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When I first came to serve Mr. Arthur Worthy, I had almost completely withdrawn from the quotidian world of appointments, commerce, even personal interaction. To tell more of the truth, I was living in the woods, inadequately sheltered by a tarpaulin — a stale, army-surplus sheet, perforated with pinholes and rudely draped into the equivalent of a teepee. I held no job, had abandoned the idea of a career, had no proximate family, and had no possessions except my bike, a backpack, a diary (this diary), and a few odd objects that I had gathered solely because I liked them — objects that I would keep in my pockets until they became overly bulgy and made it difficult for me to pedal. Just to help locate me within the galaxy of currently identified human types, I could be called a homeless person. Yet, I prefer to think of myself in terms of things I have, rather than in terms of things I don't. I have, after all, my life, my soul, my thoughts, my memories, my hopes and theories, as well as my bike, which is better than a home to me, and just as dear.
Nevertheless, I chose to abandon the homeless life in order to come live with and serve Arthur Worthy, who was very much a "homeful" person, in that he occupied — single-handedly and with no help from a wife or children, and only occasionally, and never for long, a female visitor or "fuckee" as he called them — a suburban mansion of some twelve-thousand square feet, not including the guest cottage, pool cabana, four-car garage, and faux barn. (A faux barn is one that has never housednor ever will house an animal more feral than a cat.) Not only was Mr. Worthy, when I joined him, very much the opposite of myself in terms of his housing arrangements, he was also at the opposite end of the engagement index. He was a man whose life bristled with appointments, trips, activities, lists, possessions, responsibilities, urgencies, and quotidia. And yet, I think it would not be too harsh of me to say that his mind seldom ventured outside the confines of the practical moment, and his soul was virtually an uninhabited place. With nothing much to call my own, I still felt far richer than Mr. Worthy, whose holdings and assets and accumulations put him within striking distance of the Forbes 500.
If I believe in a higher (and essentially well-meaning) power of nature or eternity or deity, which I do, then I must conclude that Arthur Worthy and I were meant to be brought together, and that we completed each other in a way that brought satisfaction to both of us, even if, ultimately, it meant that Arthur had to abandon virtually everything he thought he held dear, including, I'm afraid to say, his life. Oh well.
Now, before I tell the story, let me stress that this is not a tale of homosexuality, potent or latent. And to prove it, I will dedicate this account to the woman who must be understood as the catalytic force in both of our lives, the intoxicating girl who devolved into the devastating woman whose existence served — even if she had never spoken a word, which she did, and often — as a reason for our own.
To her, to Anna.
I have lived in this small town, called Oldon, for far too long. But, because I was not actually born here, I cannot consider myself a native, or even of an old family. I am merely, I suppose, a stick-in-the-mud. Oldon is a colonial town on the East Coast with a distinguished heritage of Revolutionariness, both of battle (1775) and of thought (mid-nineteenth century), that has continued to attract those who like to consider themselves revolutionary in some way, although the temerity of the ideas has gradually abated through the years. Today, there are more Tories than Whigs (more Republicans than Democrats, if you can line them up that way), although party distinctions of course don't mean much anymore.
But there is a greater distinction to the town of Oldon, one that captured my boy's heart far more than the over-glorified battle or the self-important minds of a few transcendent authors, and that is the power and rightness of its countryside. Colonial settlers, when they set out to select a location for a new village, and have an entire continent to choose from (however truncated it may have been at that time), tend to pick their spots wisely and well. The Ebenezer Damons and Josiah Blacks and Constance Tuttles of this town recognized instantly the benefits of the swath of wooded countryside that boasted two healthy rivers coming to a pleasant fork, marrying into a single fish-rich and transportation-able waterway. They beheld the five gentle hillocks that made for an appealing prospect, lent shelter in their lees and freshness to windward, and upon which, one day, prosperous citizens such as Arthur Worthy could site large homes, the better to demonstrate their own worth and define the accomplishments of one citizen in comparison to another. And, no, these settlers were not so blind that they did not notice the rocks that filled the soil like raisins in a porridge and that would make building and planting (and just plain walking) more difficult than those activities might be in other parts of the country. But this was the New World; it offered endless hope and prospect. They believed they could overcome those rocks, and they did. And, besides, in their hearts they knew that farming was only a temporary condition, and that before long they would move on to much more advanced occupations such as the declamation of religious polemicry, the writing of philosophical works, and, in the end, the creation of enormous asset-free wealth, primarily in the form of mutual funds and, for the daring few, hedge funds, derivatives and, ultimately, the dot coms.
