Shipped Off

When you're down and out in West Palm, a free ticket to New York can mean just being homeless in another city

Jordan admits that she gets a little too attached to her clients. "It's hard not to," she says at the West Palm Greyhound stop after I have forked out $109 for my own ticket. "You really have to get emotionally involved to do the job right."

That Thursday afternoon in September, she gives Joe a last once-over as he steps onto the New York-bound Greyhound. He's a vaguely forlorn figure there, with bags of crackers and juice boxes in one hand. Besides the clothes he's wearing, the packets of food are his only possessions. Jordan rubs his shoulder before wishing him luck. "You have a good trip, OK?"

Eighteen hours after he arrives, Joe is homeless again, heading into a crowd in Midtown.
Eighteen hours after he arrives, Joe is homeless again, heading into a crowd in Midtown.

Joe Buffalino doesn't want to relive the day he hit rock bottom. Not today, at least. Not with the sun streaming in through the broad windows of the Greyhound, on the first leg of our journey. Not with the air conditioner cranked up as if inviting a nap. Not with his future seemingly so assured for the first time in years. Joe has just showered and had a decent meal. He hasn't had either in a week. So, no, he doesn't want to tell the story. But I insist, and he gives in.

"I was in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. You know, where all the Amish are," he says, slouching down in the bus seat. The sun is beginning its trek downward in the afternoon sky, bathing Joe in light the color of orange peels. "It was getting cold outside, and I was on the streets."

He goes back to the fall of '99, when he was consumed by heroin addiction. He had spent the summer sleeping behind buildings. It was a rough dangerous way to live. He got shot twice. Once, it was a pissed-off girlfriend, leaving him with a crooked left index finger. Then he took a .38-caliber bullet in the hip while watching a fight turn into a gunbattle. Friends called him "Buff" back then, and he had the name tattooed in cursive below his right ear. He survived off soup kitchens and begged for money for dope. But when he had run low, he called his parents. They wired him $20 sometimes. It was a good gesture, the least a parent could do. Reality is, he just used the money to get high. But back in the fall of '99, it was getting cold. The leaves had dropped and were littering the streets where he slept. He knew he couldn't make it through the winter. Joe called his mom.

"Ma, can you send me 50 bucks? I need to get a place to stay."

"No, Joe. I can't," he remembers her telling him.

"But, Ma, I don't have anywhere to go."

"Don't call here again, Joe," she told her oldest son. "We don't want to hear you when you're like this. Don't call me or your father or anyone. Get yourself cleaned up."

So he did. Well, at least he did a couple of months later. That's when the dope almost killed his cousin. He's the guy who introduced Joe to it back in high school, he says. "That's when I knew it was time to get off it. When I watched that fucker almost die right there in front of me."

A few of the other conversations on the bus have stopped. People three or four rows up look like they're listening to Joe's story. There's the old woman with a towel draped over her head two rows up and the morbidly obese woman next to us who keeps pulling sticky notes out of her bra. They all seem to have stopped fidgeting and talking. Everyone wants a happy ending. So does Joe.

After two weeks of withdrawals, the rehab place in Lancaster, called White Deer Run, had a deal for Joe. They sent him to Boca House, a halfway house in none other than swanky Boca Raton, a town where most people make more than $60,000 a year. The rehab center had an employee who used to work in Boca, and the connection gave White Deer Run a place to send its graduates at a rate of a couple of people a month. The former addicts like the arrangement because many have burned bridges back home, and Florida, supposedly, is the modern-day home to opportunity.

Boca House is just a mile from the beach and has a sweet swimming pool in the backyard. Often, half of the 350 residents have been shipped in from out of state, typically from rehab centers and homeless programs up north. It's the kind of place that makes it possible for communities to export its problems, but Boca House managers say they give people a second chance that they wouldn't have back home. For Joe, Boca House helped him get a job and a studio apartment, and earlier this year, he even bought himself a white Honda Civic. It ran great, despite the paint damage that made it look destined for an early junkyard grave.

Then, it all came apart. "And not 'cause of heroin this time neither," he explains. It was a Sunday morning back in August, and Joe was in South Beach. He'd spent the night with some friends. He came out of a convenience store, his Honda parked at the pumps, and some undercover cops asked for his license. They were looking for someone who looked like Joe. "I maybe started to mouth off to them or some shit, and they didn't like it." So they threw him in jail. The charge: His license had expired three days earlier.

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