“Who’s that?” I asked, pointing out the car window at a man whose stride betrayed an inebriated state. He did not move fast, but his rolling gait made it seem as if he were walking down a steep hill despite being on a level sidewalk.
My mother glanced through the window as we drove up Main Street in the late morning traffic. Spring had turned the thick grass of the park beside us a vibrant emerald.
“His name is Calvin,” she said. “Be sure you stay away from him.”
“Why?” Ten-year-old eyes sharpening, I watched the man. His hair stuck out in greasy spikes of charcoal and ash, while his matted beard was like a spill of salt across his jowls.
“Because I said,” came my mother’s typical reply.
Some weeks later I asked Dad who Calvin was. His response was equally mysterious.
“Stay away from him, you hear? He’s a junkie. A hobo.”
It was the same instruction I got for most things my parents thought were bad for me. My curiosity poured contempt on such answers.
A few years later I was on my paper delivery route and heard some stories about Calvin.
“He’s crazy! Huffs glue every day.”
“It’s a wonder he’s got a brain in his head.”
“He’s a drifter, moves from town to town then heads south for the winter. Never know where he’s been or where he’s going.”
In the small town of Brunswick, Maine, people spread rumors about the time Calvin spent in AMHI, an asylum spoken of in the serious tone of a campfire story. One kid told me Calvin had killed a man for pocket change and spent a bunch of time at Thomaston, the state’s only maximum security prison in the 1970s. Others said police couldn’t prove Calvin did it because the hobo had no fingerprints, having burned them off handling cans of food straight from the fire. Some said he slept under the trestle bridge, but when I went to investigate I found only broken bottles, cigarette butts and rocks.
I took to walking the tracks hoping for a glimpse of Calvin. The tracks were a convenient short cut from the high school through the downtown area and past Bowdoin College. Since many of the mills in Maine had closed, trains were infrequent travelers on the tracks, as rare as long summers in the Northeast. When a train did come I would scramble aside and watch in fascination, wondering where it had been and where it was headed. In the wake of its mechanical noise, quiet rushed in. I’d think of how the horizon held another town where another kid like me walked on wood ties and threw rocks at tall weeds, perhaps also searching for an elusive hobo.
The harder it was to find Calvin, the more my desire grew to meet this mysterious figure who vanished at will and made others avoid the tracks. I enjoyed my treks among the crushed granite, discovering the edges of a forbidden world, one that swallowed my oldest sister and sent her to a place called “rehab.” I picked up anything that caught my eyes, as my younger sisters and I had often done at the beach, searching tidal pools for the creepy crawly things of the sea. On the tracks, instead of hermit crabs I found plastic lighters, half-smoked cigars and empty wine bottles. Once I dared open a full can of beer that had been lost amongst the weeds. I sipped and immediately sputtered, dropping the can and wishing for a drink of water. Once I found a smashed nickel, the date distorted into an elongated 1978, the year of my birth. I put it into my pocket.
One day I finally met Calvin.
Jouncing down the tracks several hundred feet in front of me, he clutched a crooked cigarette to his face, hollowing his cheeks and exhaling pale exhaust. Seeing me, he held up a hand. I mimicked the action and stood waiting, before he left the tracks and disappeared into the woods.
The next time we met, a plastic shopping bag sprouted from his face then deflated as he huffed the contents. Legs fidgeting, he watched me watch him, finished with the bag and stuffed it into his pocket. Calvin looked through me for a long moment.
“Can ya spahre some change, brother? Brother.” His breath came in fits and gasps, voice hoarse and full of phlegm.
Wary of the twitching blue-eyed man, I gave him the coins in my pocket and waited for the arcade to light up. He smiled a bit and shook my hand. “Thank ya, brother. Brother.” I liked to imagine it was the Catholic charity of my upbringing shining through that moment but in reality I liked how he called me brother. His voice was deep and gravely like Hulk Hogan’s. I didn’t follow Calvin as he staggered off, instead watching him mutter and run grubby fingers through wild hair. I wondered where he was going. The duct tape on his boots tapped the sidewalk as he went.
Calvin usually vanished in October and reappeared around May, sitting on a park bench shouting at cars or crossing the street with his rolling gait. One time, for a Boy Scout function, we delivered canned goods to the Tedford Shelter, the only homeless shelter in town. Expecting to see Calvin, I put aside some cans in a bag just for him—beans and franks, ravioli—but was disappointed to learn he rarely stayed there. Later on I discovered he survived long winters by migrating south or by getting arrested and thrown in jail for petty offenses.
I did not realize that Calvin’s lifestyle had a significant impact on how I chose to respond to the rigors of adolescence. Rather than try to make the right choices, I allowed events to dictate my actions. Generally, I leaned towards the least amount of responsibility and fewest ties to people. It was easier than trying, and what was failure if not another dirt road lined with broken bottles, cigarette butts and discarded condoms?
When I dropped out of high school at the beginning of my sophomore year, consequences were the farthest thing from my mind—so too the lessons of the D.A.R.E. program, my oldest sister’s struggle with addiction, and parental warnings against hanging out with the wrong people. Huffing seemed a natural choice when other drugs or even alcohol were unavailable. My world shrank to the pinpoint of each enjoyable moment without a single thought involving homelessness or mental illness. Walking the tracks as a sixteen-year-old dropout became the one familiar path in my life that made sense of everything. When I saw Calvin he was no longer strange or pitiful. We sat under a bridge and hot-boxed a joint before going our separate ways.
