function normally, and I like to have something to do besides having to interact with people. So I stood there all day, getting a lot of work done on that painting… knowing in the back of my mind that Daniel would be showing up pretty soon. He never misses a big party like this.
But he never showed up that day, and that’s when I started getting worried for real. It was a little gnawing thing, at first. It just wasn’t right that he wouldn’t be around for this, and for Friday both. Was he mad at me? Was he hurt? Oh… and that ominous conversation we’d had earlier….
I waited one more day and then I finally broke down and texted him. Usually, I would have figured he’d find me if he wanted, and would have left it at that. But we never went more than a day or so without talking in some way, and never on a festival day. I sent him a short message just asking where he was, noting that he’d missed the festival.
I tried calling him, but there was no response.
Two days later, I texted again. This time, I mentioned that I was getting worried.
After that I tried to call and text a lot, but got no reply. At first, the phone was ringing awhile before going to voice mail, but after a few days, it was going straight to voice mail… so either he had turned off his phone, or it had died. I started getting increasingly worried. Every day, I would walk hopefully through the park, but I kept feeling like I wasn’t going to see him there.
I started to get inexplicably upset with him. I told myself that he was just messing with me… that this was just some elaborate performance art, that maybe he just wanted to know how much we cared, so he was testing his theory regarding whether or not anyone would notice if he disappeared. I took to sending texts that said things like, “This isn’t funny anymore, Lt Dan,” and “You were wondering if anyone would care… now you know. Time to come out.” And, finally, “If you’re just trying to prove that people care, you’ve done that now. Any more of this and I’m not gonna talk to you again. You gotta say you’re all right now.”
But there was no reply.
One night, a friend and I finally walked down State street to find the place where Daniel slept. He had described it to me enough times that I was sure I could find it, and… I did. I had wondered, as we were walking up, whether this was too intrusive. Although Daniel and I have been friends for a couple of years, and he’s spent a good deal of time at my place, I had never been here to his. There had never been an invite, and christ, just because a guy is homeless doesn’t mean he isn’t entitled to some privacy. So I considered, on the walk there, whether I should be doing this. In the end my fear for him overcame my desire to respect his privacy. I was just so scared that he might be lying there in trouble. That maybe someone had attacked him, or he was sick, or maybe he’d OD’d.
Without much effort, I followed the mental map I had formed of this place from the stories he had told and I found his little purple futon there, carefully rolled up and stowed behind a row of dumpsters…. It was exactly where I had always imagined it. And… he was nowhere to be found. God, there was something so touching about seeing that futon there. Daniel had talked about his “safe place,” his “sleeping spot,” many times to me. And I did not realize until I found it that I had half expected it not to really exist. I guess I’d imagined, somewhere inside, that maybe this place was as made up as the guy with the arm-ectomy, or the slide down the Capitol. Somewhere inside, I have wanted to believe that this boy was not really homeless. That he had places to stay and couches to surf, and warm places to be on winter nights. But there it was. The place Daniel had been calling home all this time. All he had in the world was stowed there in that little spot… and it wasn’t much. I stood there and looked at it for some time.
And then we walked silently home.
It hurt to see that careful little nest. Hurt to realize that sometimes, people really are as vulnerable and broken as the hints suggest. Daniel has always put on such a brave face about his place in this life. He laughs off a lot of things that other people might cry about. He rarely complained to me about anything. And this is where he slept.
The Search for Daniel
Slowly, it seems, everyone began to notice that Daniel was missing. Like me, everyone assumed at first that he must be off on some adventure, or that he’d found someone to stay with awhile. But… but by the time a month had passed and he still hadn’t shown up, everybody cared. People in the park kept asking me if I’d seen him, people would stop by my stoop and ask about him, and everybody was concerned.
People formed theories, and search parties, and rumors. Something important was missing from the fabric of our city, and we felt it. Before disappearing, he had wondered whether anyone would notice; whether anyone would care. Sadly, I considered how very much I wanted him to know just how glaring his absence was. But I had no way to get the message through.
I remember trying to divine his whereabouts on every morning walk. Wherever I went in the city, I would search my inner landscape to see if I might find traces of him there. But the trail was cold, the Daniel-hole in the air was empty. Nobody had a clue.
