Keep the old

Happy New Year, internet friends!

As I watched this video I got to thinking about all of my dear friends, new and old. And I remembered a man named Skillet.

I met Skillet back in my apartment days at the end of college. I lived in a downtown neighborhood and one evening as I was walking the block or two to my car he was lumbering down the sidewalk. Upon noticing his erratic gait and disheveled appearance I started to cross the street, but he cut my path short,

“Ay, ay, can I getta ciggarette? You gotta dollar?”

“No, I’m actually on my way out I don’t have anything on me,” we were standing in the middle of the street.

“Nah, nah, I need a ciggarette. You got a dollar!” he threw his toboggan on the ground. I backed away, not sure what to make of this gesture.

“Yeah, I get that, I’m sorry but really, I’m headed out. All I have are my keys, see? I’m going to my car,” I walked to the opposite sidewalk, but he followed.

“I JUST NEED TO SMOKE! I KNOW YOU GOT A LITTLE MONEY!” and then I felt the pillowy blow of his parka hit my back which sent a gust of BO through my hair. He had begun stripping and his clothing articles became his weapons. I hopped in my car desperately as his shirt hit the door. “I’LL WASH YO CAR FO SOME MONEY!” he plead, now scrubbing his filthy jacket on the windshield frantically.

I started the car and his instincts led him to take enough steps backward so that I could roar off to safety. I drove to Erica and Carbone’s house, having already had plans to see them, and relayed the news to my friends who were effectively my college parents. Their verdict was in: time to move. Though, move I would not.

Within a week I ran into Skillet once again, outside my apartment.

“Hey girl! How you?” he smiled, unnervingly friendly.

“Umm, hi. I’m ok.” He looked much less bizarre in daylight, and I wasn’t sure what to make of the alter personality.

“Can I get a ciggarette?”

“Actually, we’ve been through this before. Do you recall throwing your clothes at me?” I felt much braver with the light of day on my side.

“Aw, nah. I didn’t mean nothin’ by all that. It’s ok.” He shrugged. I estimated him to be in his thirties, and still wearing the same puffy black parka and navy blue toboggan from before. It seemed a little juvenile, boyish even.

“I thought it was pretty rude.”

“Aw, nah. I’m sorry. My name James Madison. It’s nice to meet you.”

“Like the president? I’m Natalie.” Sometimes I lie for no reason.

“The president? Nah, like me. Well, it’s nice to meet you Natalie. You an angel.”

“If you say so.”

From then on James Madison and I were friends. I learned to gauge the level of his sobriety from a distance and occasionally gave him a dollar, I made him a sandwich once when he looked especially emaciated. Sometimes he sang me songs as I walked to my car, once he got down on one knee and proposed to me. The stories of our encounters continued to alarm my friends, who were convinced he was going to pull something crazy and they’d never hear from me again.

On the contrary, I found our friendship kept me safe from all the other street men, as Mr. Madison would explain to them when they walked past my porch that I was an angel. It felt like some sort of code. Don’t rob her. And there was quite a bit of foot traffic. I lived between the city mission and the courthouse. There was a near-constant stream of down on their luck passerby. Just to be on the safe side I started to circulate the rumor that “Natalie” was dating a corrections officer.

I came to realize that everyone except me knew James Madison as Skillet when my friend Brit met him and realized that he was a familiar face from the regional jail web site, which she trolls on a weekly basis. The local bartender a block away also knew him as Skillet, it turns out.

I knew that Mr. Madison/Skillet sometimes stayed with a woman down the block, but I also knew that sometimes he stayed nowhere at all. When there were weeks at a time without Skillet and I crossing paths I would begin to passively worry. I was afraid he had actually died in some drunken scuffle or overdosed. We were not close, and I knew very little about him, but I was fond of the man who was always singing outside. Alas, in due time he always turned up, and I would be very relieved to learn he had merely been picked up for drunk and disorderly or a similar charge and spent a short stint in the local jail.

For Christmas, Brit emailed me Skillet’s most recent mug shot. I was nothing short of overjoyed to see he was still alive and at least status quo, if not well. He had clearly been beaten up, but he was breathing.

For 2012, when remembering all my friends, old and new I have hope for my homeless brethren. While we never blatantly discussed his addiction, it seemed a little rude to point out the obvious, I still think he can do it. 2012 may be his year, just yet, to get clean, sober, and employed. The world is your oyster my friend! Seize the day!

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