I had seen him before, doing crotch-tearing splits in the middle of our only pedestrian street. Burlington, Vermont is a city of enigmas; there is Kornbread, rapper, coke dealer and impromptu comedian; Birdman, with his gaunt face and oversized sunglasses, known for wheeling around a stolen grocery cart filled with spray painted trash; there’s the fat widower who parades through town wearing lopsided heels and a dirty tutu—a thick, Joker-esque line of lipstick demarcating his mouth; there’s the seven foot schizophrenic that cups his balls over his sweatpants and mumbles profanities to passersby; the regal Jamaican who hangs out in front of the kabob shop with his massive bouquet of dreads and gnarled walking stick; the crust punks with their two liter Sprites and gaggle of leashed cats; the obnoxious seasonal accordionist; the court jester with the ladder; the masked didgeridoo player; the slow-walking, Bangladeshi monk; then there’s Karl.
I met Karl at Starbucks. The normal demographic of imitation hipsters and basic bitches that Starbucks typically attracts is upset by Burlington’s homeless population—those who order a single black coffee and use that as license to stash their three trash bags full of clothes and fold-up mattress in shop. Karl is one of these squatters. He has been coming to Starbucks for so long that he has laid claim to one of the tables on the far right by the window. He has pseudonymed this table his “desk.” I tended to sit at the table adjacent from his, by pure happenstance, often because it was the only one left unoccupied. It was at that table that I had my first real encounter with Karl. Karl was a point of intrigue: a case study into the surreptitious underbelly of Burlington that I had always hypothesized about. In my experience, it is not abnormal for people to demonize the homeless: to make up narratives about them that they are lazy and weird and dangerous and underserving of a few bucks and a friendly hello. It seems that more often than not, there is a necessary dehumanization that defines our interactions with homeless people. Moreover, it is easier for people to deny their humanity than to confront the guilt that would come with treating them as equals. I have always been saddened by this reality, by our survivalist, self-preserving approach. Maybe that explains why when Karl struck up conversation with me, I did not write him off or debate changing tables: I listened.
“You know who I am?” he whispered.
Karl removed the black Beats by Dre from around his neck and stared at me through translucently rimmed glasses. I looked down at his hands resting on the white marble table. His knuckles were scabbed, clad with turquoise rings and charred from cigarette ash.
“I don’t believe I do,” I said, quietly anticipating his answer.
“I’m a writer. I’m a poet. Sometimes I’m a dragon. I’m whoever I want to be.”
There was a lubricative quality to Karl’s voice; his delivery was smooth and free flowing, slick as black ice. One could appreciate his bravado. In seconds, he grabbed a rogue chair and scooched closer to me to tell me about the book he was writing.
“It’s called Bending Steel. It’s a lil’ somethin that’s never been done before. Never before in history, I don’t think. Lemme tell you, honey. I went to four jails and visited inmates. I recorded their stories and I did this crazy thing. I made poems out of them.”
I told him I liked the title and the concept, unsure if my reaction was adequate, too cavalier.
“Ain’t nobody gonna read shit without a good title, cept course’ if they forced to. You in school?”
“I am in school, studying English…hopefully graduating in May.”
Karl cocked his head back and smirked, like I had just said something whack.
“That’s right! And I’m so glad you said that, cus now I know we’re gonna get along.”
And we did. From that point on whenever I’d run into Karl he’d give me a wry smile and extend his arm for a fist bump. He told me about his peripatetic lifestyle: his years on the gum-covered streets of Harlem, the heroin binges, the jail time, the gentrification, his eventual relocation to Vermont. He spoke in bullet points, but I wanted specifics: the full, uncensored story. I was a writer, moved by a magnetic inquisition. Karl was a writer too. We had that in common. Yet, it seemed as though the particulars of Karl’s life came second to his art, to the now. He knew who he was and didn’t need to go outlining that for people. And because our friendship was nascent, albeit foreign, I remained judicious. As much as I wanted to probe Karl about his past, I couldn’t shake the politics of race and social class that made my harmless curiosity feel like an act of condescension. I didn’t want to play ethnographer, but it felt like no matter how I engaged with Karl, that was what would come across.
Karl was conservative with his words. He spoke through actions; one time in October he handed me a melty, broken Butterfinger wrapped in a napkin. I unfolded it to find: I think I like you. You get me, written in messy cursive on the inside of it. I turned to Karl who stuck out his brain-pink tongue at me jokingly and left to go dance in the street. Karl moved like a limbless being. He exited buildings like a cephalopod.