I tried to divine, as well, whether he was still in this world at all. Somehow, I could feel that he had not exited for good, but I understood that this could just be wishful thinking. I just couldn’t bring myself to imagine that he could have left the world. But with each passing day, unease grew. Summer wound on without Lieutenant Dan and his stories and his ever- present Natty Daddies.
Then, one day, we found him. He never did just magically appear in the park again, I was right about that part. It turns out, Lt Dan was in jail. (This had certainly been one of our theories all along, but given his peaceful and harmless disposition and white- privileged skin, we all assumed he’d have been out long ago if that had been the case.) Nobody knew why, or for how long, except that it had something to do with “old warrants.” New York state inmate locator had his name, his mugshot, and what jail he was in, but no information on charges or sentence. So rumors flew. Everyone seemed to be saying he was “gonna be in there for a long time,” but no one could say why. Some people were talking about him being potentially extradited to the west coast. That seemed, to me, to either be wrong, or to give Daniel a new dimension to me, as I was under the impression he’d never even been out west. And what could he possibly have done out there that would necessitate the State going to all the trouble and expense of having him extradited?
The most persistent rumor declared that he’d been picked up while skinny dipping in the pond at Washington Park. There were a lot of versions of this story, but my favorite was that he and another park figure were skinny dipping in the lake in broad daylight, and police were going to just warn them out and let them go. However, Daniel had allegedly set the contents of his pockets on top of his clothes, and there was a baggie of weed sitting right in top. So they decided they couldn’t just let him go, and when they ran his name they found the old warrant.
I didn’t know what to make of any of that, except that it might have corroborated a story he told, days before he disappeared, in which he went skinny dipping in that very lake. (I’d thought that was just another of his stories, so finding out he may have been arrested doing so again kind of made me question my disbelief of all those other stories. Maybe there really WAS a one- armed man running around somewhere in East Greenbush, and maybe there really WAS a rope affixed somewhere to the Capitol… though I doubted it.) It turned out, though, that neither the arrest nor the fallout were as dramatic as the rumors suggested.
In reality, Daniel had been sitting in the park with an open container, which brought him to the attention of police. When they ran his name, they found an old warrant from drug court that he had been hiding from for the duration of the time that I’d known him. So he went to jail for a good part of the summer, and I have to say that when I looked him up in the New York system so that I could write to him there. I found him right away… and his mugshot was heartbreaking to me. He looked so lost, and so alone, the smile gone from his wan face. I stared at that image for a long time, willing him to be strong in there. Because I have had friends who were destroyed in prison, though they were there as political prisoners, and for a lot longer. But I know what a cruel place that is for anyone, and Daniel did not deserve to be there. Of this much, I was sure.
So I wrote to him, and we corresponded a little while he was in there, and of course his letters did not expose the soft spots… no Big Dark Room for him. They were light and funny, and made me feel better even if I knew that was probably a facade.
The Resurrection of Lieutenant Dan
He was released to a halfway house shortly after we found him, but it was awhile before he returned to the neighborhood. He went through the DTs in jail, and by the time any of us got to see him again, he was going through rehab, and had been forcefully clean and sober for quite awhile. And God… what a spectacular resurrection.
It’s like he climbed up from the underworld, up from the soil of his former life, having composted in the ground for 2 years. He seemed to have sprung up from that nest in the dirt as miraculously formed and as clean and pristine as a new green shoot in the spring.
Very recently, after the Resurrection, he shared with me some words he’d written 2 years before, presumably just before he went off to live in the park. This is what he wrote back then, and I think maybe these words describe a tree that is finally starting to bear fruit after a long, cold, winter:
“I might be ‘in recovery’ right now, but recovery is not something I’m trying to get, I do not want to recover an old life, I’m going to engineer a new one.. This time I’m going to get what is right, not the punishment some people think I deserve, but SOMETHING better than I can imagine for myself. This is not entitlement. This is earned. This is bought and paid for with my bruises and my broken heart. I will no longer bow down to fate or a poorly dealt hand from a stacked tarot deck. I am the king here, this is my life, and I will build my castles with fucking strong foundations. Keep pontificating from your house of straw while I huff and puff.”
Take THAT, “Jim.”
