After decades on the street, Lester Biggs was something of a fixture near Western Avenue. He spent most of each night hunting through north side alleys for discarded treasures, moving like an apparition in faded mismatched sneakers and a stained white lab coat. He was noticed by passersby but aggressively ignored, and his feet shuffled under the weight of their projected guilt and gratitude.
“Hey there doc,” said Gus, propping open the rear door of his diner with cardboard boxes and several black trash bags filled to bursting with kitchen refuse. They began this role-play several months earlier when Lester found the lab coat and showed up at Gus’s door. Prior to that he had worn a broken plastic hard-hat and orange safety vest during his construction worker period. He had been for varying lengths of time, a secret service agent securing the alley, a bible-carrying pastor and an off-duty patrolman, all based on props he discovered in his wanderings. But he took obvious delight at being a doctor. It called to something hidden away inside him.
“You have the perfect life my friend,” Gus muttered under his breath. His own life lacked imagination, edgy variety. He couldn’t help but think about Lester’s complete lack of responsibility, at least as traditionally defined. But homelessness carried a set of burdens linked much more closely to survival. There was little margin for error. Perhaps mental illness was a shield from that truth.
“Making rounds Gus,” Lester blurted slowly, a sparkle in his eyes betraying the disconnect between his rich inner fantasy life and the harsh reality of his ongoing situation. His voice was child-like, exaggerated. He halted his forward motion when he spoke, as if his mind could process only one activity at a time with full intensity.
“Take this one last,” said Gus, pointing to a small white plastic bag, loosely tied and carefully prepared. It was a daily routine. So much mandated waste. Such obvious need. And dignity demanded that Lester help Gus in order to be compensated for his efforts. This was no act of charity. He was taking out the trash.
Lester revealed a twinge of excitement in his broad smile. He carefully parked his shopping cart behind the restaurant so he could drag the waste to the execrable oozing green container. He lifted the heavy metal lid on the right half of the dumpster just enough to swing the first bag up and over the edge into the dark interior, then allowed the top to fall, swallowing the load with an echoing clang. He repeated the process until the bags and boxes were dispatched, then carefully placed the small white bag onto his cart. The gift ensured his survival for a few more days.
“You take care, my friend,” said Gus, waving as he swung the alley door behind him. The light that spilled from the open door winked out as the door slammed with a kerchunk into its heavy frame.
Alone in the dim light of the alley, Lester carefully unknotted the package from Gus. A couple of sandwiches, cold French fries and several pickle spears. And in a clear plastic bag, a book – “Ulysses” by James Joyce.
Lester opened to the first page and read, “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stair-head, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.”
He quickly committed the first and second pages to memory, tore the leaf from the book and saved it for a renewed purpose. He liked a book to become thinner as he read.
Stowing the book and food carefully beneath a blanket on his cart he turned and headed once more down the alley. Wobbling wheels and shuffling feet became the accompaniment to Lester’s journey, into orange cones of light and back into darkness, again and again and again.