Memories of a Joplin Bum, by Helen Losse

I’m really a per­son who keeps pretty much to myself, but you’d prob­a­bly know me as the guy you see all over town pushin’ the old wooden cart. You’d call me a bum, but I’ll get to that later. I have a life, though you might not think it’s much of one—not by your stan­dards any­how. It hasn’t always been like this, you know. I wasn’t born forty-seven years old pushin’ an old wooden cart every­where I go—all over this two-bit town. I had a fam­ily … wife.

Things are dif­fer­ent now. Every day I do pretty much the same thing, except Sun­day. No sir, I don’t push that cart on Sun­day. Man deserves a bit of rest. Six days to make a livin’. One day for takin’ a rest! That’s the way I see it.

My life’s all that hard, but it ain’t no pic­nic either. I’ve always been—well, poor, even when I had a fam­ily and all. Lived in East town. You know, lots of peo­ple won’t even go into East town on account of the col­ored peo­ple. Not that it’s all col­ored, get me, but they live there. Stay to them­selves mostly.

I like that. Nothin’ worse than nosey neigh­bors. Col­ored ain’t all that nosey, not to me any­how. Most peo­ple don’t trust me a bit. Call me a bum. Some folks run when they see me—lots of kids do—but most peo­ple don’t pay me all that much atten­tion. At least that’s what they want me to think. Some folks just don’t trust me. I can see ’em watchin’ out of the cor­ner of their eye.

I make my liv­ing pickin’ up things. That’s why I need my cart. I pick up things. Sell ’em. Most of the time it’s things peo­ple throw away. Peo­ple throw away some of the damn­d­est stuff. I fur­nished my house that way. All my furniture—stuff peo­ple just throwed away.

And it’s not only fur­ni­ture, I found an old sax­o­phone once just lyin’ out in the alley with the rest of the junk. Or, maybe a kid put it there, I don’t know. It played good. I don’t play myself, never took lessons. But I sold it to an old col­ored man who swore it was in great shape. Sold it to him for $27. Man, was I livin’ high then! Ate at the cafe­te­ria and ever’thing. Yep, Robert’s Cafeteria.

I was standin’ right in front of the cafe­te­ria after I ate myself a fine meal when I heard a cou­ple of guys talkin’. One of ’em was a cop. I don’t know what the other guy did. But they were standin’ there on the curb talkin’, and this guy says to the cop, “You know the dif­fer­ence between a bum and a ’bo?” Lots of ’bo’s still hang out back of the old Frisco Build­ing on Main, espe­cially at night. The cop said he couldn’t see much dif­fer­ence, but the other guy set him straight.

A ‘bo will work for a liv­ing!” And he said it like that, too—liv­ing! They both laughed real hard. Well, I decided right then and there that it didn’t mat­ter what folks called me. Those fel­las laugh like that ’bout any­one who ain’t like them.

I work, all right. Real hard some­times. Lots of folks don’t really know nothin’ about me and maybe not a hell of lot of other stuff either for that mat­ter. Some folks think that they are so damn smart. I never had a whole lot of schoolin’. Edu­ca­tion just don’t mean a whole lot to me. I work, and I have a home. Oh, it’s not much to look at, but it’s a home, all right. It’s all I need. I don’t need all that much.

Yep, I work, all right. I cover this whole town in about a week. Just about a week. Up and down every street. I don’t really know how many miles I walk in a day, pushin’ that cart. Never even tried to fig­ure it out. Too many. But one thing for sure, I wear out shoes pretty damn quick—even good leather shoes. I get lots of shoes. Peo­ple throw away real good ones sometimes.

Like I said, I don’t know how many miles I walk or even how big this two-bit town really is. Sign says: JOPLIN: POPULATION 38,711. But what does that really tell a guy?

I’m a guy who likes my privacy—maybe I said that before—but peo­ple all over this town rec­og­nize me. I’m a bit of a land­mark here, if I do say so myself. Even the kids. I can hear ’em screamin’, “Ol’ Henry! Ol’ Henry!” when they see me comin’. Screamin’ and squealin’ like I was a star out of a mon­ster movie show­ing at the Para­mount The­atre or even the Fox.

There’s a group of ’em—two girls, two boys, always together—climb up an old mul­berry tree out by the alley in the north end of town. Not way up north where the rich folks live. No, this is before you get to those curvy streets with the alpha­bet names. About the three hun­dred block of Jack­son or Sergeant. Up near the DeTar Clinic. Just a cou­ple of blocks from the Safeway.

The minute those kids see my cart turn into the alley, the girls go to squealin’—even before they even see me. Then up they go into that tree, all four of ’em. They sit there as quiet as kids can sit, which ain’t very quiet, and they eat those mulberries—bugs and all. Bet they eat a quart of bugs every sum­mer! It’s mostly in the sum­mer when I see those kids. I just hold my head up and keep on walkin’—walkin’ and pre­tendin’ I don’t even know they’re up there. And they sit up there gig­glin’ and munchin’ those berries. Bugs and berries—ha!

I remem­ber one day last sum­mer, they were up in that tree. I remem­ber that day real well ’cause I turned into that alley on pur­pose. You see, I found a bunch of bot­tles of beer behind Jimmy’s. I don’t know who left them there because Jimmy don’t sell no beer in his place. It was a hot day. Any­way I drank about three bot­tles before I put the rest in my cart. So when I got to that alley, I was wan­tin’ to pee real bad.

There’s a spot down there with a lot of trees—well mostly bushes—but they’re tall enough for a guy to take a quick leak. In my line of work, you learn the value of bein’ quick. Comes in handy lots of times. I just sort of rum­mage through the trash. Then I slip off for a bit—you know, take care of “busi­ness.” Some­times it’s one kind of busi­ness, some­times it’s another.

Well, usu­ally those kids stayed in that tree until I was long gone. But wouldn’t you know it, this was the day they came down. All four of ’em right there behind me. So I had to go on pushin’ my cart two, three more blocks. I was about to bust!

In the sum­mer­time, I see those kids all over town. I bet some days they cover about as many blocks as I do, but they never go into East town. Except this one time. I saw them over the viaduct at Lan­dreth Park. That’s in East town—well, sort of. Any­way I saw those kids at the swim­ming pool at Lan­dreth Park late that evening. At first I didn’t take a whole lot of notice ’cause I was on my way home. You’d think those kids would be at Schif­fer­decker or one of those fancy parks over there, not in East town—not in the swim­ming pool in East town. But it was those same kids. I’m sure.

Helen Losse’s first book, Bet­ter With Friends, was pub­lished by Rank Stranger Press (Mt. Olive, NC) in 2009. She is the author of two chap­books, Gath­er­ing the Bro­ken Pieces and Paper Snowflakes. Her recent poetry pub­li­ca­tions and accep­tances include The Wild Goose Poetry Review, Main Street Rag, Iodine Poetry Review, Blue Fifth Review, Heavy Bear, Ref­er­en­tial Mag­a­zine, Hob­ble Creek Review and Lit­er­ary Trails of the North Car­olina Pied­mont. She is the Poetry Edi­tor for The Dead Mule School of South­ern Literature.

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4 Responses to Memories of a Joplin Bum, by Helen Losse

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  3. Margaret Kelly says:

    I remem­ber him well. He used to come down 9th street. Right down the mid­dle push­ing his cart. He would holler to me want­ing to know the time. I would run scared inside to tell Grandma. She would say for me to stay inside then she would go out to tell him the time.

  4. Helen Losse says:

    Thanks for pub­lish­ing this, Rusty.

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