When Rot Leads to Growth

Rotten baitWorking on a lobster boat you have to get used to some pretty awful smells, but on a frigid morning this past November I was smacked with one so foul that not all the rotten bait in the harbor could have prepared me for it.

I hopped onto the boat, opened the door to the wheelhouse and went up to the forward cabin to hustle through my normal routine of gearing up, powering on, and shoving off. Suddenly I felt a warm, heavy fog engulf me and the pungent smell of thick urine overcame me as I breathed it in.

I rushed out to the deck gasping for fresh air, choking on the disgusting fumes that hung in the cabin and heard Cappy start to chuckle from the dock, “oh yea I forgot to tell you, Robby slept on the boat last night. Caught him down there this morning before I came to pick you up. Said he was so drunk that he pissed himself while he was sleeping, but I think he just stood up in the middle of the night and let it fly everywhere rather than take eight steps up to the deck and go off the side of the boat.”

Robby is a homeless guy who wanders around the waterfront begging for money. I’m not sure what ails him, but he’s got some pretty serious mental problems and clearly isn’t getting the help he needs. Every time I see him he’s either drinking, drunk, or looking for drinking money.

I’m not sure where he sleeps at night. I imagine he stays at Preble Street or Milestone from time to time, but he also crashes at random spots on the waterfront. One time a buddy of Cap’s said he found him face down on the pavement of Union Wharf early in the morning. Said he nudged him to see if he was breathing and Robby just lifted his head to look at him and groan, then put his face back on the ground and closed his eyes.

I had never met Robby before this past summer when he started showing up at our wharf in the morning. He’d approach Cap with his head down, mumbling lowly, “hey Cap, I know I owe you that money but I swear I’m getting my check today. I promise I’ll get you the money tomorrow I just need a dollar fifty till later.” This was his story day after day, and every time Cap would tell him not to worry about paying him back and hand him a few bucks.

Cap’s always that way towards the people that he refers to as “the down and outs”. He makes a great living by Maine’s standards, but he drives a tiny old Geo and spends his money pragmatically. He’s unpretentious, if you didn’t know him you might confuse him for a homeless guy when he stops and talks at the gas station.

Anytime a “down and out” asks him for money he obliges without judgement. It’s a funny paradox to the man that goes back and forth with me over the virtues and evils of things like the welfare system, immigration, and healthcare reform.

He has me pulling my hair out sometimes with the ignorant right wing rhetoric that he spews. At times I swear it’s like he’s reading right out of a Glenn Beck handbook, but I think he mostly just likes getting under my skin to test my patience because he’s got me labeled as a misinformed, bleeding heart socialist.

The funny thing is that even though we stand at such opposite ends of the political spectrum we still have the same tough work ethic and we each typically treat people with decency and respect.

For the next couple of weeks after Robby slept on the boat the wheelhouse and forward cabin reeked like an outhouse in July. The smell was heavy. The urine was unable to dry up and evaporate in the damp, enclosed cabin and every time I had to go up there I could taste the mist in my mouth and feel the vapor fill my lungs.

With each passing day of working in that stench I grew angrier and angrier with Robby for what he’d done, but Cap did his best to laugh it off. We didn’t see Robby for a week or so but then one Saturday morning there he was waiting as we pulled into the wharf. He gave Cap the same old routine, promising to pay him back the next day. Cap just made a joke about bed wetting and handed him a couple bucks.

As we were steaming out to the first buoy I looked at Cap, “why do you keep giving that guy money after he stunk up the boat?” Cap smiled and looked off towards the horizon, “he’s a Chebeague boy and his father used to give me work and help me out. He taught me a lot about catching lobsters, I guess I just feel I owe it to him. It ain’t like I’m doin’ a whole lot for the guy anyways, just a couple dollars here and there.”

The next day was a day off. We almost never work on Sundays because Cap likes to go to church. On this particular Sunday I had a moving job scheduled with an upscale client. The guy was moving out and apparently had held a huge party the night before.

The place was a disaster and as I lugged his furniture out to the truck I saw him indiscriminately tossing garbage into jumbo sized trash bags. He was throwing all the empty bottles and cans in with the trash too without bothering to dump out the remaining swill left behind in the bottoms. I shook my head, glad I didn’t have to deal with a mess like that.

Wouldn’t you know it though, as soon as the truck was loaded the customer asked if I’d be willing to get rid of all the trash bags for him. My first inclination was to say “no way”, but before the words came out an idea struck me. I told him I’d get rid of them for ten bucks and he quickly agreed, handing over the cash.

I put the back seat of the car down, lined it with moving blankets, and stuffed her full of the heavy, soggy, gross smelling bags. My brilliant plan was to drive down by Preble Street and find someone who would want them for the returnables. I figured I had about thirty bucks worth of bottles mixed in with the trash, and that someone would be pumped to get them. I drove down Elm Street and saw a guy I recognized as a frequent panhandler sitting against a tree on the sidewalk.

I pulled up next to him and hopped out of the car beaming, excited to make someone’s day. I asked the guy if he wanted the bottles and he muttered something that I couldn’t hear. I took a few steps closer, “what’d you say dude?” He looked annoyed, “I said it’s too much work, ask that guy over there,” he lazily lifted a long, crackly finger and pointed it across the street towards a parking lot.

