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Vignette, Olympia

With hours to kill before the show, we all part ways to wander. I stop into a thrift store. Thrift stores outside New York are always a pleasure, because things you like might be less cool and therefore cheaper. I can’t have been there more than five minutes when a man approaches me. Shaved head, all visible skin covered with tattoos, including his hands and face. Big black and red flame design around his right eye. “Alexis” on his neck and the number 19. Too many tattoos to take in at once. A skinhead? No swastikas I can see. I am giving him the benefit of the doubt and assuming he is just a guy with a shaved head who really likes tattoos. Definitely a current or former junkie based on his gait and diction. Or maybe meth? Some sort of bad substance has ravaged this dude’s body and mind. He is wearing white New Balance sneakers, baggy beige khakis, and an olive green shirt over grey thermals. None of it quite fits. He tells me he just got out of prison, and he needs help. At first I assume he is asking for money and I decline. My wallet is visibly bursting with cash from the last few shows (not a lot of cash, mind you– a lot of small bills) and I am not about to take it out in front of a pretty scary-looking guy I don’t know. But he doesn’t want money, he just wants help picking out clothes. I can see that he is legit disoriented and freaked out and overwhelmed by the process of shopping in a thrift store. He needs a jacket and a pair of pants, and tells me his sizes. He describes the look he is going for as “biker” and then “superhero”, both words he uses a lot. It is slim pickings. He does not have a lot of money, and it’s the kind of thrift store targeted at stylish young people rather than the actually destitute. He keeps picking up these heavy leather motorcycle jackets and getting indignant when he sees that they cost, like, sixty bucks. I try to steer him towards things he can maybe afford. He is seriously out of it; drunk, high, coming off meds maybe. He keeps moving his money around among various pockets and hanging articles of his clothing on the racks where they are mistaken for store property and whisked away by staff and changing his mind about what he’s shopping for. I start to wander off and resume looking for clothes for myself. But he’s totally lost, he keeps asking other people in the store to help him and they are to their credit being extremely cool about it but not getting anywhere. Olympia has a huge homeless and transient population, so anyone who lives here probably interacts with guys like him all the time. But I start to feel responsible for him. I already know his size and have a sense of what he’s looking for. I pick out some pants from the dollar bin. They are arguably a little biker-ish, and a guy in his position should stick to the dollar bin as much as possible. He seems genuinely surprised and pleased that I haven’t forgotten, and the guy he is talking to is happy to see someone else step in.

There are dressing rooms, but he just takes off his pants in the middle of the store to try on my picks. Don’t worry, he says, I’m wearing shorts under these. I am now standing in the window of a thrift store with a pantsless, tattooed, stumbling man. People are looking. Not staring, but understandably curious. Perhaps they assume I am a relative. He feigns cartoonish embarrassment when some girls walk in. They are unfazed. Both pairs of pants I picked out are too tight, so he changes back into his own. None of the pants they have are right. We move on to jackets, which I think are more urgent. He does already have pants, even though they’re not his style. It gets cold up here, and night is falling.

I learn some things. He was in prison for five and a half years. He is from Aberdeen, where he claims to have “grown up with Kurt”, information I can neither confirm nor deny. His sister is there, but she will not let him in the house. He’s just going back because it’s home. He has thirty four dollars and ninety two cents to his name, which I know because he asks me to count it for him. The other things he has in his pocket are his release papers and a letter from his mother, still in the envelope, folded and grimy from being carried around in a pocket for a long time. His father died in Vietnam, and he himself served in the Army as well. “19” is the average age of a soldier in that war, he tells me, hence the tattoo. He starts to tear up and changes the subject. I do not learn his name or what he was in for. I have never known anyone who went to prison, and I assume it is bad manners to ask.

After much back and forth, we settle on a vest and a long-sleeve cardigan. They are both strong, heavy material, and combined with the layers he already has will be more than sufficient. Total cost: twelve dollars. He is going to try and haggle. He is about to buy a hat when the clerk points out he already has one in his pocket. I leave them to their business, but don’t stray too far. I can see them both getting frustrated after a few minutes. I end up buying them for him, at ten dollars. I’d had a feeling it was going to end like this. I don’t even care if he’s been hustling me for that ten dollars this whole time; he needs warm clothes and I can spare it. He is going to have a harder-than-average time out there because of how he looks. And yeah, he made himself look that way, he wasn’t born with a big fucking tattoo on his face. And it is possible he is actually an extremely bad person. I never did find out what he was in for. I had assumed drugs, but it could just as easily be aggravated assault or rape. But for whatever reason I have decided to give this person the benefit of the doubt today. We shake hands. He tells me that when I come through Aberdeen he’ll buy me a big dinner. I know I’ll never see him again, and even in his addled state he must know it too. He tells me he loves me, man, and I say, man, I love him too, and be safe. He leaves.

I can’t imagine what comes next. Best case scenario he finds some family or friend back home to put him up for a little while and gets back on his feet. Gets whatever job an older guy covered with ink gets in Aberdeen. Maybe works the door at a local bar. He’s not big but you wouldn’t fuck with him. Worst case, he uses his remaining money to score and does some crimes to get more money when it runs out and ends up back in prison. What the fuck is anyone supposed to do about anything. At least he’ll be warm.

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