He looks great, and he did earn this. He’s put on some needed weight, he gets regular showers these days, he’s clean- shaven, and his hands and bloodstream are resoundingly Natty Daddy-free. Women all over albany, I’m sure, are wishing they’d been kinder to him when he was living on the streets. He looks like GQ. My God, when I saw him earlier this evening, the man was wearing a tie. He goes to AA meetings, and he drinks a lot of coffee. Dogs no longer bite him. He asks to pet them now, and seems to understand their body language. And my neighbor, Jim, literally no longer recognizes him.
He can walk through the world with a pewter tipped cane now, I suppose, can find his place in a Renoir painting if he chooses after all. People pat his back and tell him how proud they all are of his recovery, his resurrection. But some of us saw him through the haze all along, and that seems to mean something to him. As it should. It’s the people who are there for you when no one else is, when you are down and out, when others turn their backs on you… those are the people who matter. So I’m not sure how he feels about it, but I have a lot more respect for those of us who were with him all along, than the people all coming out of the woodwork now, clamouring about how they never thought he had it in him.
A Parable of Solidarity and Mutual Aid
And that’s how I come to this part of this story, too… Another part I did not know that I was going to write about, back when I started to write about the boy who tells stories. Around the time Daniel was climbing up from the underworld, I was too. But I had a temporary setback along the way that I feared might be a road right back to the Hell from which I’d come. So my life fell apart, yet again, and long story short, I wound up in the hospital, having tried to kill myself. No, it wasn’t for drama, I just couldn’t summon the inspiration to get through another day. I’m not going to dwell on that part, because this is not a story about me, and besides, that’s mostly private. But I suck at suicide, have pretty much given up on it as an option, having decided that we’re all already dead and this is Hell. (Cmon, what kind of God would have created us, just to torture us to death with Life.) So I survived and went to the hospital, and when I was there I needed so much for someone to be there for me, to hold my hand and talk me off the now-metaphorical ledge, to let me know, without judgment, that I was not as utterly alone as I felt. I didn’t really expect anyone to be there for me. …But Daniel was.
Daniel showed up the night after I was admitted. He brought food for my service dog, and a book for me to read, and funny stories and concern. He was there when no one else was. He listened to me cry, and grouse, and whine. He held out a lifeline to me, and no it was not made of some guy’s severed arm nor left by window washers. It was for real. Bearing the true heart I’d always suspected was in there, Daniel was there for me, when no one else was. This is what I mean, when I say Solidarity on the Edge. Those of us who have been there, we know who is true and who is not. Because we’ve seen it from the front lines, and we’ve had all delusions to the contrary washed away in our own sacrificial blood.
Days later, when I broke myself out and tore the IV from my own arm, when I came home broken and hurt and bitter, he was there for me then, too. It was a Friday. A First Friday. That’s a big thing in my world. It’s when the artists come out to show their work and meet each other and mingle with the community. The Show Must Go On, as they say.
I had just left the hospital a few hours earlier. I had holes in my arms and a hole in my heart, and was leaking fluids from my face like a statue of the Virgin Mary. But, like the refugees from the edge that we are, we both cleaned up, and put on our happy public faces and our weird regalia (well, mine was weird, his was all GQ… which is weird in its own way), and we went out galavanting through he galleries as if nothing had happened. In the dark, between shows, I cried a lot, and Daniel let me, and joked about Winona Ryder, and never judged me once. And, eventually, I got better. See, I had always known he was this prince. Even when Jim was croaking at him like a frog. If there’s one thing I have gotten good at, apparently, it’s picking my friends.
So yes, Daniel pretty much saved my life for me, and this is what happens when friends stand by each other no matter what. (Yesterday, another friend flattered me very much by telling me that she has been reading Just Kids and that she thinks I remind her of Patti Smith in that book. If so, then I guess that Daniel is Robert Mapplethorpe. One could do worse.) I need to close this now, before the next chapter, because I started this story many months ago now, and every day there is a new chapter to tell and this story just keeps getting longer and longer. I think the next chapters should just be ours. So, in closing, I want to just say that Daniel, did, indeed, come through the adversity and the captivity with grace and courage, and has become mended in ways that bring out the very best in him. I wonder what kind of stories this new iteration of Daniel will tell. I like seeing him like this. But I have to say, there will always be a place in my heart for the homeless alcoholic, hanging out in a tree, as well.