Milwaukee's Best Ice

November 12th, 2011

So around ten o'clock I decided that my Friday night was boring.

I swathed myself in warm, fashionable clothing and grabbed my camera backpack and got in my car and drove to downtown Charlotte. I wandered around for a couple hours, doing much of nothing. Eventually the road lead me to the point where I stood at a dead end, looking across a rail yard. My car was somewhere in that direction, and I didn't really feel like walking an extra half mile to backtrack. So I started to cross the rail yard. I passed an abandoned loading dock. A bum stood at the edge of the loading dock and waved at me. I waved back. "Keep warm," he said.

I wasn't about to miss this chance. So I turned around and walked up to the guy. He was a cheerful type, which actually means he was extra crazy.

"How's it going?" I asked.

"Fuck this shit," he said. "It's cold. I'm gonna build a fire. Fuck the city. I'm gonna build a fuckin fire right in the middle of Charlotte."

He jumped down from the loading dock and stood a little too close to me. He started gathering up bits of cardboard and wood. I broke up bits of kindling for him while he pulled out a lighter and nursed the flame to life. "You don't have any cigarettes, do you?"

"Sorry," I said. "Wish I did."

"Well fuck this shit," he said. "It's cold."

I agreed.

"This is our home," he said. "well, it's not home, but it's where we've been staying." He pointed at a lump of blankets up on the dock. "That's my pardner, James." He pointed at another lump. "That guy's Leon. He's just company though, he doesn't live here. He's homeless. He's a drunk."

And you're not? I wanted to ask.

"I'm not a hobo," he said. "I do have a job. Well, not right now. I was in court yesterday and some bitch wanted me to pay a fine. How can I do that, I asked her! Just because I'm flying a sign the government can't make me pay a fine."

He paused and looked me over. "It's beer time."

I proceeded to do perhaps the most life-threatening thing I've ever done: to accept a can of Milwaukee's Best Ice from this guy. It popped when I opened it, though, just as safe as a Coke from a truck stop. It was one of the nastier things I've tasted in my life...not because it had gone bad, but because it was Milwaukee's Best Ice.

"Thanks dude," I said.

"Feel free to spend the night here," he said. "It's fuckin cold out there. Where you from?"

"I'm from Arkansas."

"Arkansas!" he started laughing. "I'm from Florida. I ain't never met someone from Arkansas before. I ain't never been there."

"You're not missing much," I said.

"Wait!" he said. "Look! Son of a bitch!" He pointed at a train light in the distance. I was a little nervous, because I needed to know, moving on as they say. The train approached, and slowed, and stopped.

"That son of a bitch is gonna be my lucky train! Look at them boxcars. We cain't open the bottom ones but we can get to the ones up top. I got to get my tools. We gonna open this fuckin train up!"

"What's in them?" I asked.

He stopped and looked at me. "Potluck."

He ran over to the tracks and hoisted himself up on a car. Suddenly the train jerked, and the coupling popped, and the guy jumped backwards in alarm. He let off a series of expletives.

He came back over to me and stuck out his hand. "I'm Donny."

"I'm Gil," and I shook his hand.

"I wish you had some cigs on you," he said.

"I wish I did too."

"I've been homeless for two years," he said. "My pardner James been homeless for longer. I'm 51 and he's 55 or something. And Leon's been homeless forever. But he's just a drunk. Hey, look at that building." He pointed to the Duke Energy skyscraper, which was lit in red, white and blue. "It's always changing colors but today it's red, white and blue."

"Probably because it's Veteran's Day," I said.

"MONEYMAKER!" he shouted. "Veteran's Day! I'm gonna make me a vet sign. That's a real moneymaker. You can come make money tomorrow morning with us. How long you been homeless?"

Wait, I thought. He thinks I'm homeless? I'm wearing skinny jeans and a scarf, for crying out loud. "Not long."

Donny said something about the good people of Charlotte giving him money and that this "fire was gonna keep him from freezing" and that "if the cops ask me about my fire I'm gonna tell them I'm fuckin surviving."

"Well, good luck," I said. "I'm going to keep on walking."

"Good luck," he said. He pulled out another Milwaukee's Best Ice and cracked it open. He nudged the fire.

I climbed over a train car, snapped a picture of Donny, and booked it for my car.