Bum For A Day

(NOTE: This essay is part of a group of essays, written roughly between 1993 and 1997, which I privately call “The Receipts.” They were essays written when I was an unquestioning lad engaging with the world in pure shock-jock mode, and if you want proof that I used to be an absolute dingbat, well… Here’s the receipts.

(It’s essays like these in part that made me create the BS-O-Meter plugin for my site, where I said:

(“Part of living life honestly on the Internet means you crystallize some of your past self and present it for current critique – which is fair.  But when you blast Past Ferrett for some crude take, just keep in mind that Current Ferrett may be cringing at being related to that idiot, kind of like those embarrassing relatives who won’t stop posting Trump memes on Facebook – yeah, I’m connected to him, but I’m not exactly proud of that fact.”

(In this case, I left these essays up because I don’t believe in deleting past stupidity.  If you wish to use this as proof that Past Ferrett was an idiot, well, I won’t disagree with you.  If you wish to use that as proof that Current Ferrett is an idiot, well, I can’t blame you.)

The street corner was cold; not bitterly, bone-freezing cold, but a frosty chill still crept under my threadbare jean jacket. My hand shivered erratically as I thrust it out at passing strangers, asking for change, desperately trying to scrape up five bucks for a nickel bag of stem-choked pot.
And I thought: Jeez, this is a hell of a way to pick up a homeless chick.
But perhaps I should start at the beginning. Normally, even I wouldn’t be caught dead mooching spare change a mere two blocks away from the headquarters of my $40,000-a-year job, simply to get into the soiled and musky trousers of a vagrant.
But it was a special time in my life. And she had squeezed my ass.
Because life at the time had become a dank cesspool – no, I lie. A cesspool is at least exciting, filled with all sorts of lively smells, new textures, squirmy and stinky forms of life… Whereas I was trapped in the carefully-neutral hell of an early-morning alarm clock blaring easy listening music – not quite bad enough to jar you awake, but annoying enough to make you troubled and unsettled all of the time.
Like the continual hum of a dentist’s drill, the same worries gnawed at me:
You’ve gained forty pounds since you moved out here.
It’s been a year, and you still have no friends.
Your job sucks, and your girlfriend doesn’t fuck you anymore.
So when a college-aged girl began watching me play Mortal Kombat on my lunchbreaks at the local arcade, I found the attention flattering.
I had taken to playing Mortal Kombat ferociously, and spent my lunch hours desperately kicking the shit out of the only people in my life I had power over: Digital people.
You couldn’t help but notice her watch you, since she had eyes that glowed like a cat in the semidarkness of the video parlor. Most people look around when they talk – but her gaze had the singular, blazing focus of a lighthouse beam. She stood behind me one lunch hour at a time, silently watching.
It was not an unattractive gaze… If you were a fat desperate horny loser.
She looked to be your typical post-adolescent metal chick; she wore a denim jean jacket and tight pants that accentuated her cute little ass. Her T-shirt was a Guns ‘n’ Roses cutoff, exposing a pasty belly that was flat in a sort of sunken way, like a mushroom. I didn’t really pay attention beyond that; the individual parts were attractive in their own way, but when put together they yielded something oddly unsettling, like a jigsaw puzzle with misaligned pieces.
She said nothing for the first couple of sessions; she seemed content to quietly admire my competence. Unlike most of the players, I knew all the secret moves – which allowed me to rip out digital spines for her, to kick digital heads around like a football and make her giggle. I’d step back from the machine triumphantly to offer her a better view of the pixellated blood.
It was an odd form of flirtation, but there it was.
Eventually she began asking me questions – “So it’s the High Kick button, then the Low Kick button to defenestrate her?” We made idle conversation in the spaces between games.
Turned out her name was Jennifer – “But it’s pronounced Yen-i-FAH-ray,” she insisted, claiming it was Judaic pronunciation – and she was quite frank about her homelessness. It wasn’t the stigma that it might have been, given that we both lived in Ann Arbor – a town rife with helpful college students-cum-volunteers.
She hung around the video parlor because she had nothing better to do.
Lonely and desperate for human attention, I started looking forward to seeing her. I analyzed her face closely, forming a mental snapshot of her – a snapshot which I would bring home and masturbate over with furious skill whenever my girlfriend fell asleep.
