Oct 7, 2015 · 13 minutes

Previously: Part III

Then I met Jimmy Wall and realized we were never going to be hardcore, and didn’t want to be.

Jimmy introduced himself to us at the dock. He was a thick, hard looking guy who seemed very eager to make friends. He told us his life story within seconds: he’d just gotten out of Collins Bay, a mediumsecurity prison in Ontario, after doing 17 years for murder. He told us the murder story quickly, reciting it by rote: “These goofballs tried to extort my business and I shot one of them in the leg and his stupid buddy drove him around till he exsanguinated.” 

The word “exsanguinated” echoed like a trumpet in that story; it didn’t fit in at all, and you had the feeling it had played a large role in Jimmy’s trial. He didn’t exactly seem proud of his background, but he traded on it as he could. We understood that attitude much better than we would have, preboat. It was like the real, lifelong version of using our misery to grab the parking spot from that Okie. We weren’t prejudiced; after all, he was a murderer, not a mere thief. So we invited him aboard to share the flounder I’d caught — part of a hopeless attempt to “live off the land,” or rather the water, and save money. As we discovered, the flounders of Brentwood Bay consisted of thick skin tougher than a shark’s, inside which is a little fish filet, thinner and even more tasteless than the one you get at Mickey D’s. But Jimmy grimaced and swallowed his bit courteously, and gravely gave us the chocolate-covered coffee beans which formed, with methadone, marijuana and morphine, his diet. 

“I’m dying,” he explained. “I don’t like to talk about it. Bowel cancer.” 

He had a boy on his boat. The boy was never introduced when we met, a pale, skinny, scared-looking kid. We never knew if he was Jimmy’s punk in the prison sense; it didn’t seem like a good idea to ask Jimmy that, especially because, as we got to know him better, he opened up a little on his real criminal background. This was our only friend, the only one who ever helped us as winter closed in. 

December 10, 2007 was the day of the big blizzard, the day we ended up being turned away from the Salvation Army shelter in town. Weather-sensitive as we were, we felt the blizzard coming and used our last cash to book the dog into the cheapest dog-care place around. We walked her there, fifteen miles each way, and came back to the boat to huddle together in a single sleeping bag, waiting for the big snow to arrive. The blizzard came right on schedule, and the wind made it colder than you’d think the 21st century could be, Dark-Ages cold. Cold and scared was all we were. 

The next morning we ran out of propane and food. Although the blizzard was still blowing, we rowed to shore and into the little village of Brentwood Bay, scared enough to beg. Neither of us had ever begged, or ever even dreamed we’d have to someday. I’d spent half my life in Berkeley; I’d had enough beggars for several lifetimes. And, like the T-shirt says, “Now I Are One.” First we tried the thrift store run by some local charity, forcing ourselves inside. God, it was so warm in that store! I made myself go up to the old lady in charge and say as quietly as I could, in one breathless, shamed blurt: “Um, we don’t have a place to stay for the night is there a shelter or something here around here?” Naturally she was deaf, so I had to repeat it, to the general fascination of her smug, well-heeled customers. When she finally got it, she led us to the phone, where I repeated the blurt to her equally stupid superior, who spent minutes dithering out what amounted to “No.” 

We figured our chances might be better in Victoria after all. Bigger place, more bums like us. So we counted our change, and were momentarily happy to find we had enough for bus fare. All bus stops are cold, but this one was unearthly, like waiting for a bus on Pluto. Katherine’s cheeks were gray-blue, her hands were just gray. I wanted to kill every smug driver in the cars that went by, spraying slush at us. I brought Katherine here, to this, and I don’t even have the guts to commit a crime for her. A little blonde woman popped out of a door by the bus stop, almost ran into Katherine, and said, “Oh, you look cold! What you need is some gloves! You could get some over there,” pointing at the thrift store we’d just come from. Katherine said, with admirable detachment, “Yes, but we’re poor.” 