I partook of the landscape liberally as a boy. As soon as I could ride a bike, I took to the roads, paved and unpaved, tearing along at (to me) tremendous speeds approaching fifteen miles per hour, the rolling rubber offering up its fabulous scrunching sound, as if the tires were munching at the pavement with a sensual and insatiable appetite. I adored my bike, a crimson Sherwood model, and lavished attention on its three gears that needed constant and loving adjustment of the oily wires and tiny set screws. Only the British could have so poorly engineered such a delightful machine, whose flat wrenches only vaguely fit the nuts, and whose bolt heads were positioned to allow at most a quarter turn of even the slimmest of spanners. But skinned knuckles were just part of the boyness of bikes.
I carried my love of landscape, this landscape in particular, forward with me, through all the transmogrifications of my life, until I came full circle and returned to Oldon as a kind of grown-up boy, with little more than my bike and my tarp and an ideal: that I could somehow live in the world in a way that allowed me to be both fully connected and fully free. I have yet to realize that ideal — or have I? — but I think that is what I have sought throughout the various stages of my existence after leaving Oldon as a boy of seventeen. I attended a well-known school of design in what was then a mediocre middling city on the East Coast. The college years were lonely and full of yearning, but I learned a great deal about the look and organization of the elements that compose the visual, and the communication of ideas through shades, surfaces, and suggestive glints. After graduation, I spent several months rambling through Europe on my bicycle with a former roommate whom I didn't really care for; I returned to America with extremely strong thighs and a previously unawakened interest in architecture. I discovered that my parents, while I was gone, had separated and then divorced. My father moved to New Hampshire and almost immediately suffered a cataclysmic heart attack, provoked no doubt by intense boredom with himself and his surroundings. My mother moved to Seattle where she quickly thrived, making a new life filled with cultural events and connections with old friends and new. Homeless then, emotionally abandoned, I wandered from place to place, until I was notified that my Aunt Claire had died, leaving me a legacy that included $378,000 in cash and a townhouse on Beacon Street in Boston.
Claire was not, in fact, an aunt; rather, she was a second or third cousin of my mother, and she kept the apartment in Boston for some professional reason, although she lived most of the year in San Diego. During the summer, she spent weeks at a time in her Boston digs, a four-story townhouse with a view of the Charles River, a piece of property left over from the extensive family real estate holdings that had once included department stores, warehouses, condos, and a ski resort near Salt Lake. The house was absurdly large for her, an unmarried woman of fifty or so, who had only professional connections in town and no interest in commercially-oriented socializing. I suspect she was lonely and felt out of place, and recognized the same traits in me. From about the age of ten, she would invite me to spend time with her, invitations which I always accepted. She liked me to set the agenda for our visits, and would place whatever resources might be required to fulfill it at my disposal: unlimited funds, tremendous energy and enthusiasm, and a 1954 Mercedes coupé she kept in the garage in the alley behind the townhouse. She had a wild streak, a disregard for convention that disturbed my father and amused my mother. Claire liked, for example, to loudly berate the shabby service when we dined in grand hotels; she enjoyed driving too fast on Storrow Drive, the narrow two-lane highway that snakes along the edge of the city; she wore capes and berets with sweaters and slacks that didn't match; she loved to smoke and began each evening with an ultra-dry martini which she drank with relish and a smack of her always brightly-crimsoned lips. She spoke with a Bette Davis growl, and laughed only when truly amused. She would talk to me about anything, subjects that were well beyond my comprehending at the time — sex and occupation, real estate deals and books — but which I found fascinating. She made me feel valued and serious.
When I was eleven, Claire spent the entire summer in Boston and invited me to spend a few weeks with her — I wonder now if the invitation was at the behest of my mother, and if that should have been an early indication of my parents' later marital trouble. Claire and I rollicked across the landscape; we ate clams at Woodmans in Ipswich and caviar at the Ritz. We climbed the Bunker Hill monument in Charlestown and wandered through the stacks at the Boston Public Library. She let me drive her coupé back and forth in the driveway behind the townhouse and, one deserted August evening, allowed me to take the wheel and drive the length of City of Boston Public Alley #432, which began at Arlington Street and continued for eight blocks — passing between the back yards of Boston's toniest apartments, with their jeweled windows and overflowing trash cans. I dimly noticed that Claire was smoking less than usual, coughing more, and seemed filled with an urgency of communication that occasionally seemed suffocating to me.
As I drove down the alley, not exceeding twelve miles per hour, wary of every scrap of blowing trash, Claire tucked one leg under the other, turned to face me (these were the days before seat belts), and asked, "What do you want to be when you grow up?"
