by Tim Gilmore, 7/20/2018
Instead of sadness, instead of horror, what she felt most was “awe at the sheer coincidence of a person’s popping into existence and then winking right back out.”
She didn’t know where they’d found him. Her friends were drunk when she picked them up. They’d said they’d take him to a house party, this Crustpunk kid. He’s got the boots and the denim shorts and the patches and the tats. Everything but the dog and the backpack.
“Why do they always have dogs anyway?” she says. “Little substitute families. Caricatures. You add a dog, you got a family.”
Her friends get in the car, and “this Crustie’s in the back,” and she can smell him. Somehow, plans change. A joint and a pint of New Amsterdam gin make their way around the compact Toyota, but somehow not to the Crustpunk. And he’s angry, getting angrier, and for a second it looks like the crossbuck by the railroad tracks says, “I Am the Way,” and the Crustpunk’s shouting, ‘Fuck you, fuck all of you, I hope you get killed tonight! I hope you bitches get raped!’”
So. She puts him out of her car: “He got where I was coming from. I didn’t have to get physical or anything.”
And so intersect lives. Briefly. Degradingly. Foolishly. As though each life were not a story long and deep as the Mariana Trench. Even in flashes of anger, disgust, despair, truths seem but stones skipped, and no one sees how thoroughly all our roots grow bound up together. Most of the time, we prefer it that way.
His couchsurfing.com profile says he last logged in 12 months ago. He lived another month. The profile claims he still “Wants to Meet Up.” So I send him an email. I tell him, “I Am the Way.” I don’t know what I mean, but I mean it.
He’d been a member on couchsurfing since 2015. He’d attended college, was a “Vegetetarian” [sic], and liked to travel. He grew up in Jacksonville, listed his interests as “Books & Skateboarding,” listened to bands like Grouplove and Days N Daze. For “One Amazing Thing I’ve Done,” he listed, “Hop a freight train.”
Under “Why I’m on Couchsurfing,” he typed, “Because I’d like to find people that would spare their couch while I travel or attempt to get on my feet.” Under “Teach Learn Share,” he typed, “I like to learn grow read share and travel.” Under “What I Can Share with Hosts,” he typed, “Positive vibes, conversation, yard work, maybe food stamps? idk.”
Using no names in this story, I figure the best thing I can do now is walk the railroad tracks. Maybe 20 years ago, I often saw this strange man walking the tracks throughout the urban core. I saw him in Riverside, in Paxon, in San Marco. He wore coarse sackcloth, a rope tied around his waist. His shoulder-length hair had grown knotted, his beard long and tangled. He looked like a monk, like a scene from Franco Zeffirelli’s Brother Sun, Sister Moon, but not so pretty. Each time I saw him, I promised myself I’d talk to him the next time. I never did. On a chart of all the lives my own life has intersected, does he show? I want another chance. How many lives should touch firmly, but only glance surfaces?
What scant details else do I know about the Crustpunk? On August 24, 2013, beside a Florida Times-Union article called “From Homeless to UNF Student,” he appears in a photograph of young men helping a college student move from the Sulzbacher Center, the only full-scale homeless shelter in the city, to the University of North Florida’s Osprey Village dorms.
He was arrested in 2016 for “skateboarding in a prohibited area.” Florida Title XXIII (Motor Vehicles), Chapter 316 (State Uniform Traffic Control), section 316.2065 addresses the use of bicycles, roller skates, coasters, bicycle semitrailers, etc. on a roadway:
“No person upon roller skates, or riding in or by means of any coaster, toy vehicle, or similar device, may go upon any roadway except while crossing a street on a crosswalk.” And so on.
There exist but two eyewitness accounts. No news source reported it. One driver was headed home from Nighthawks, the bar just south of College Street and the railroad tracks. Another driver had just left a couple afterhours shots after the drag show at the Metro, the other side of College and the tracks.
She’s glad she didn’t see it, but she’s still shaken. Even today. She knows of him only these two random events. Random to her life, in any case. Her booting him from the car. Her hearing of his being smashed to pieces of blood and bone by the train. Two surface connections that sink deep into her core.
She laughs a little. She cries just a bit. She doesn’t know why she needed to contact me to tell me. But I know now, in the absence of names I can use, what I must do.
The landscape absorbs the most disparate happenings. My father’s garden, when I was a child. The specific psychological coordinates of the invisible man my mother saw standing by her bed when she was dying. The corn maze I ran through with my children. Stories mark the land, I’m certain, but don’t present themselves to our wandering eyes. We have to dig. In old newspapers / in the dirt. In old men’s memories / beneath the tall pine. The question, this time, is simple. First imagine the moment a train ploughs into your body. Then wonder how such a world-shaking event could not be marked in the land for everyone who passes to see it.
I can’t know what he was doing there. I can’t know if he committed suicide. I can’t know if he was high and thought he might jump this train but fell before it. I can’t know if someone pushed him. I can’t know if I know if I can’t if I can’t know if I know that I know I can’t. I just can’t.
They said he kind of lurched across the tracks. The train. The train hit him. A million miles an hour. Maybe 2:30 a.m. Blew him into a billion pieces.
So I wait. I wait at the crossroads. Willow Branch and College. Nighthawks and the Metro. Her life and his. And mine. And wait. It comes. I prostrate my body. I submit, Sujūd before the coming light of the train, like a Muslim at prayer. To know what it feels like to lie inches from this full-bore Loco! Motive! I recall a scholarly study in a psychology journal about the “mystery of the suicidal impulse,” cases where the time between impulse and act, in people who’d not considered suicide before, was only about five seconds.
I recall an academic paper, “An Economic Theory of Suicide.” I bow down, melodramatic imbecile I am. The way.
On August 24, 2017, The Florida Times-Union published the following obituary:
“28, passed away August 19, 2017. Arrangements by Eternity Funeral Homes Jacksonville (904) 348-5579 & Nassau (904) 261-2700.”
And that’s all. No mention of next of kin. No memories. Nothing about his personality. Nothing personal at all. As though he lived only in the margins of his own life. And then winked out.
The greatest tragedy is the farce, for the fact of its not being epic.
The next day, great winds blew through the midday heat, theatrically dropping the temperature and scattering dragonflies devouring mosquitoes from the tops of crepe myrtles 50 feet over the streets. Selah.