But still, I wasn’t sure what kind of relationship Yenifari and I had. It seemed vaguely sexual, but how could I tell? I mean, our entire relationship consisted of me showing off on a game that was made for twelve-year-olds.
The confirmation of our seething passion came when I had just vanquished beat the game playing as Sheeva, a monstrous four-armed, eight-foot tall woman who stomped opponents into the ground Hulk-style. Yenifari chuckled throatily, noting that I’d been playing Sheeva a lot, lately.
“You like strong girls, huh?” she laughed. “You want four hands all over you – like this!” And she reached behind me, cupped a cheek firmly in each hand, and squeezed tight.
My penis nearly exploded out of my pants.
I managed to back off and make small talk, but the smoldering look in her watery blue eyes gave me no illusions about where this was going.
But where could I take it?
Admittedly, finding an excuse to bring a homeless woman to an apartment wouldn’t be hard – “Say, how’d you like a bed and a hot shower?” – but my live-in girlfriend might throw a wrench into the works.
The irony was too delicious. We both had something the other wanted, and neither of us could use it.
She wanted to go back to my office; instead, I started going for lunchtime walks with her. This served the fine dual purpose of getting to know her – and while she rambled on, I bobbed my head back and forth like a pigeon, searching for some alcove isolated enough to fuck in. Downtown Ann Arbor had to have some mercy on the horny, right?
No… But at least I got to know her.
Like a lot of troubled women, Jennifer – sorry, Yenifari – made herself the star of her own soap opera. The details varied on a day-to-day basis, but the cast of characters remained unchanging:

  • Her boyfriend, who was a commando in the Israeli militia, who was deeply in love with her but hadn’t written in two years;
  • Her evil grandmother, who had taken her baby away from her (except it was her mother);
  • Her lawyer, who was suing her grandmother and doing either a fine or a terrible job, depending on what day it was, and;
  • Her baby, who needed to be brought up as a Jew, and hence it was very important that his hair not be cut or he would lose his eternal soul. Whether the evil grandmother had damned her baby forever was a topic of daily discussion.

Speaking with a blithe ignorance of her mutable facts, she related her daily rewrite with gusto, total belief, and a flair for the dramatic. Adrift on an ever-changing current, she believed her history du jour with utter belief.
And she had squeezed my ass.
Mostly, our conversations involved how she had to get her baby back before he lost his soul. That, and how the homeless shelter was full of guys who only wanted to score with her – and she wasn’t that easy.
Boy, said I, isn’t it a good thing you’re out here with me?
Yeah, she said, snuggling up next to me, at least you’re not a jerk like them.
Every day, though, she wanted to go back to my office – not surprisingly, she preferred being indoors – and as desperate as I was for attention, even I knew where to stop. Borders ran an informal office, but walking into the lobby with an unwashed girl on my arm might be hazardous to my corporate health.
Eventually, I cooked up a plan. I’d meet her on a Thursday night at seven o’clock, when the office was mostly deserted. I would take her inside to a back corner – and get nookie inside my own office!
The plan proceeded apace.
Yenifari was impressed with my cubicle. We sat shoulder to shoulder for about an hour in the abandoned HQ, playing cards and snuggling; I made the moves, but she placed a demand on me:
She wanted to go back to my place.
Now in true guy fashion, I had not once mentioned my girlfriend to Yenifari – nor had I ever mentioned Yenifari to my girlfriend. These were worlds I had hoped would never collide…
…But I was backed up against the wall. There was going to be a real awkward introduction in about a half an hour if I didn’t do something quick.
So regretfully, I hauled out the word I had been tapdancing around for a month – girlfriend. As in:
“Let me call my girlfriend and see if she’s okay with that.”
The word slid off her shields without the slightest dent. “Cool,” she said calmly, as if they met for tea every Tuesday.
The phone call home was about as awkward as you’d expect it to be. No matter how you slice it, when your conversation boils down to, “Hi, honey! I met a homeless woman who I like, and I’m bringing her home to spend the night with us!” you’re going to have troubles.
My girlfriend, to her ever-appreciated credit, was kind enough to stall the important questions for later. She agreed.
“So you have a girlfriend?” said Yenifari eagerly. “Wow. She must really be cool, if she’s dating you. She must be something special.”