After about a few days into our friendship Karl calmly ordered me to friend him on Facebook. He had a lot of friends (over 3,000), a figure he prided himself on. I deleted him a while back because he kept crowding my newsfeed with scantily dressed women, horoscope advertisements and Candy Crush invitations. Gauging from our pleasant exchanges following the deletion, I don’t think he has noticed the minus one.
A few weeks later I ran into Karl again. He was wearing a white button-up, Nike High Tops, a backwards hat and ratty suspenders. He is probably one of the only middle-aged men I know that looks natural in that street wear. As soon as I got closer to him I realized he had a monstrous black eye. His legs were bruised like a maltreated apple and one of his arms was in a sling.
“Karl, what the heck happened?” I exclaimed.
“Girl, six guys beat the shit out of me because I tried to cash a fifty-dollar bill at a convenience store. I woke up in ICU and I’m all SHOOK UP!”
“I’m so sorry man, that’s awful.” I didn’t know what else to say. Karl didn’t want my pity. He didn’t want to be seen as a victim, but my prescription was telling me otherwise. Why did this sting? What was the problem? I looked back at Karl leaning against a storefront window and wondered how he was seeing me, if he too was seeing archetypes…power. I felt naked. I didn’t want him to see the white girl, the student, the you-have-it-so-easy kid.
“Look, I’ve been shot twice, stabbed in the back, kicked down, socked with brass knuckles, backhanded with a frying pan, slammed against the hood of a cruiser…this is kids stuff. It’s crazy bein’ black in Vermont…bein’ black anywhere. I’m tellin’ you lady, it’s going to be the little shit that kills me. I’ll slip on a banana peel tomorrow or choke on my own spit and croak. ”
“Damn, Karl. From the sounds of it, I’d say you were immortal.”
“I’m not immortal, girl. I’m just Karl.”
Karl was like no one I had ever met before; he was groovy and earnest and incredibly unpredictable. With each interaction we had, I got to piece together a little more of his narrative. The interest was mutual. Our passions were too.
“Hey, go online. I want you to see something.”
Karl liked showing me things online: articles, mind-blowing images, and by and large, things that had to do with him. Karl was not a narcissist by any means. He was just extremely proud of his work and eager to share it with people.
Karl commandeered my laptop and pulled up his profile on some random poetry database. The website had ancient graphics that resembled pop-up spam. He gave the computer back to me and asked me to scroll down the page.
“Look at that. What’d I tell ya. I’ve written over 750 poems and I’m not quitin!”
He proceeded to recite one of his favorites, Dear Daddy, about the childhood death of his father. I listened attentively to each verse, watching precarious tears loiter in the crevices of his glassy eyes:
From the day of conception, my daddy was dead.
No man to man talks and the truth was not said.
To lead my life without his teaching or guidance,
But, I figure my voice, so I could not be silenced.
Karl had heart and so did his poetry; it had a pulse. And knowing that made it so much harder to acknowledge that the probability that it would leave his ratty notebooks or the outskirts of the Internet and be published—printed on glossy pages with his name on it and sold in Barnes & Noble chains nationwide—were next to none. I heard my privilege in his recitation, echoed back at me like a cave-scream.
“Thank you so much for sharing that with me. That’s a really impressive body of work. I hope I can get there someday.”
Karl let out a raspy laugh, flipping through the pages of one of his frayed composition books.
“He that lives upon hope will die fasting. Benjamin Franklin said that, I think? I’ve done so many fucking drugs I could be misquoting. Shit…Anyway, don’t hope, just do. You gotta’ start writing, girlie.”
The last time I saw Karl his face was wrapped in gauze; he told me that he was going blind—that he had already started to. He had multiple sclerosis: an often-debilitating disease of the central nervous system. Throughout my four years living in Vermont, I had passed Karl on the street on a daily basis. And despite his constant presence in my life, I didn’t really understand him for who he was. And in this way, there was something darkly ironic to his diagnosis—that just as Karl was beginning to loose his vision, I was truly beginning to see him, to individuate him as someone real and complex, someone that transcended his three, preassigned adjectives: unknowable, flexible, homeless.
“I’m goin’ down to New York next week to pick up my guide-dog. And ya know what, honey?”
“They better give me a fuckin’ Doberman."