Duct Taped Boots and Cigarette Butts
© Copyright 2016 by Joni Bour
Runner-Up--2016 General Nonfiction
The day I met Coleman Freestone, he rolled out of a soaking wet sleeping bag, crawled from his ripped nylon pup tent and fumbled through a plastic mayonnaise jar that held matches, and a dead cell phone. He felt sick, but thought if he could just get a fire going, and make a cup of coffee, and roll a cigarette, then he could sort out the day. He never tried to think too much farther than the next cup of coffee, or a dry smoke on a miserable day like that. If he had, he might lose his mind, knowing that the hours and days still left to do, were going to be just like the last- wet, cold, hungry, and sick. As it turned out, that day was so awful, so sideways bad, he finally cursed the truth, there wasn’t a single dry piece of wood to be had in the entire state of Oregon. He kicked the mayonnaise jar up against a log, and cursed his wet tobacco and the day he was born. Turning away from of his lonely life, he staggered right into the storm that had stolen our flag, flooded his camp, and had nearly drowned him in his sleep. Coleman made no bones about what he might find when he got where he was going, and hoped only for a cup of coffee and a warm place to sit for a while. But deep down, he had been sure that he would die that day, smokeless, hungry, and utterly alone.
The heat was on full blast but still he spilled his first cup of coffee as he began shivering uncontrollably again. In a hoarse whisper, he rasped, “I sure am happy to be out of that rain for a while”. Then reached out to accept the small pile of someone else’s unwanted clothes, and a drawstring bag of precious things like soap and a wash cloth and a shaver, as he headed off to the rest room. Twenty minutes later, back in my 80-degree office, he sat in a chair across from me, and though he was cleaner, and drier than he had been in days, he looked a mess. I looked over my desk at the man wearing his new Eddie Bauer second hands and felt such deep shame about the world we’ve made.
Coleman said his life had once been like most everyone’s, a family, a house with a door, and job too, but then he was drafted and sent to Vietnam. He had served two tours of duty there, and was wounded three times, once in the arm, another in the leg, and once in his soul. He was handed a Purple Heart for the arm and leg that healed in Danang, but was left with nothing for the damage to his soul. When he was discharged from the Marines, Coleman returned to Texas where he had been born, and fought with his father, about drinking and rules, and work, and respect, and eventually his father had turned his back on his son. He had nightmares and had troubles with authority, hot running water, and sleeping in a house. His life further spiraled out of control when his two children and wife were killed by a drunk driver, while he was away working on an oil rig. He drank until his mind blurred and did so many drugs he nearly died several times. It was no surprise he landed in a Texas prison, spending two years in medium security, where he was stabbed in the gall bladder by a fellow inmate, and eventually got straight, not so much with himself, but with God and drugs. When he got out of the penitentiary he decided to go west. He walked as much as man can walk in a pair of boots held together by duct tape. But learned most people won’t make eye contact with a person who has walked as far as a person can walk in duct taped boots.
He came across people who had given him food and rides in their mini vans, and others, who might have rather eaten rocks, than shake the hand of a hobo. He had some fun once when he played his guitar for a couple who gave him a winter coat, and another time in front of a coffee shop, when someone gave him a sandwich, a flashlight and a tiny orange bible. He had been spit on, robbed, and arrested; bitten by dogs, chiggers, and ants. He had been lonesome and scared, and been unsettling company to himself. He had traded campfire stories for cigarettes, and made calls from deserted phone booths, to family who no longer claimed him. He carried his only possessions in a bright green, White Stag backpack with a broken zipper, that he had found in a ditch in New Mexico. He was more skilled in the study of safe and unsafe foods than any health inspector, and performed his research in dumpsters and trash cans from Texas to Oregon.
Coleman became an expert in such things as the art of finding cigarette butts still worth smoking, and learned newspaper worked great as insulation, if you stuffed it in your pants, with newsprint more comfortable to the skin than the shiny ads.
He ended up in Oregon and ultimately in my office, sloshing, and coughing and nearer to death than heroine, or war, or prison life had ever taken him. “I will die if you don’t help me”, he whispered,” And nobody’ll even know I was alive”. Coleman was not the only person who had come to my office, whose life was filled with tragedy, and broken pieces. But unlike the others, the man in the duct taped boots was the only one whose truth was all I could see of him. I also believed that on that stormy, sideways day maybe I was the only person in the world who knew he was alive. For certain I was the only one trying to keep him that way.
He had in his dry pockets a hotel voucher, and a card for his phone and beside him a bag of groceries, but he was hungrier to speak and hear words than he was for a shower, or a meal. So he sat a while longer, asking about things in the news, the day of the week, and about the photos on my desk. Finally, with a promise and an agreement to meet the next day he was able to leave the protection of my office, and began looking forward to sheets, and hotel coffee.
I grabbed my rolodex and made phone calls all day, hoping the universe that owed me no favors would still in her mercy grant me just one. She did smile down on me, when someone finally did call back, offering a tiny trailer in their small, slight run down park. The very next day, it took Coleman some time to settle in to his 18-foot home, mostly because he would go up to the door, and open it, go in, close the door, sit at the small dinette, get up, and repeat the process. I stood outside watching poor Coleman for some time, until finally I went up to tap on the door. He came to the door, holding the new crockpot and Safeway gift card my friend Chris and I had left earlier for his housewarming, and he began to cry. It had been years since he had a front door with a knob and not a zipper, or iron bars, and where his toilet wasn’t in a cell block, or a hole dug with a shovel in the woods. He was happily sitting on his front steps, writing his first grocery list in many years when I drove away.
