Where are all the cool rich people? This is something I’d wondered about a lot last year while spectating the 99% vs. 1% class match. They must exist right? Maybe cool is the wrong word, because some people would think having Jimmy Buffet visit your sailboat would be cool. Let me rephrase this, Where are all the generous, eccentric cool rich people?
This winter, I was in coastal Maine for two seven-day spells of running around the woods alone, pretending I’m the first or last living human, and playing games I should have outgrown two decades ago. As I was walking with my kids and mom around her giant seventy-five acre wooded hill of a property—which she pays half a teacher’s salary in taxes for each year—I asked her, “Why not have an occupy my big-ass estate?” and piss off the town she pays all that tax to by moving a hill’s worth of homeless people in.
She laughed, agreed she didn’t know where all the cool rich people are; she had never heard of any either. And no, I couldn’t have the property even though I’ve asked for it a hundred times, probably in the same tone someone asks to borrow a sweater, her reminding me each time that I cannot afford to keep it. (True, I don’t know how to make that kind of money or even have a resume.) And also, no, she wasn’t going to welcome the liability of having her property occupied by hundreds of tents inhabited by homeless, jobless folks.
But if it were my property, I would. Or I’d like to think the Robin Hood disguised as the beautiful Maid Marian that is my fantasy alter-ego would. I wish we’d hear stories like that. Robin Hood never even existed, he was a just a story. Seems sort of nuts that in a world of seven billion people that not one person who is unbelievably wealthy will stand up and stick up for the poor and take them in. Like in their home. Richard Branson as Mother Teresa instead of mega-hobbyist? I know Bill Gates is inoculating Africa, but that seems suspicious to me, and no doubt lots of money is being made on that. Or how about just one fella on Wall Street doing some kind of reverse ponzi scheme and Pow!, right under their noses, takes millions and hands it out to the poor?
The funny thing is that a homeless person always lived on my mother’s property in Maine. My dad built this house in the 80s by trucking up his lifetime collection of antique architectural salvage from our home state New Jersey, most of which he got for close-to-nothing by taking it off the hands of demolition jobs when Camden, Philadelphia, and Atlantic City were being torn down and rebuilt in the 60s and 70s. During construction, which—true to his madness—commenced during a blizzard, he started running into a theft problem. He decided to have a watchman and for over twenty-five years they were always men who were previously homeless.
The bulldozer sling like a pageant sash. These statues were part of a fountain made by Gustave Eiffel’s foundry, dismantled and unwanted by Fairmount Park, they came to live with us.
I was about eight-years-old when I was told to get in the car by my dad; he needed me to help him find a homeless person. Oh, no. I stood in the kitchen and looked at my mom, my eyes moving rapidly across hers for having been chosen to do something I didn’t understand but knew I couldn’t ask questions about. I got in, feeling small, wishing my brother was with me and as we drove twenty minutes to Camden, I was instructed to look for anyone who looked homeless. Because all little girls would know exactly what that meant. I think I actually pointed out someone just to save face, wanting to impress my dad. He was getting frustrated, not seeing what or who he wanted, and so he pulled over suddenly, got out of the car, left it running, me in it, no explanation. He walked up to two thirty-something black guys standing on a sidewalk. I watched as their body language changed from tense-and-ready to loose-and-laughing. My dad could disarm anyone. One of the two men touched my dad’s arm and pointed with the other hand to wherever it was my dad asked to find. We drove in the direction he pointed.
This is me at 8. When I gave a wallet size photo to my bus driver Mary, she laughed and said, "You sho look like an angel, but you ain't."
Again, I was left in the car, not running this time, in the parking lot of a homeless shelter in what is now the third most dangerous city in America, while he went in. I wasn’t allowed to go, he did not want me to “pick anything up.” Herpes? AIDS? A stray cat? Maybe an orphan baby, I would have liked that. What could I have picked up? I was scared so I did what I did my whole life, I watched. I kept my body perfectly still, hands flat and shoved under my legs, my eyes and ears alert. I made eye contact with men passing our car—always a brand new Cadillac—who didn’t look like anybody who lived in my town, which wasn’t a town so much as a road with two developments four miles apart. (We were living in the middle of all this in a house my dad built, which resembled a Swiss chalet that looked out of place on those flat NJ farmlands.) He came out ten minutes later, laughing, and walking fast—sort of how somebody walks out of a 7-11 happy their scratch won them a surprise twenty. He had found who he wanted.
Always a Cadillac.