Whoo-eee, you should’ve seen that woman’s bland smile crimp up into a snarl. And off she skittered on her expensive little shoes, afraid poverty might be contagious and outraged that we’d used that obscenity, “poor.” That was good for a laugh, for a few seconds, but then we were just cold again. 

An hour — it was a full cold hour before the bus came. The driver said he’d been stuck in the snow. OK, fair enough, but what I couldn’t forgive was that he didn’t turn on the heat. I whined to Katherine like a sulky child, “Why doesn’t he turn up the heat?” But after the long, cold bus ride to Victoria, we were quickly turned away from a shelter for being a “mixed couple.” The guy manning the booth barely looked up from his book to give us the bad news. 

Defeated, we wandered in a snowy haze past the naturo-greeno-swinoyuppo grocery store where I’d bought those hazelnuts. We went in to soak up a little heat and to gaze at the meats (you want meat in that state, as Jack London always warned me). Even now, I vividly remember one thing from that pauper-window shop: A headline over their extensive chocolate section that read, “How to Be an Ethical Chocoholic.” The slogan was written in clean green cursive over imported coffee-flavored chocolate bars that cost more than a week’s bus fare. The moment I read that slogan was not the first time I imagined Victoria sucked into a glowing mushroom cloud, but it may have been the most intense. 

After being turned away from the shelter, there was nothing to do but spend our last dimes and nickels on bus fare back to Brentwood Bay. When we got off and started to walk down to the boat, I had a last desperate inspiration and thought of the Brentwood Bay library. We’d spent many afternoons there, one of us walking the dog on the lawn outside while the other went in to email and use the nice clean sink and toilet. They knew us there! They’d help us, the nice ladies! 

Ah, but we’d forgotten: the librarians were on strike, outraged that they only made $25/hr for their arduous work chatting and replacing books, outraged “in principle” because other workers for the municipality of Greater Victoria made more. It wasn’t the money; it was the principle. Luckily, they only struck on their lunch hour. Seriously. They struck for one hour a day, their lunch hour. They didn’t want to lose their salaries, so they were on duty the rest of the time, but refusing to check out books. That was the workers’ struggle in our time in Victoria, and as we sank to utter destitution it began to seem more and more grotesque and infuriating. 

After the principled lunch strike ended, the librarians came back. They took their precious time about it, but eventually they reopened the library doors and turned on the lights. It was time to do my begging routine again. I waited until a kind-looking American Indian woman appeared behind the counter and blurted that we had no place to stay, did they know of any, did she, was there somewhere... When her face flinched at me, I tried another tack, one I’d sworn I’d never sink low enough to try. I shrilled, “Look, I’m a writer, my name’s John Dolan, you can look me up; I’ve got a Wikipedia entry!” 

Somehow that’s the hardest part of this whole shameful story for me to write down, even now. I’ve written that line, cut it, and re-written it a dozen times because it makes me far more ashamed than anything else I’ve said here. “I’ve got a Wikipedia entry!” I’ll take that to the grave, the shame of saying that to a Canadian library lady. If there were a merciful god, I’d have been killed before uttering that line. But there isn’t, so I said it and she flinched again and fobbed us off with a phone book and a cell phone, advised us to call “a local charity,” and added, “At least it’s warm in here, and you can stay till we close.” 

Under the circumstances, I guess that was nice, that was as nice as it got. The only one who helped us, actually helped, wasn’t appalled that we needed help, was Jimmy Wall. When the library closed, we trudged down the dock and started rowing out to the boat. But I saw a light on in his boat and rowed there instead, calling his name as we got close. He came out from under the snow-covered tarp that draped his old sailboat and I told him we had no money and were afraid we’d freeze tonight. He didn’t hesitate: “You go back to your boat and I’ll bring the heater over! I’ve got a propane heater that’ll melt your socks!” That was the kindest thing we’d heard in a long time, the part about the heater. And he kept his word; he and his bloodless boy Benny rowed over, their dinghy crunching against the ice. When they pulled alongside, Jimmy handed up a propane tank and a heater with a dinner-plate-size, multi-jet nozzle. All that night it blazed like a sunflower of little flaming petals, while Jimmy and Benny slept, respectively and respectfully, on the floor and the bunk, with Katherine and I on the floor by the bow. 