There were no profound conversations between us, very little talking at all. He didn’t regale me with stories of a misspent youth as I poured mine out between the crushed rocks of the tracks. He spoke a word of thanks here and there and that familiar greeting: “Brother. Brother, can ya spahre some change?” If I couldn’t, I gave him cigarettes or smoked a joint or we shared the poison destroying our thoughts—him glue, me, aerosols. Alcohol was a rarity, but when I had a few extra dollars I trusted him enough to get us both a 40-ounce of the god-awfulest malt liquor.
The last time I saw Calvin was the night my parents kicked me out of the house. I had been in and out of the Maine Youth Center and rehab, periodically at home, institutionalized, and homeless. I was eighteen and living at home on the conditions that I would work and not use drugs. The former was easy enough, the latter not so much. That night Dad picked me up from the paper plant after I had spent eight hours stacking inserts and adjusting the conveyor belt coming from the press. Though I’d washed up there were still smears of ink on my neck and ear from errant itches. He dropped me at the curb of the convenient store with everything I owned stuffed into a backpack. I had known this was coming and it felt just, but this did not lessen my sense of wonder as he gave me a quarter, told me to call one of my friends and sped off in the family station wagon.
As I lit a cigarette, Calvin staggered around the corner and stumbled to a halt next to me. “Can ya spahre some change, brother? Brother.”
I gave him a cigarette. “I ain’t got but some change. My dad kicked me out.”
“That’s a shame, that is. That is. Young fella like you ain’t hurt hairs on a fly’s ass.” Then he surprised me by saying more. “You could go to the Tedford Shelter before it closes at midnight.”
It was the best advice he could have given me at that moment. I thanked him, handed over a few cigarettes and hurried to get a bed for the night.
By the time I began sharing experiences with Calvin—walking the tracks, huffing, homelessness, institutionalization—it was too late to give any thought to negative influences or poor role models. He was neither and both. Something about him spoke to an indescribable otherness in me. I found it hard not to like a man who cared nothing for what other people thought even when they were right. He seemed say, stubborn people learn hard lessons, but if you ignore it all and give them the finger, it hardly matters.
Except it does matter. Running away from home and spending time in the Maine Youth Center for various acts of delinquency were situations I could walk away from. Rehab and brief stays in a mental hospital were challenges overcome with a little dedication and self-reflection. What I could not escape was how my reckless choices grew acutely self-destructive.
It’s hard to judge which mistake was the pivotal moment in a young life full of them. The easy answer should be whatever action caused my incarceration, and while I believe that is true most of the time, I also believe there were exits prior to the end of this particular road.
While my life at nineteen, the year I was arrested and convicted of murder, was little different from a life at sixteen, there was a subtle erosion—whether from drugs, alcohol, huffing or a combination of circumstances—in my ability to respond and cope. The beginning of the end occurred when my girlfriend and I agreed that she should have an abortion rather than carry our child to term. The decision affected me more deeply than I could have anticipated. I took to self-mutilating, a behavior that had been absent for nearly three years. Where before the act of cutting and burning my arms had shocked me out of whatever emotionless vacuum I seemed to be in, this time nothing penetrated the fog.
I was hospitalized, drugged and diagnosed, but it merely stirred my hatred of institutions. Those places made me feel like an animal; they were a driving force behind why I felt at home on the road always moving, walking away from responsibility and the rest of the world. After experiencing a psychotic break, which led to an extended stay at Broughton hospital, I knew that I was not okay. Things were never going to be “just fine.”
Maybe this is where I grew to dislike the meaningless complex question “How are you?” What does that even mean? In the hospital my world flipped from the undiluted freedom of an open road, with my only concerns being food, cigarettes, and a drink, to a place with constricting jackets, four-point restraints, and “How are we doing today, Mr. May?” Screaming ninnies streaked the hallways as burly orderlies wrestled their wards’ naked bodies into the shower. Grown men crouched on the floor caressing their scalps with palsied fingers.
There is no making sense of crazy. “Mental illness” was not a word back then any more than iPhone or Arab Spring. I “stabilized” in the hospital because that was their goal. They pumped me full of drugs, stood me on my feet, spun me around three times and pushed me back out into the world. A place that was too bright and shiny for my darkened eyes. Words had been thrown at me—personality disorder, psychotic break, red flags, schizo-affective—but they meant nothing in the face of my one driving thought. I had to hit the road. Get moving. Out of this place where the mind raged with regret, self-pity and sorrow. Hit the road and find a place where it would be cool in the summer and tolerable in the winter. With a bottle to dull the sharper thoughts and a can to shatter the rest. Everything I could need or want on my back and only the future to stop me. Would that I had given Calvin a thought then, he might have saved us all.
Crimson Letters: Voices from Death Row is a collection of essays written by residents of North Carolina’s Death Row. Each carefully crafted personal essay illuminates the complex stew of choice and circumstance that brought four men to Death Row and the small acts of humanity that keep hope alive for men living in the shadow of death. Now available on Amazon.