“She’s pretty neat,” I agreed, inwardly wincing at the discussion I was going to face tomorrow.
“Well, I don’t have any weed,” she said wistfully, “And I need to get her a present. Can’t show up at a house without a present. She smokes, right?”
“Occasionally,” I allowed.
“Well, then we gotta get her something,” she said firmly. I could see the blaze of desire welling up in her watery blue eyes, and I realized what had happened – she had felt awkward, but she had thought that she was responsible for misinterpreting our situation… And to make up for embarrassing me like this, she was going to impress my girlfriend come hell or high water.
I sensed the night plunging deep into the abyss.
This burning desire for pot was a new facet of Yenifari’s personality, but not entirely unsuspected; her jacket was musty with stale smoke, but she never carried cigarettes. I tried to convince her that my girlfriend didn’t even like pot that much, but she waved me off; in Yenifari’s world, everyone loved to smoke. “You got any cash?”
I didn’t, but my ATM account was brimming under with forty bucks in it – and I wanted to just get this over with. Besides, I personally hated smoking pot. Weed made me paranoid, and I had enough paranoia right now to last me the month.
“No,” I lied.
“Then we’re gonna have to find some,” she said, searching her pockets (and mine) for change. She charged down the street, discussing the various dealers available and their individual merits. Eventually, astonished at how many dealers walked among us on a Thursday night in November, we settled on one guy in a sweatshirt – who, not surprisingly, refused to sell us seventy-six cents of pot. His exasperated expression told us that he dealt with this sort of thing a lot.
“I only got nickel bags,” he said firmly. “But I’ll tell you what; those guys over there are looking to score, too. You wanna team up?”
He introduced us to three guys. Two of them had faces that looked like third-grade clay projects – poorly-shaved heads, bulging noses, eyebrows that jutted out like ghetto-brand Chia pets. They were festooned with tattoos and Goodwill-issue clothing. Sure enough, one of them turned to his friend and said, “Man, I’m jonesin’ – after three years in jail, this is gonna be my first taste of pot as a free man!” His friend cheerfully drank his Keystone beer openly, either oblivious or unaware of the seventy-dollar fine for drinking on the streets of Ann Arbor.
But it was the third guy – the rich one who had the astounding sum of two dollars and fifty cents on him – who got me. He was in a wheelchair and spoke with a vocoder, looking like Stephen Hawking on crack. He had come alone, but everyone seemed to wave to him as he rolled by. “I – need – to – score,” he typed conversationally. “It – helps – me – relax.”
“Hey, Bennie,” said Yenifari pleasantly. Apparently, she knew him, too.
He’s homeless?” I asked in a harsh whisper.
“Yeah,” she said, her face twisting into a light sneer of jealousy. “But he gets disability.” Such was obviously the source of his astounding wealth, making him the Bill Gates of Ann Arbor’s homeless segment… I remained unenvious.
The ex-cons had a buck between them, which left us to fill the seventy-five cent gap. “You wait here,” she said to the three of them. “We’ll be back in a bit. Come on!” barked Yenifari, suddenly alight with activity.
“Yenifari,” I whispered in anguish, “What the hell are we doing?”
“We’ll get it,” she said. “A present for your girlfriend. A sweeeeeet present. Don’t worry, I know what I’m doing.”
Before I knew it, we were begging.
Well… She was, anyway. I stood to the side, mortified, while she strode proudly into the stream of foot traffic and bellowed, “Hey, you got a quarter? It’s just a quarter! Come on – it’s for a present!” I stood to the side shyly… But everyone still looked at me as if I was somehow responsible for all of this. And I couldn’t say that I wasn’t. I mean, I had the money… But deep in my soul, I thought she’d eventually realize how silly this was and just stop.
Now understand that I have been caught getting a blowjob from a complete stranger, in a public theater, by my girlfriend… And then had to introduce my girlfriend to a woman whose name I could not remember. I have been paid to dance naked. I have been the only one unable to achieve an erection at an orgy.
So understand what it means when I say that begging in the street was twenty-three minutes of the worst humiliation I have ever endured, this means something.
