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

"I am fucking wrecked," he says as we try to figure out what's next. He tries one more time to call his cousin. "I'm going to trick his ass," he says to me, going to a pay phone. "He probably already knows your number by now, so I'll call from this goddamned phone." Again he gets voice mail. He takes the quarter from the slot and puts it in his pocket. He has 40 cents.

"You don't mind if I stay with you?" he asks sometime after 1 o'clock. We get a room in midtown, and Joe sleeps in a bed that's not a jail cell cot for the first time in two weeks. Later, he reveals: "Yeah, I slept with my head sideways the whole night. Just in case. I didn't want to choke on my own puke."

West Palm social worker Lela Jordan gives Joe a couple of bags of junk food, a bus ticket north, and a kind farewell. On the way, Joe naps with a fellow Greyhound passenger.
West Palm social worker Lela Jordan gives Joe a couple of bags of junk food, a bus ticket north, and a kind farewell. On the way, Joe naps with a fellow Greyhound passenger.

Joe wakes up just before 11 on Saturday morning and calls his father. He asks about his cousin. "Where the hell was he?" He pauses, listening to his father explain. "You're fuckin' kiddin'." His cousin got a DUI last night. He's in a lockup in Jersey.

"Well, Dad, can you send me some more money?" He pauses for a while. "Yeah, I spent it... I don't know... I know... All right... Well, call me back then. Can you get me?... OK."

"He was pretty fuckin' pissed-off," he tells me. "I'm not sure he's going to send anything."

But just how, and if, Joe is going to get to his uncle's house still hasn't been worked out. We wander the streets of Manhattan, coming on a festival in Little Italy. Joe calls his father again while standing next to a sausage vendor. "I told him were I was," Joe says after the call, "and he's like, 'You little shit.' He was jealous, I think. But he said he'd try to send money. Maybe, like, 20 bucks."

Still, his dad didn't say if anyone was going to pick Joe up. Finally, that afternoon, we split up. Joe blends into the crowd near the Port Authority sometime around 2 o'clock. But before he goes, he tells me, "I'll be all right. Yeah, I'll figure it out. It always works out."

Two hours later, Joe calls my cell phone. I'm not sure how he got the money to call a Florida number. "Hey, man, I'm going to Pennsylvania," he says. "Some friend of my cousin, he's going to give me a ride. But I need gas money. Can you spot me 30 bucks? My dad won't send me anything... Meet me at, like, 42nd and Broadway, OK?"

When I get there, Joe's standing with a short guy wearing a skullcap and a lot of gold jewelry. Joe starts walking toward the Port Authority, and the little guy follows. I give Joe the money, and he tries to sneak it into his pocket quickly. The little guy gets distracted, and Joe says, "I just borrowed, like, five bucks from that guy -- that's why I didn't want him to see your money."

Joe says he'll wire the money to me in two days. "My dad, I'm sure he's got a job lined up for me. I'll probably be driving trucks on Monday." He'll call me, he promises. "Things are going to work out now," he says before we separate for good.

A week later, Joe hasn't called, so I reach his father at home.

"Joe's staying with me now," he says. "Yeah, he's not here right now. But he's staying with me."

I ask what Joe is doing now, how he's been. "I don't really know," he says. He doesn't say much more. He sounds like he's got someplace to go, and he doesn't manage much more than a grunt when I ask, in a few different ways, what's happened to Joe.

After less than a minute, his dad cuts it short. "I'll tell him you called, OK? Goodbye."

Another message goes unreturned a week later, so I call Lela Jordan over at the city of West Palm, the one who bought Joe the bus ticket. She hasn't heard from him, but she hopes he'll call. "Joe said he was going to drive trucks up there. He thought he'd have a job waiting for him," she says. "I really want him to make it, you know?"

Jordan reminds me that most of the folks who take the free bus ticket never call again. They get on the Greyhound, penniless but with a plan, and disappear -- just like Joe.

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