And so, Joe Louis was bought a ticket, Greyhound-ed north, picked up on the other end by a carpenter hired by my dad. Joe Louis was the first of a total of nine homeless people who were put up as watchmen on the property in a little red one-room house with a twin mattress, TV, washer/dryer, shower, oven, and food, which was delivered by another hired hand because these guys didn’t walk the half mile to town to shop or really ever even seemed to notice they were sitting on top of what is one of the most beautiful places on earth. I never saw any of them walk the 100 feet past our house to sit and look at what 3 million people visit this island for each summer to see. They never left the little red house.
When we were back in NJ, I’d be sitting at my assigned seat to the right of my dad at the kitchen table not complaining about eating meals like Ox Tail soup. The kitchen table was also used as my dad’s office and desk and I’d listen to him talk to his watchman. He had a never-ending Easter egg hunt of cigarettes and alcohol with each of them. Whatever it was they wanted, he’d hide it all over the property and ration out their addiction from 500 miles away, calling them with no particular schedule, and letting them know where the goodies were hidden: a carton of Salem cigarettes triple wrapped in plastic and hidden under a wheelbarrow; or a bottle of booze tucked behind a fallen pine tree.
When we were in Maine, which was often, we kids were always instructed to never go near the watchman’s house but to always be respectful and say hello or wave. There was a series of watchmen, each with his own particular ways.
Joe Louis always had two twigs sitting crisscross between his nose and mouth—his lips pushed up to hold them—and wore a dirty zip-up blue jumpsuit. He swore by stories of nine-foot deer knocking on his door and talking to him and we would brag about how good his potatoes were until we saw him peeing in his garden.
Joe Louis in his garden.
Whenever my dad would carry over to Pee-wee—another watchman—a plate of whatever incredible meal my mom made for dinner, Pee-wee was always found lying completely naked. He was asked to leave. My dad didn’t like that kind of weird. He said that one was “off,” and was afraid one of us would see this very tiny man naked.
Pierre, a Basque woodsman, who cleared a third of the property with a chainsaw on his own accord, got pissed and left when the townspeople supposedly called him a faggot.
A homeless couple lived in this little red house for a month but that didn’t work out, probably much like a submarine, this was a solitary job.
Merritt was the only one who left the hill and got a job at a restaurant, he ended up getting married and moving two towns away. His wife was accused of drinking him to his death in order to collect his Social Security.
Eddie stayed the longest. Eddie was probably one of the most polite people I’ve ever known, never mind that he never wore a shirt and that his dogs—inherited from Merritt, the watchman that preceded him—were named Connie Chung and Duke. He sent me a semiliterate scrawled card for my first Mother’s day with a $50 bill, splitting with me the money he won playing my daughter’s birth stats. He called me England instead of Ingrid. I never corrected him.
My dad died in Maine when I was 27. I held his hand for two nights and two days, while sitting in a hospital chair, watching his body methodically rock with the life support system, and trying to stuff my memory with his physicality—so afraid I wouldn’t remember the texture of the wrinkles on his knuckles, how his nail beds bent, or the exact black of his hair still there but mixed with grey. On the third night I went back to the house on top of the hill to sleep, when the phone rang in the middle of the night my sisters and I knew it was over. He was gone; we would go to the hospital now. We silently got in the car, the weather wild on the hill, the wind and clouds low and moving fast. It was winter and the snow was hard to the ground but bright, the stars and moon above, and me sandwiched in the middle.
I asked my sister to pull around to Eddie’s house since he heard the phone ring—we had the same number— and he deserved to know too. I got out, the wind all around me and Eddie came out, no shirt or shoes on and I said, “Eddie, I’m sorry, but my dad is gone.” He cried loudly, repeatedly pounding his fist under the flood light on the side of the small red one-room house, sobbing “No, no, no!” “Eddie it’s ok, he’s somewhere good I bet (the only place I could think of and still do was the bar or Catina from the first Star Wars), you have to just look after the house like he’d want you to, ok? That’s what he’d want. To know you’d look after it for him.” My voice monotone, then suddenly I laughed softly, starting to cry a little now. With all the dark natural drama of those billion stars behind fast moving clouds and wind I looked up, shook my head and thought “You son-of-a-bitch, you’d leave just this way, I haven’t even had a chance to think of my own loss and here I am, consoling Eddie first.”
Maybe I just miss my dad and these homeless ghosts and wish I could put them up in tents or little red houses in the woods, leaving them alone and taking care of them all at the same time, and in return hear their stories and watch their eccentricities, which I don’t see or hear anymore—except in my memory. But I have to wonder, if I dream of being Robin Hood, there must also be someone who actually has the guts or power to do it, and who wants to do it too, right?
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