After half an hour, we had cleared all of thirty cents; as minimum-wage jobs went, this was clearly substandard. But Yenifari whirled on me, fury showing in her filmy blue eyes:
Goddammit!” she roared. “I’m standing here begging my ass off, and all you can do is stand there doing nothing! Hey, this is for your girlfriend – work for it!
People stared. Say, whatever happened to that cuddly, vaguely-psychotic homeless girl I had fallen for? I mean, I knew she was a little off-kilter – but here were the bare bones of her psychosis, glinting up at me like a mugger’s knife. Rather than deal with the real anger I’d face upon revealing a flush bank account, or try to argue with her about the need for weed…
I began to beg.
Now, remember that this was two blocks from my job; I tried to console myself with the thought that at least if my boss saw me, it’d be a lot easier to argue for my next raise.
And it didn’t help that I was from the East Coast, specifically New York, where people only talk to you if they’re mugging you – and even then, they’re more embarrassed about talking to strangers than about taking your money. Throw a pack of Easterners in an elevator that gets stuck between floors for eight hours, and at the end of the day they won’t know each other’s names. Handicapped by my background, I could only stammer, “Um, hey, could you maybe spare, like, a…” before whoosh, they were gone.
An hour later, I had gathered sixty cents… And found a quarter on the street! It was time to get to work.
We returned to where the two thugs and Stephen Hawking sat, notably unfazed. You ask me to wait an hour for a buck’s worth of pot, and I would have taken my dollar elsewhere… But they hadn’t budged, circling the dealer like wagons around a campfire. Their eyes scraped over me hungrily. “You got it? You got it?”
We got it!” said Yenifari, triumphantly holding up a handful of loose change. We all activated our Wonder Twin powers, bought a baggie of pot that looked like it had been swept off of the floor of a chicken coop, and everyone disappeared into an alleyway fifty feet to our left. I followed, finding the wheelchair guy rolling about helplessly at the top of a flight of steps in the distant back, unable to follow, typing furiously with one hand: “Make – sure – I – get – my – weed,” he monotoned. All I could think of was Robby the Robot, flailing about mechanically in a tizzy: Danger, Will Robinson! Weed in danger!
And here it was: Down a flight of stairs, next to a padlocked cellar door recessed about three feet back, cloaked in shadows… Here was the very alcove I had been looking for. Yenifari and I could have fucked all day here, and nobody would have ever known. And now it was packed with an obsessed pothead and two young thugs.
God hated me.
“Make – sure – I – get – my – weed,” the robovoice intoned from the top of the stairs. “I – need – my – weed. My – weed – is – ”
Shut the fuck up, man!” shouted the recently-freed lout. “You’re gonna get it, awright?”
Yenifari stepped in to prevent the scene. “Don’t worry,” she cooed to Robocop. “You play lookout, make sure no cops come. I’ll make sure you get your share – okay, sweetie?” Then, in a lower voice to us: “I’ll roll up a quick joint for us so we can get high, then I’ll split it. Okay?”
The thugs nodded. She reached into her pocket and took out a baggie filled with the Batman Marjiuana Kit – rolling papers, a pipe, matches, and a large laminated photo of…
Her son.
Yenifari dumped the pot onto the smiling infant’s face, crooning, “Yes, my baby… I never get high without you… Nothing better than getting high with my baby… Oh, sweetie, I wish I could get you high…”
Yenifari was skeeving me out, so I made idle conversation with the thugs. “So you lookin’ forward to this?” I ventured.
“Fuckin’ A, man!” shouted one. “It’s been three years since he had weed, and boy gonna get some tonight!”
“Man, you know what a bitch prison is,” he said, assuming my familiarity with the hole. I wasn’t quite sure what demographic I had fallen into here, but it seemed like a compliment. I nodded sagely and asked, “So what were ya in for?”
“Aggravated assault,” he said calmly.
“He stabbed a guy in the stomach,” whispered the friend. “Thank God the guy lived… But he was drunk.”
I caught the fine aroma of Keystone wafting off of their tombstone teeth and surging out of their pores, overpowering the dank stench of rotting vegetables and piss down here. Um, good.
Yenifari leaned over to me and said sotto voce: “A buck’s not gonna be enough. I think I can short ’em and get an extra fifty cents.”
“We don’t need to short them,” I hissed, feeling my stomach. It was soft and unarmored.
