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Beggars Can Be Choosers


Kenny was a man of charity as well, beggar and benefactor at the same time. “Stuck here on this ball of mud with the rest of humanity,” he had gone dragging along for years and years, saving whatever life forms crossed his path. “I adopt people,” he explained. “And if the opportunity comes to help them, I do.”

So he adopted the cat first, then the dog, and met Frenchie this past summer while panhandling near Harvard Square. She was a security guard who felt deeply neglected by her husband. On the way home from work each day, she began dropping Kenny a buck and saying hello to the cat and the dog. Eventually she noticed that Kenny “was so loving, so kind and caring toward his animals. Always made sure they had fresh food and water. Took real good care of them.” So Frenchie started talking to Kenny as well, and Kenny began getting friendly with Frenchie. At the beginning of August, Frenchie quit her job, and left her husband, for him.

“She decided homelessness was better,” Kenny explained.

“Technically,” said Frenchie, “I guess that’s true.”

In early September, Kenny took Frenchie back to New York with him to start a new life. On the way, the van they were in broke down, and Frenchie was grateful that her man kept a prepaid cell phone for such occasions. (The hardest part is keeping it charged; he’s rigged up his own recharger with lantern batteries.) Eventually a friend came to rescue them and dropped them off at Central Park with everything they owned.

Frenchie at first had been obsessed with finding a bathroom, keeping clean. “You adapt,” she said. “Now it’s not a problem.” But adapting to the people had been more difficult. Frenchie could not get used to the way they stared, shook their heads, preached, pulled their dogs away. She couldn’t forget the waiter at the Park Avenue Cafe who coolly told her, “We don’t serve your kind here”; nor the woman she had approached for directions who shrieked, “Stop! Don’t kill me! Don’t kill me! I don’t have any money!”

Frenchie had begun to imagine there was something wrong with her. Thinking the problem might be New York, she was ready to go, if not necessarily home, then back to Cambridge. Kenny, for his part, had always moved away from police. When they told you to go, he thought it only rational that you went. He mocked Gary for standing firm, as “the political protester,” and it seemed especially important this time that Gary be made to move along.

They started in on him again, waking him up from a picnic-table nap with their reasons. Come to Cambridge, said Kenny—a town with “nice music everywhere.” The free food is both more abundant and more flavorful. “And you don’t have to walk so far to get it,” said Frenchie. And Cambridge people are nice. Even the cops are pleasant. You can panhandle and sleep wherever you want, said Kenny. If you’re caught drunk, they won’t even take you to jail; they’ll take you to “a wet shelter, where you can be loaded off your ass.”

Frenchie quit her job, and left her husband, for Kenny. “She decided homelessness was better.”

Gary observed that it’s colder there—he’d have to buy clothes and a tent. Not so, Kenny answered. Gary could stay in the doorway of the bookstore on Harvard Square, with everyone else. That was the only downside: Homeless people were everywhere in Cambridge, so there was more competition on the sidewalks. “You won’t make the same money, but you’ll have a better quality of life,” Kenny promised.

“Think about it, Gary,” said Frenchie.

And Gary, staring dully out, did indeed seem to be thinking about it when suddenly his face lit up, and he called, “Song! Where you been?” An elegant Asian woman had appeared, her hair pinned back by a pearl barrette, an olive scarf around her neck, her elegance dissolving, as she drew near, into tatters and dirt and scabs.

“Thank you for welcoming me. I was afraid,” she said. And smiling from Gary’s lap, she explained that she’d been in Jackson.

Jackson where, she didn’t know, but it was on the way to Dallas, which was on the way to Los Angeles, L.A. being the place Song has always wanted to go. She didn’t make it, again.

Song had taken off with $2,000 in disability checks, which had backed up when she spent three months in a mental hospital, where she had landed after jumping a subway turnstile. Gary examined the cuts on her face, asked if she’d been taking her medicines, and inquired how she had run out of money. “Yeah, you know,” she smiled back. “Money come and money go. I did a buffet.”

“Some buffet,” said Frenchie, and they laughed and let it go and revealed to her the plan. Did Song want to go to Cambridge?

“Yes! Maybe! I don’t know!” Gary scolded her for getting ahead of herself, but Song couldn’t stop. When would they leave, she wanted to know. “Soon,” said Kenny. “Soon.”

Song looked into Gary’s worried face. “It’s about survival? Yeah, survival,” she answered herself. “Yeah, let’s move and come back some other time—five years, six years. Okay, Gary? Okay?”

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