There was a ridiculous, touching tact about the arrangement, a don’t-ask-don’t-tell etiquette that, along with the blessed, wonderful heat, made us feel very close to each other. Jimmy wasn’t any kind of antihero. He was kind to us, unlike anyone else in BC, but he was also a liar and a thief, a childish braggart and a beggar. 

The begging came into play whenever I sold an article and had a little money; Jimmy would ask for a twenty in a casual way, as if I’d been holding it for him. Then, in a different context, he’d brag about his skill in “the art of the con,” though the only cons I saw him do were sad, pitiful things like stealing scrap wood from a construction site and pretending to be retarded to get a free bus ride. In the beginning he played down the violent crimes, assuming that as a sane human being I wouldn’t like hearing that he enjoyed hurting people. But I wasn’t a sane person, I was a middle-class nerd, and like all middleclass nerds I’m easily awed by tales of mayhem. And I was going a little insane with rejection and terror, so I was more eager than ever to hear stories with blood. So he started confiding, or making up, a bloodier bio. 

It turned out that he hadn’t just committed one justifiable homicide. It had been his business to hurt and kill people on behalf of the Angels. He grew up in the backwoods with a Scottish drunk thug Dad and a nice, tiny Indian mom, and went into the martial arts after years of training as dad’s punching bag. He made it on to the Canadian Olympic taekwondo team, called his little brother to give him the good news, and little brother took the car and a bottle to celebrate, killing himself. After that it was downhill for Jimmy. He became a traveling enforcer for the Angels: “I’d come to your town, and when I left either you weren’t happy or you weren’t breathing.” Now he made money — not much of it — dealing pot downtown. His boy Benny had lived on the streets there. Literally. Benny bragged once about how he could sleep on pavement even on the coldest nights. Johnny sulked when he saw how impressed we acted. As soon as he was alone with me and Katherine, he hissed, “Fuckin’ Benny, fuckin’ asshole, all that about sleeping on the ground — any 20-year old can do that!” He was jealous, and that started to scare us, because you got the very strong feeling that bad things happened to anybody Jimmy liked. 

In early December, he rowed over all excited to tell me that he’d gotten a phone call from his wife. I blinked a little at “wife,” but managed not to ask, “What about Benny?” He and Benny were a prison arrangement, in which Benny did as he was told and kept his mouth shut unless instructed otherwise. This long-lost wife was something else; Jimmy repeated every word she’d said proudly to me. “She said she’s comin’ out here! To see me! She said, ‘I don’t know, though, Jimmy — am I gonna be taking a swim?’ See, she knows me, knows the rep.” He was proud of that line above all, about the swim. 

The reappearance of this wife meant getting rid of Benny. Jimmy cut him out of his life completely. For a while, Benny used to stand on the dock forlornly looking toward Jimmy’s boat. Jimmy only mentioned him once, on the night he borrowed and wrecked our electric outboard. By way of making small talk before taking the outboard, he repeated the phone call to his wife, then bragged about how he’d seen “that kid, that goof, Benny” in town. Benny said something about feeling rejected — Jimmy put on a petulant mumble — and said with a little laugh, “I just gave him a forearm to the chest, just, you know, ‘Get the fuck outta here.’ Stupid punk.” 

That was mean in a way even a dumb middle-class nerd like me couldn’t find impressive. Just plain mean, to poor Benny, who’d been booted from his Christian mom’s house at twelve and had done his best to be a good punk for Jimmy. And our stuff kept disappearing. We knew he was stealing it, but I didn’t have the guts to confront him. He seemed to see us in the past tense already, and when he didn’t think we were looking he’d look over the boat to see if there was anything he could pawn. It occurred to me that one of these days, Katherine and I would take that big swim Jimmy’s wife had predicted for herself. And the cold. Cold and poor are the same thing; being out of the running. 

To be continued...