I've come to Boston for writerly and readerly things (also, there will be dancing, I'm assured.) As always, when I return to this city that was once a home to me, I'm attentive to the whisps of stories that sing from the bricks, the trains, the benches in the parks where I once sat and read. This is a city where I transformed in exciting and difficult ways. When I visit, I sense that personal combustion and creation spilling in the streets like an ink stain, marking me again.
Here is one of those stories.
There was a big man called J.B. who came to our breakfasts at Haley House. He was in his early sixties, I'd guess, with a graying beard (neatly trimmed) and a balding head that he covered with a baseball cap. His knees were bad, though he pretended otherwise. He came from the mountains in North Carolina; at the time, I was going regularly to Asheville to study fiction, and he liked to regale me with stories about how, as teenagers, he and his buddies used to flirt with the Warren Wilson girls. J.B. liked to cook and often helped us in the kitchen on those keening early mornings when we made breakfast for about 70 or so guys at our house. He made grits with an obscene amount of butter. I couldn't look as he dropped it in the pot in one heave, and then turned the tall wooden stirrer through the yellow mass. He'd often narrate his actions to the young Boston College volunteers, seeing part of his duty as teaching them to cook. J.B. also exerted a lot of control over our morning soundtrack, preferring boisterous soul music that might soon lure us to dance, soft-shoeing across the tile. When it was time to clean up from the meal, he was suddenly nowhere to be found.
J.B., who was homeless, made some money by washing windows on Newbury Street, which wasn't far from Haley House. It's a posh boutique street, a cozier version of Fifth Avenue. One of the places he washed was Kashmir, a wonderful Indian restaurant at the corner of Newbury and Gloucester. As part of his deal with them, he could eat lunch at the buffet, and occasionally bring a guest. One by one, J.B. took each of us in the Haley House live-in community out for Indian food. I can't stress enough how thrilling this was, on just the level of having a good meal. Our community relied on the same food that we served in the kitchen, largely from the local food bank, which meant a glut of one kind of foodstuff or another, vegetables that had about a day or so of edibility left in them, and altogether minimal choice. Much creativity, experimentation, and skill went into bringing love and goodness into whatever we served to others or ourselves — but the long slog of a season of excess canned peas, say, wears on you. And we weren't paid at Haley House: it was an intentional community, so we received room-and-board and a $50/month stipend. Going out to eat was a special occasion. I'd feel very illicit when I would sneak out for a meal on my own, when I'd just had it with the grits: I needed aloneness, a good book, and a healthy serving of Thai food before returning to the Haley House milieu.
J.B. took me out for lunch on a Friday afternoon in summer, maybe in August, not long after we'd wound down the morning shift. He nodded his recognition to the staff at the restaurant, and invited me to eat anything I liked. He heaped his own plate mostly with the meat dishes on the buffet. We sat by the window and squinted in the sun as we looked back at one another. We talked about North Carolina. We talked about the guys and the volunteers at Haley House breakfasts. He was shyer with me than when we talked in the kitchen. We ate til we were more than full. And today, seven or so years later, I ate lunch in that same restaurant, and I thought of him.