The housing program required Coleman to meet with me a few times a month to check his progress in managing life in a world of doors, and crockpots, and other things strange. He was applying for disability secondary to cirrhosis and PTSD and had gone to the Doctor for the first time since being stabbed in prison.
Once a week, Coleman began inviting his trailer park friends and hungry strangers, to come to a picnic outside his trailer for a meal he had cooked in his crockpot. They’d all share whatever they had- be it food, song, or story. When he would get restless at night, he walked our small town and offered coffee to those found wandering, and could never resist offering, food, or tobacco to anyone wearing duct taped boots or newspapered pants.
Coleman had been living in the little trailer park for nearly a year when he missed his first visit. He had been out of my housing program for six months or so, and had no requirements to meet with me, but he would still stop by anyway, to have a cup of tea or eat my candy, or tell me a story. Often he would show up in the middle of some other person’s crisis, or right in the middle of the frankest kind of confidential discussion, so he happily waited on the talking bench, where he would visit with whoever else was sitting and waiting, or he’d lounge and play his guitar.
When he didn’t show up, I wondered where he had gotten to. I picked up the phone only to set it back in its place three or four times that day. He wasn’t a client anymore after all, so I struggled whether to be a meddling case worker, or a nosey friend, and in the end, I let it ride. The next week he came to my office, looking a little rough, anxious, and unsettled. He told me he wasn’t sleeping well. He told me someone was following him, though he could not imagine who or why. Instead changing the subject, he launched into a story about biscuits and Johnny Cash, which was a conversation like all our others. As he left, he handed me a gift that had been wrapped in a piece of precious newspaper. Inside the paper was an arrowhead necklace he had made, while sitting on his very own front porch.
Coleman needed help, but would accept none, no matter what I said or did. He called me on the crisis line late at night, worried that he could see Viet Cong in the bushes outside his trailer. He bought a gun, and had told me, against my advice and suggestions, that one day he was going to use it. He stopped going to AA and NA Meetings when he grew too suspicious of others in the meetings. I tried to convince him to talk to his Doctor, or let me help him get into the VA, but each time he refused. He went to jail several times when the Police chose to take him to jail instead of calling me, or taking him for a mental health evaluation.
Coleman stopped visiting me in person, avoiding interventions, and occasionally called to say he was fine, always ending each conversation with,” thank you for being my good friend”. Eventually, there was a last phone call but at the time, it seemed like any other call. That’s the thing with last times, isn’t it? Rarely do we have the insight that they are the last anything, until those moments pass, then it’s too late. If I had known then what I know now, I don’t know what I might have done differently, but I hope I would have tried. All I know is, we never spoke again. When the phone number I had for him went unanswered, I went to his tiny house and a stranger opened the door. I turned away from the man and began to walk away, because I knew that my friend was gone for good.
”Hey aren’t you Joni?”, said the disheveled man loudly, and I nodded, turning back to see his frown softened to a smile, and he said, “Well I’ll be darn. Coleman talked about you all the time. He’d say Michael, you ever need help you go talk to her”. He was still talking, when I walked away, unable to bear that my friend had left me without even saying goodbye.
It was three years later in a Mexican restaurant that someone tearfully told me that my good friend was dead. Coleman hitchhiked to Portland after having given his trailer and crockpot to the disheveled Michael, and killed himself less than a year later, alone in a world whose own wants and needs were so great, that it had no time to spend with a man barely wanted anything at all.
In having known those who had little more than a White Stag backpack with a broken zipper, and who sought only a smile, and shared moments in conversation, I have changed. I see a society that often places a higher value on the pursuit and acquisition of power, and things, than it does on humanity, and kindness, and I reject that, as surely, and as swiftly as it rejected my good friend.
Coleman didn’t desire to own much, he had a guitar, a crappy backpack, and for a while a trailer, and a crockpot, not much more than that, and in the end he gave it all away. He was a kind man and a good man, even though some of the things he had done in his life did not reflect that. He was a damaged man, and I am haunted by the fact we did not help him. He wasn’t the sort of guy who went around telling other people the rights or the wrongs of things. But if truth be known, he had learned many things about the wrong of things, and some about the right of things, and even more about the in between of things.
I used to think I knew a lot about the right of things, and spent most of my time trying to change the wrong of things. But nowadays, six years since Coleman’s death, I prefer to spend more of my time in the between of things. That’s where duct taped boots are not ignored, and conversations involve biscuits and Johnny Cash or poetry and lady bugs. I could still be in an office where I spend more time dealing with the red tape, and case notes, and grant reports, than with the people I was sworn to help, but some part of that in me is broken now. Maybe it is because I failed to help my friend, maybe it is because I can no longer work within a system that never planned to. I don’t know. Instead, I too endeavor to find what eluded my good friend, be it peace, or just getting right with myself.
I prefer to dig in a garden, or camp beside a stream with my husband. I like to listen to the wind in the trees. Our life is simple, as we continue to un-build the life that wasn’t. We drive ten year- old cars, and lead a satellite and iPhone free existence, trying to be mindful of things that we may not have noticed in the lives we once had. We slowly cast aside the constraints of a former life, of things that don’t matter, and replace them with things that do. Maybe, just a little, we have begun a life uncommon. When we can, we too offer comfort, to those who wander. I still think about my friend Coleman, when I hear Merle Haggard or Johnny Cash, or when I see a scruffy guy wearing duct taped boots. But understand me when I say, though precious was our friendship, I am happy he is gone. For I cannot bear the idea that he came into this world to suffer without peace, or kindness in a world that took not a moment to even notice his struggles.In memory of Coleman Freestone and with the deepest thanks to my dear friend Chris Pickering, who never once questioned my reasons for wanting to save a life and even helped pay for half the crockpot.
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