I walked out of the bookstore on a warm Friday afternoon and received a hailing from across the street. It was Jaime and Jacob from the Old Crow Book Club hanging out at the usual sidewalk. I waved and dashed over to meet them. As I’ve written countless times before, no one greets me with such authentic enthusiasm as the homeless people in my neighborhood. It truly feels good.
Jacob was drinking a can of malt liquor and Jaime was eating something from a carton, which she set down.
A bespectacled man of indeterminate age with a wispy white beard stood near them. He was introduced to me as Doc and I learned that he was an Army veteran of Iraq, on disability, and the VA had just got him into housing across town. He had returned to the neighborhood because prior to housing he had lived in the wetlands in and around the Oaks Bottom Wildlife for a couple of years.
So here was someone who had helped utterly destroy the wetlands with a malicious residence, a subject I had written about multiple times with considerable vitriol. I wanted to talk to him about that subject but this didn’t seem to be the right occasion.
The recent partial sweep of the encampment had apparently prompted Doc to seek out housing. And now he was housed in a one-bedroom apartment that he had yet to furnish even though the VA provided him a thousand-dollar allowance to do so. I asked what he needed and he said, everything. Jaime offered to help him shop and decorate. He liked that idea.
Jaime told Doc I had written The Old Crow Book Club. I told everyone to wait. I dashed across the street and retrieved a book for Doc and two tins of fine pipe tobacco for Jaime and Jacob. Upon my return and presentation, hosannas went up.
It was time. I knew it was now or never for the book launch party even though I hadn’t seen Mark for a couple of weeks. I asked Jacob and Jaime if Sunday at one in the park by the creek would work. I’d bring everything. Could Jacob and Jaime round up everyone? Could we pull this off? This was it!
They agreed with profane enthusiasm. I invited Doc and then we discussed the types of pizza to order. Jaime promised to bring her flute. I made a mental note to bring paper towels and a table cloth. I wanted this gig done right and that meant decent local beer and not corporate malt liquor swill.
We were getting pretty giddy with all the party planning. Then Jaime said, “Matt, thanks for all this and your charisma.”
“My charisma?” I said, laughing. It was such a weird word for the moment.
Jaime explained: “I mean, if I was in a grocery store and we were standing next to each other in the meat department, I would listen to you forever.”
It was easily the strangest and greatest and unique compliment I had ever received! Meat department! And I don’t eat meat!
It was time to go.
In roughly 48 hours the launch party for The Old Crow Book Club would take place or not. It was either going to be a total bust or rank as something unprecedented in the annals of American literary history.
Forty-eight hours passed and….
I saw Donny wearing a Prince Purple Rain t-shirt and debriding a bloody wound on Jaime’s left leg. She took a belt from a pint of Old Crow and howled from the burn. Donnie sterilized the wound with a splash of Old Crow and Jamie screamed from the pain. It was right out of cornball Western, you know the kind where Jeff Chandler or Victor Mature plays an Apache. The only detail missing was Jamie biting down on a stick or piece of rawhide.
This was quite obviously the only incident of its kind at a literary event, the launch party for The Old Crow Book Club, in the annals of world literature. It was remarkable because Donny had discharged himself that morning after four days in a hospital drying out and taken a cab to the park. It was even more remarkable because 24 hours earlier I’d seen Jamie whacked out on something, splayed in the parking lot of a mausoleum.
We ate pizza. Or should I say it was devoured.
We ate a salad prepared by a homeless woman. She had walked a mile with the bowl and three bottles of salad dressing.
We drank good beer.
A few vaped dank weed.
Johnson Creek gurgled behind us.
We admired Sean’s stones he’d collected from the Clackamas River.
We talked about writing and finding housing. Everyone wanted housing but they didn’t want to be crammed into shelters with miscreants.
We talked about the difference between convivial and voluble.
We discussed Rachel Ward’s voice.
A black dog ran around raising hell.
We talked discussed our favorite stories from the Bible. Mark’s was a tossup between The Prodigal Son and The Good Samaritan. I’ve always favored Jonah and the Whale.
I doled out 40 tins of fine pipe tobacco. Someone knifed one open and Jacob began rolling cigarettes for the smokers.
One formerly homeless man told the story of how he had the best shot of heroin in his life down by the Willamette River, woke up two days later, walked out of the wetlands and never used heroin again.
I thanked Mark for not dying.
Everyone agreed the book cover would make a great tattoo. Jacob said he’s do it!
I asked how they managed to survive living outdoors. They all said “one day at a time.” It occurred to me that was the language of recovery but perhaps some of these people were in type of recovery from personal disaster.
Mark said he had an appointment to secure a place in line for a slot in a tiny home village under construction. Someone at the hospital where he almost died from two heart attacks had greased the wheels and made something happen in a way official channels could not. It struck me that I probably should have bribed someone last summer when I tried and failed finding Mark housing.
Tammy rode a half mile in wheelchair and then knitted a scarf.
I read a short chapter from the book and felt very rusty and a little emotional. The crowd wanted more but I didn’t.
We raised our paper cups of Old Crow and toasted to The Old Crow Book Club.
I observed we were all here because I met Mark because he was reading a book. If he’d been playing on his phone—nothing.
I thanked everyone for their trust and candor. Without it, no book, no gathering, no possible inspiration from our gathering.
I mentioned I didn’t think anyone would show up. Fifteen had, all but three were homeless. Every member of the book club made it. Someone said I shouldn’t be such a cynic!
I said if the book helps one person get off the streets then it will be the greatest thing I’ve ever written.
Someone observed a love of books built this unique community. I wondered if these people got into housing and began working would they ever find a richer community than this.
I met an elderly woman in a walker who was not homeless but lived in a nearby apartment. She was friends with many members of the book club and often let them take showers or crash on the couch in an emergency. She was writing a book about the recent death of her daughter. She was also writing poetry. Would I help her publish. Yes! This was the first time she’d ever tasted whiskey.
Jamie played her flute accompanying an early Green Day song before they went corporate and Broadway.
We debated the metaphysics of why Prince was dead and Dick Cheney was not.
We sang “The Time Warp” from The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
I gave away 25 books and said to distribute as they saw fit.
At some point, I knew it was time for me to leave. We said our goodbyes and I got hugs, handshakes and fist bumps.
I turned on the CD player. Prince’s “You Got the Look” came on and I cranked it up as I drove away toward home. Prince never sounded so good.