“We do!” she muttered. “This is for your girlfriend, all right? I’ll give them the stems. Oh, my sweet baby….”
I rediscovered the art of prayer. Fortunately, the alley was dark, so I had to light a match to illuminate Yenifari’s fumbling fingers – which hid her prestidigitation.
Only an expert could have rolled a joint out of the tiny bundle of sticks Yenifari had to work with. We toked up in dreary silence, covering the light with our hands, listening to the armored chassis of The Wheeled Potsmoker whir as he patrolled the entrance relentlessly.
“Hey – I – smell – pot,” we heard.
“We’re just splitting it!” Yenifari choked, a blue cloud billowing forth from her lips. “It’s dark! Takes time!”
“I – want – my – pot,” he buzzed angrily. What the hell was this poor guy gonna do if we didn’t give it to him? Fisticuffs? Nudge us to death?
Eventually, we finished up and Yenifari split the dope, giving wheelchair boy half of what was left. A large argument between Yenifari and the two louts ensued, as they insisted that Yenifari had ripped them off – but Yenifari puffed up like a cat, screaming, “Goddammit, I been smokin’ weed since you were in diapers, and that’s good fuckin’ pot! I put in my buck-fifty – you wanna fight, let’s go! I’ll put yer ass back in jail!
I did my best impression of wallpaper.
The thugs slunk off into the night. Stephen Hawking whirred off. We were alone in an alleyway at last, stoned, lust was in the air….
“Let’s go meet your girlfriend,” she said.
The drive home took forever; Yenifari explained in painstaking detail how Kabalistic traditions affected Jewish hairstyles; a stream of unfathomable Hebrew babble. She burst into the living room the instant I unlatched the door, startling Bari out of a sound sleep on the couch. “Smoke up!” she gushed. “I brought pot! Smoke up!”
I’m not sure what Bari was expecting that evening, but I’m sure wild-eyed strangers bursting through the door at eleven at night to cram pot down her lungs wasn’t it.
Bari toked up weakly on the seventy-cent joint, muttering, “I have to be at work tomorrow….” But Yenifari knew no schedule, simply shoving the battered joint in her face again and again. “Present!” she said eagerly. “Gift!
And then Bari accidentally let slip she was Jewish. Oh, how the haircutting conversation flew by – at least for Yenifari. I discovered it didn’t make any more sense when I was sober.
Eventually we collapsed at three in the morning, leaving Yenifari to read a book. I awoke three hours later to prepare for work, and asked a still-reading Yenifari if she wanted to take a shower. I knew the showers at the homeless shelters were broken, and that she hadn’t had a hot bath in five days; at least something good would come from this.
“NO!” she screamed, pulling the blankets up to her chin. “YOU’LL RAPE ME!”
“Yenifari,” I said as calmly as I could manage, “Bari’s asleep. The bathroom door even locks… See? I’ll even give you a chair to shore it up…”
“No,” I said, hoping to God that the neighbors downstairs couldn’t hear. “I’m not going to rape you, Yenifari… I mean, if I was, why would I bring you…”
“RAPE!” she yelled. “RAPE!
I dove back into my bedroom.
“Yenifari,” I asked from the other side of the door, “Do you want me to drive you home?”
Yes!” she said.
We drove back.
“I’m sorry,” she said after a few glacially-silent minutes, “But I’ve had some bad experiences, y’know?”
I could sympathize. I’d just had one myself, after all.
I dropped her off and slumped into work for the day.
I saw Yenifari after that, but our relationship had been irreparably damaged. We said “hi” occasionally and chatted… But that videogame spark that had passed between us had been extinguished. Mortal Kombat lost its flavor; my girlfriend (thankfully) broke up with me over non-homeless causes a year later.
But Yenifari’s videogame obsession continued, and my path continued to intersect with hers. We both became obsessed with a pinball machine called “Attack From Mars.” She quickly became famed among the local pinball bangers for hanging over your shoulder while you played, thumping the machine and shouting, “Hit the cow, man! Hit the cow!” randomly. When pressed for an explanation, she shrugged.
“It’s the cow,” she’d say.
Months later, long after Yenifari had disappeared from Ann Arbor’s arcades, we discovered there was, in fact, a secret cow code that could be activated by hitting the machine just right.
Hmm. Maybe she knew something, after all.