I saw Billy at the Bus Stop on Nicolette and Franklin. I hadn’t seen him in eight years, but Scarface Billy looked 20 years older. He was on crutches dragging a bum leg in a brace. His face had been always been a cross-hatch of scars, but it looked worse. One eye was milky, blind, and that side of his face was drooping. His once jet-black thick hair had more salt than pepper and it struck me that I never knew how old Billy was…55? Maybe, but he looked 65. He didn’t have many teeth left, but the old tramp had fire blazing from his eyes and muscles still rippled in his forearms. He looked like what he was – an old wolf that, if pushed, would just kill you because he was too old to last in a fight.
I was embarrassed for him to see me in the condition that I was in; I had just come from my twice monthly hair-cut, I had a well-cut Brooks Brother’s suit flipped over the shoulder of my white light-weight Perry Ellis shirt. I was wearing pleated pants and expensive shoes. Hell, even my socks were expensive. He saw me.
“Hey, Soldier!? Is that you, man?”
“Hey, Billy. Yeah man, it’s me.”
“You look like a mark. Spare any change, mister?”
“Fuck you, old man.”
We stood there grinning at each other for a long ten seconds and then he said,
“Buy me a drink and give me a tailor-made smoke, ‘Citizen.’ “
We made our way to The Speakeasy – where all of the two-in-the-afternoon drinkers were pros. All of the men had decades old tattoos and some of the women had all of their teeth. It was where guys like us felt at home…when we were with guys like us. I was 29 years old, a kid in that bar, but I had lived ten men’s lives.
Billy asked about my clothes and I told him that I was married, separated, had a son and a different life than I once did. I was an account executive for print advertising for a publication that had a circulation of 100,000. I bullshitted my way into a job that had a company car and two-hour client lunches on the expense account, but I blew into town in a stolen car, had a warrant out for my arrest, and my life was coming apart.
“Who do you think you’re bullshitting, Soldier? Guys like us, we’ll never be Citizens.”
He called me Soldier because that was my street name when I met him. I was an 18 year-old street punk looking to get schooled in the art of hopping a freight train from Minneapolis to Eugene, Oregon. I rode the rails for the first time with Scarface Billy, Limpin’ Ed, Curly and Jim Forney. There was a girl in that mix too. I brought her along, but she disappeared with Curly when we hit Spookaloo. Billy took me under his wing and taught me how to roll my own cigarettes, make coffee over a fire in a soup can using a tied off clean-sock-pouch. He showed me how to get fifty cents on the dollar for food stamps, how to dive the best fast food dumpsters, and how to drink White Port, Wild Irish Rose and Thunderbird wine. I discovered Mad Dog 20/20 on my own.
Billy and the other guys knew where all the Salvation Armies, Rescue Missions, soup lines and food banks were in every town that we stopped in along the way. It was their way of life and I was being shown the ropes. I hung with Billy for a couple weeks, saw him open up the forearm of a big Ute with a broken Wild Irish Rose bottle. He was a wolf back then and I hadn’t seen him in the 8 years since.
An hour of drinking draft beer and Bacardi shots and I had stripped down to my wife-beater and threw my Perry Ellis shirt in the trash. We got shitty drunk, played shitty pool. Billy hobbled around the table on crutches, banging peoples shins and pissing off the room. It ain’t easy to get kicked out of the Speakeasy, but we did find ourselves out on the sidewalk in the hot sun of the late afternoon.
I got Billy back to the physical rehab place where he was sleeping, which was supposed to be a sober environment. I left him leaning on a buzzer and telling me not to forget that I would never be a Citizen.