Special Effects

Several weeks ago, distracted and sweating, I was daydreaming down at Newport on the Levee; the thick air nearly cooked me. Imagining movie scenes, I took it all in: the shapes, the colors, the smells and the way the sun had reddened strangers’ shoulders

Jul 19, 2011 at 2:06 pm

Several weeks ago, distracted and sweating, I was daydreaming down at Newport on the Levee; the thick air nearly cooked me. Imagining movie scenes, I took it all in: the shapes, the colors, the smells and the way the sun had reddened strangers’ shoulders and cheeks. That weekend I was selling raffle tickets at a booth for the Freestore Foodbank. Since the crowd was slow, and the food stands smelled nasty, I wandered away, seeking action. I often wander like that.

Walking up the steep steps, I headed away from the river and suddenly I felt some fingers brush against my left arm. I felt the small shock, the instant chill of strange skin on skin. I whipped around, startled. I’ve hung out in some rough places, and I was normally hyper-aware when someone was close behind me, but for some reason this one completely spooked me.

A long-haired guy smiled down at me and said, “Hey, sorry I scared you … I like your tattoo.” He pointed at the one on my bicep.

I breathed in. He smelled earthy-sweaty-sweet. “Thanks,” I said, looking left. There was another guy there, a shorter, bearded one. He too smiled wide, staring at me.

“I’m Michael,” the long-haired one said, shaking my hand. Michael was crazy thin with big, blue eyes. His hair was scraggly brown, but he was striking. In different clothes, with a different haircut, he would’ve fit right in as a runway model. Attached to a thin, black cord, a cross rested on his neck.

“Bill,” the bearded guy piped in, giving me a shake as well. Bill was stocky, around 5 feet 4 four inches tall.

Full of smiles, they seemed intrigued with me. All attention was eye-to-eye between the three of us, and no one acted shy.

“Nice to meet you,” I said. “How old are you guys?”

Bill stretched up, felt his beard and said, “I’m 18.”

Michael added, “I’m 20, but hey, you don’t look much older than my last girlfriend.” He raised his eyebrows. “True.”

“Thanks,” I said, chuckling.

They followed creepily close, but they weren’t looking for trouble. Michael truly needed an ear. Talking nonstop, with barely a break for breath, he told me his story, that he and Bill lived in a “camp,” meaning, they were homeless. For food, Michael scrounged for restaurant leftovers. His family had disowned him.

He had no address, no phone and no high school diploma, making it damn near impossible to get a job.

“Why did your family disown you?” I asked him.

Michael shrugged. “I dunno. Religion I think.”

He shifted and twitched. From the way that his eyes wavered, seeming to switch from blue to black, I knew that wasn’t the whole story, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to know.

His eyes shone again. “I’m gonna work in the movies,” he said. “Special effects. That’s my dream. I’m gonna show my Dad.”

“Don’t give up on your dream,” I said to him. “Chip away at it. Just take any job for now.”

“That’s right,” Bill said, supporting his friend.

“That beard makes you look 25,” I said to Bill.

Bill stood taller, smiling and showing some teeth.

We stopped, sitting on the Levee steps, facing the street.

“Michael, take the next step … job, school, one step at a time,” I said.

Bill nodded, agreeing.

Michael said, “My Dad thinks I’m worthless. I’ll prove him wrong. I’m gonna be in special effects!”

“You don’t have to prove it,” I said “Just take small steps. But remember me and put me in the credits when you make your movie. Make sure you thank that girl on the steps,” I said, grinning.

He grinned back, “I will, you bet.”

All around us, families ate ice cream, headed to movies, enjoyed fish dinners. I thought about my apartment — the full fridge and the cool air conditioning. And I thought about my dreams: to publish a book, to see that book become a movie. But in that moment, it occurred to me that the lofty dreams were not what mattered most that night; instead, what touched me was the friendship between them and the curious way that we all came together. In that spiritual moment, three human lives became intertwined.

That was more important than any large goal.

Maybe my purpose is to just write articles and have street conversations. Maybe my words can make a small difference. Ironically, when I was supposed to be working a Freestore booth, just nearby on the steps, I met two men who really needed the help. So I helped the best I could. And they helped me. See, they reminded me of what really matters — the small, beautiful connections between us.

I believe that Michael and Bill are stars as much as anyone, but they also have a whole world of difficult challenges to face. A line from the film Super 8 comes to mind: “Bad things happen, but you can still live.”

It’s true. I’m living proof.

My past included soup kitchens, food stamps, free stores, hospitals, alcohol withdrawal and then some. But, later, I had family support. I’m a trooper, but I’m also lucky. So this is for all of the street people, the lost faces, those still alive and those who have passed, the ones who never heard anyone tell them to hang on to their dreams. Everyone matters, we are all full of life and love, and each day our souls scream to fulfill a life purpose.

As I walked away, I looked back at Michael. He looked back at me. In his eye, there lurked the most glorious spark, the most innocent kind of special effect.

CONTACT C.A. MACCONNELL: [email protected]