I saw another guy slumped against a concrete barricade and jogged over to him, “hey man, that guy over there said you might want some bottles.” The guy looked at me strangely, confused. I tried to do my best to sound friendly, “I have about thirty dollars worth of bottles, if you want them you can have them and return them for the money.” The guy blinked at me for a few seconds, then replied, “no man, I don’t want to carry them.”

I threw my hands up and marched back to the car in frustration. I headed towards the redemption center on Forest Ave, cursing the two men with Robby in the back of my mind.

I’ve spent a lot of time advocating for people like them- passionately arguing with people about their rights, writing letters to the newspapers in defense of them, posting things to Facebook and Twitter condemning people for their hatred and vitriol towards them. Then when I present them with a money making opportunity that takes just a little bit of work they refuse.

Why should I keep sticking my neck out for them if they don’t even want to lift a finger to earn some income? Maybe I should just say forget the advocacy work and focus on growing my business and lining my pockets.

Just then, out of the corner of my eye I saw a guy digging through a dumpster behind the shopping plaza near USM on Forest Ave. Without thinking I turned into the parking lot and drove towards the man. I pulled up next to him and hopped out. He froze, as if he thought he was in trouble.

Once again I went through the shpiel, “hey dude, I’ve got a bunch of bottles. Probably about thirty dollars worth, you want ’em?”

The dude appeared to be in his 40’s. He was wiry and looked like he had a strong back. He had a scraggly brown beard and bright, brilliant blue eyes that he raised to look at me cautiously, “you mean you’re just gonna give ’em to me?” a smile spread across his face. “Well yea,” I was a little unprepared for him to take to the idea after the other two guys, “see I got ’em from a moving client and I don’t need ’em so I figured you might be able to use the money.”

The guy’s face continued to light up, and mine followed suit as I realized that this was a good idea after all.

I went around to the back of the car and opened up the trunk. As I pulled out the bags I remembered just how slimy and trash filled they were. I didn’t want the guy to think I was just thoughtlessly dumping my trash off on him, so I showed him the bags and made him an offer, “tell you what, you’re gonna have to pick through all this garbage to get the bottles out. If you make sure all the trash goes in that dumpster I’ll pay you ten bucks plus the bottles.”

I handed the money over to him, the guy was speechless. His eyes watered up and his face softened as looked at the money in his hand, “thank you so much.”

I could see the pain behind those tears. I imagined what the man’s story must be, what path he might have followed to get to this point, what his hopes and dreams had been when he was younger and what had happened to derail him from a normal life.

I responded, my voice crackling, “Don’t worry about it man, you’re doing me a favor. Ten bucks is the least I can do.” I stuck my hand out for a handshake. He looked at his hand, wiped it on his pant leg, and shook mine firmly. Then he brought it in for a hug. It was surreal, I didn’t know what to say. The guy stepped back, looked me in the eye and said “good luck man. Thank you and good luck.”

I hopped into the car and drove away shaking from the power of the moment. “Did that guy really just wish me luck? Did that really just happen?”

When Cap picked me up for work the next day he looked upset, “Robby stayed on the boat again last night, pissed all over the place and robbed me. Took the new boots and oil skins that I bought for you. Worthless, no good drunk. After all I’ve done for him, jeez. They oughta take all the bums and throw ’em in jail until they rot.”

He went on for a few more minutes, generalizing all homeless people into one God forsaken category. I knew he didn’t mean what he was saying. Sure Robby had let us down, but he isn’t representative of every homeless person and we each knew that.

I waited for Cap to calm down, then told him the story of the guy taking the bottles. I told him that just because Robby had taken advantage of him he shouldn’t give up on helping people in need. I told him how the guy had started crying when I offered to pay him for his trouble and he thought for a minute, “probably cried because he’s not used to being treated with dignity. Getting paid for his trouble mighta’ reminded him that he’s worth something. That’s a powerful thing you did for that guy.”

We rode for several minutes in silence until we got to the gas station where we stop each morning. I went in to grab a coffee and some snacks for the day and Cap stopped to talk to a homeless guy we know who calls himself “Buck” (because he always needs a buck). We’ve known Buck for a while now, he’s a good hearted guy always ready with a funny story. When I came out of the store I saw Cap handing him a little cash and when he realized I had seen the hand off he got a sheepish look on his face.

“Looks like you don’t hate all of them, huh?” I asked as we got back in the car. “Nah Buck’s a good guy, he’s never done anything to wrong me. What the hell anyways, can’t bring your money with you when you die.”

When we got to the boat the only sign of Robby was the fresh stink of urine engulfing us once again. We cursed him for a few minutes, then got on with the day arguing sporadically about welfare, immigration, and healthcare- each with a new appreciation for the other’s perspective.

Chris Shorr

About Chris Shorr

Chris is a sixth generation Portlander who loves all things Maine. He has worked with mentally ill and marginalized adults at a Portland non-profit, on a lobster boat in Casco Bay, at several high-end Portland restaurants, and at a local meat packing plant. He also ran for Portland City Council in 2013, wrote a weekly column in the now defunct Portland Daily Sun, and currently writes a weekly column in The Portland Phoenix.