"I'm not sure," I confessed.
"Don't squander your life," she counseled me. "Don't be trivial. Don't settle."
"What do you mean?"
"Find what is uniquely you," she continued. "I think ..." She gazed at me knowingly. "I think that will be a difficult task for you."
"Because it has been for me."
"I've thought about being an adventurer," I revealed.
"Good," she said, smiling. "That's a start."
She never returned to Boston after that summer; she sent my mother a perfunctory card for the next many Christmases. Then, just as I began the task of determining my unique abilities — with as much difficulty as Claire had predicted — she died and left a slice of her considerable wealth to me. I have no idea how she arrived at the figure of $387,000. Looking back at it, I'm not sure whether the money has proved a boon or a bane. I would certainly have preferred to have Claire alive and in my life, and would gladly renew our annual jaunts even now — I could take the wheel and she could recline in her laughing frailty in the seat beside me. How my life might have progressed differently with Claire in it, and with her bequeathal out of it, I can only guess. But I still can feel the gloom that I surrendered to upon returning home from a week with her, and how it gradually clouded out even the memory of the warmth that radiated between us.
If you wish to dismiss me as not a truly homeless person, simply because I own a rather desirable in-town residence and because I have, through scrupulous tending, a significant portion of that original bequeathal in the bank, do so. But I would suggest that homelessness is a state of mind as much as a condition of shelter. Further, I would say that the truly homeless person is one who has come to understand the state and not only accept it, but embrace it. I believe that, until the fall that I now write about, I was, in fact, truly homeless because, not only did I live in an unconventional shelter, I had no conventional habits, nor did I have any desire to obtain them. I lived "off the grid," both physically and emotionally.
For example, my method of clothes acquisition. I have always been particular about clothing, if not fastidious about its maintenance. A baseball cap, a pair of khakis, tennis shoes (canvas, not those puffy plastic constructions in which your feet lose all connection with the surface of the earth), a t-shirt, wool sweater in fall, windbreaker in winter — these are all the garments that I need, but they must fulfill certain requirements of quality and fit. I have found that, in a wealthy suburban community like Oldon, my clothing needs are absurdly easy to fulfill for little or no expenditure of cash, and without resorting to actual pilferage, although some might call my method "borrowage" or, as they like to say in retail, "shrink." Let me describe my shopping method. There is a charity in the eastern parts of the United States known as Morgan Memorial. It is a sorry organization, whose major activity is to collect used clothing from well-to-do suburbanites who can't be bothered to put their exhausted wardrobes on consignment, but don't want the three-year-old stuff cluttering up their closets which are bursting with this season's wool, China silk, cashmere, and Sea Island cotton. And so they load the cast-offs into plastic garbage bags and swing down to the Morgan Memorial trailer on a Saturday morning and fling them at the attendant, who is usually some sort of destitute or mild vagrant that the management has scraped up from somewhere and put on duty to increase the sense of do-gooding and affluence on the part of the donors. (I actually know who these people are and exactly where they come from, but I try to ignore that part of my life.) Because the attendant is usually afflicted by some physical ailment — he may be lacking part of a leg or a chunk of lung — he moves rather indolently over the thirty feet that separate the intake door from the stacking shelves deep within the linted darkness of the trailer. Further, his shriveled arm or bifida-ed spine prevent him (rarely her) from carrying more than a single bag at a time, so the loading bay quickly becomes clogged with a mountain of bags that, soon enough, topples over. The bags crash to the pavement and explode, disgorging all manner of haberdashery. All that remains is for me to wait until the attendant has turned to begin his thirty-seventh portage to the deep interior of the trailer, then swoop out from my place of concealment (just behind a convenient dumpster not twelve feet from the stumpy support leg of the trailer), rummage through the spilled contents, grab the most promising items, then return to my post to review the haul. This may seem to the reader as an indirect method of stealing. But, here is how I justify it to myself. I am, in fact, a "homeless person" and, therefore, I qualify as a beneficiary for this offhanded charity — that is, I could frequent one of their shops and select what I needed off the rack for free. However, by selecting my goods "at the factory," as it were, I am actually reducing the cost to the Morgan Memorial organization of processing them — of accepting, transporting, sorting, cleaning, tagging, displaying, reporting the sale — which doubtless amounts to several dollars per garment. Overhead. In this way, I am actually making a donation "in kind." And so what might seem to be stealing, is in fact the opposite. I am a benefactor. Or so I like to think of myself.
Excerpted from Townie by John Butman. Copyright © 2002 by John Butman. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.