By Matt Pramas
It’s 8:30 p.m. on Main Street, on an August Friday after I clocked out of my job as a Church Street streetsweeper. I’m loitering outside the small claims court like all the city freaks.
A paper bag wrapped around the tallest beer I could find rests in my left hand and a slice from Mr. Mikes is in my right. It’s a divine evening. The summer sun is setting in all its orange and red glory across the lake and over the mountains.
It’s a simple but pleasurable existence, living in limbo between being down and out on the street and walking my well-groomed pooch to Outdoor Gear Exchange for some overpriced hats. The underbelly is an interesting, often enjoyable place to be.
It wasn’t a hard day, just a day like many before and many more to come. The streets weren’t too messy and they’re cleaner now after I made quick work of the litter: the crime of the people.
It started at 4 p.m. in a musty basement room where my equipment rests: a trash truck, a golf cart, piles of garbage bag packages, a couple of spare brooms. The floor’s stained with sitting water and the air of past cigarettes smoked. A faint smell of garbage. Some oil. An ashy floor and the sharp echo of squealing tires taking turns too quickly in the parking garage reach me after the drivers fly around a bend, trying to escape before the two–hour free limit hits.
It’s seven minutes past start and I’m lounging in an old office chair, greasy and ash-burned, and I decide to rise from the dead and saunter up the wet stairs and find myself below a ledge, on the bricks an 18 year old girl was splattered on just a short time ago.
She killed herself at 1 p.m. at the beginning of all the festivities, in front of all the fools and fun. The fire departthat remains is a puddle, just like the ones I wade through in the garage.
And the people of this beautiful and emotional world beat on with indifference.
It’s an uphill battle to clean the streets that keep these stores and restaurants populated, but I like being out and about, where the people are. I know my work. Not everyone does.
Wielding a broom and a dust pan, nothing more, I start in the alleyway by that piece of shit mural, picking up a wrapper or two, three cigarette butts or more.
And then I hit the streets for good as the sun beats down on me.
The freaks are all around me. It’s the Festival of Fools, the weekend long event that brings all the street performers, the skinny sun-tanned ladies and their meathead boy-toys to my territory. I’m the sheriff here. I patrol these blocks. I drive a golf-cart, in case you were wondering.
It’s busier than usual. There’s stuff littered around and the confetti the performers use for their grandiose finallies flutter around me. I say hi to Steve. Steve sells art and I buy a geometric extraction painting once I realize I can’t afford to buy three.
Head up, arms out and a beach glass necklace dangles over my burgundy Church Street Marketplace shirt as I walk left and right down and down, past the spectators and fools. This is my living for the summer and I do it for pay.
There’s shit to pick up every now and again. I can’t walk through the thick crowds so I work around them, observing them as they observe the spectations.
Some of the usual suspects hang around, looking for spare change, smoking and reaching arm deep in recycling bins to find a redeemable can.
A cheap joke for 25 cents. A beautiful song and an amusing conversation. I’m a medium in this fragmented world
of rich and poor, freaks and morons. The birdman walks by in his Miles Davis sunglasses, his three wheeled bike and his repurposed trash turned to treasure.
The schizophrenic talks to herself on a perpendicular street.
They don’t like her hanging among the marketplace. The young drunks stumble in and out of crowds.
A sign says “Homeless Lives Matter” by a man dealing Pokemon Cards on a blanket and someone flying past on a bike throws him a bag of tobacco. “No papers, but there’s a little shag.”
Spectators walk on. And so do I. Beggars never ask me for change, but we talk sometimes. “What’s up man?” I’ll ask. “I’m Straight chillin,” I’ll reply.
“You find the best stuff in them cigarette packs, man,” one of the regulars says to me as I peek inside a pack before sweeping it up. “I’ve found money, weed.”
“All the best stuff,” I reply smiling back at him and his friend just trying to get a buck for a fuck-up.
“All the best stuff,” I hear back.
And the crowds are captivated and so content.
It’s evening once again and I realize that summer dusks on a bench don’t get better than this. The beer and the pizza help me digress from an existence of sweeping these Burlington streets and picking up garbage and shoveling shit.
“This is a great life,” I say to myself as a fellow vagrant, Dan I think his name is, sets down near me to smoke a bowl and have a sandwich. We’re on the same page somehow, this mid 30s man and I, seeking some refuge after work, both in public, yet invisible to every passerby.
In a flash, I’m back in the afternoon sun and Church Street is just a little cleaner in time for a child to spill some crisp and delicious popcorn on the sidewalk. Somewhere, a dog shits.
“That’s the hardest working person on Church Street,” a mother says to a daughter. That makes me feel a little warmer on this balmy afternoon, also a little foolish.
“Hey man, why don’t you sweep us all up. We’re just trash,” someone in a group of rail hogs says. They ride the rails and come and go, making a life on empty cattle cars and sidewalks.
Another evening, another wrapper swept from the red bricks of Church Street, another garbage bag, another sip, another bite, another day waning towards twilight.
“Does that thing have a horn?!” I hear a pedestrian say before slamming my golf cart’s brakes, glaring and saying clearly, “No it does not!” And everyone goes on as they were, waiting for the next peak, the next thing that gets ‘em by. It’s the ebb of the people. The sun sets more. Cars move by left and right as they have for years. Tourists and locals pass, going about their business, talking about their corporate lives, their little gossip and the funny fools as they try to soak up the last moments of sun.
And finally everything is over. For now. Just a beer and slice, waiting for my friends to show up among the freaks and fools and morons and everyone while I watch the god-like sun sink behind the Adirondacks.