Mornings with Joe

This story was originally published on Medium.com as part of their emphasis on the homeless. Read the original story by clicking here.

Because we were young and didn’t fully understand how the world worked, based on the recommendation of the church’s leadership, we’d bought a house we couldn’t afford that was too trashed to live in, and we were stuck. We couldn’t move in until the first floor had been cleared and rebuilt; but we couldn’t afford to rent anything else because all our money was going into the mortgage and renovation. This left Wendy, I, and our two young kids living forty-five minutes north of the city at Wendy’s parents’ house. I was working fifty-plus-hour week at the church downtown, while Wendy was fighting to find ways to be a part of a community we couldn’t move into. We were living two different lives. It was a difficult time.

Then the church stepped in. Led by the church’s music pastor, men with knowledge and tools arrived at the house and began putting it together for us. At the tip of the spear was Joe.

Joe was lean and muscular from decades of construction work. He squinted like Popeye and rarely looked anyone in the eye. His voice was nasally and his words were drawn out. When he came to work on our house, he was unemployed and living in the back of his truck.

Each morning, before anyone else arrived to work on the house, Joe’s white truck with a covered bed would rumble down our street. He would pull up in front of our nine-foot-wide row-home, ,the back doors would swing open, and out would jump Joe, ready to work. Joe did it all. He ran new electric, patched the plumbing, hung the cabinets, painted the ceilings. There’s no way the house would have been finished without him.

On the final day of construction, those who had been working on the house had a small party in the new kitchen. As Wendy served Joe a second plate of food, she asked, “So what are you going to do now?”

“Oh, man,” Joe said in his nasal drawl. “I don’t know, man. Look, see. I’ll just park in a lot near the marina and hold up there.”

“You can’t keep sleeping in the back of your truck,” I heard her say. “Not after you just helped put this great house together.”

“Oh man, hey,” Joe said. “Look. I’ll be fine, man.”

“Well,” Wendy said. “There will always be a bed for you here.”

It turned out, finding a bed for Joe was more difficult than Wendy originally thought. The house was a three story row-home with a bedroom on the top floor, two bedrooms on the middle floor, and a living room, dining room, and kitchen on the first floor. The top story was occupied by the kids. Wendy and I took one of the bedrooms on the second floor, and the other had already been promised to the church’s intern. That only left the unfinished cellar for Joe. He happily accepted.

Joe made the dirt-floor space his home. He laid out a large tarp to keep his stuff dry and clean. On it he placed a cot, a bookcase, a mini-fridge, a small TV/VCR combo, a dresser, and a microwave. As he had been the one to run the new electric for the house, he had no problem creating a few new outlets for himself. At the edge of the tarp, Joe planted four tomato plants in the basement dirt. He hung sunlamps from the basement rafters and watered the plants with a little green watering-can he kept by his cot. Even though he sang to them every night, they never produced a single tomato.

As we were both early risers, Joe and I had breakfast together most mornings. Our routine was simple. The night before, I would set a full pot of coffee to brew. My alarm would go off at five. As I came down the stairs, I’d hear the cellar door creak open. I’d meet Joe at the backdoor of the house to let him into the kitchen. After I poured myself a mug of coffee, I’d hand him the pot. Joe would proceed to fill a Double Gulp cup from 7–11 with ice and then pour the remainder of the pot of coffee in it. Then we’d stand in the kitchen, drink our coffees, and chat. The conversations were never dull. For example, here is one I remember in vivid detail:

“Yeah, man. Big day today, man,” Joe said.

“Oh, yeah?” I said. “What do you have going on?”

“You see, man. I’m going down to Key Highway. Because a guy said he’s got roofing for me.”

“Great,” I said. “Roofing sounds like fun. Weather should be good for it.”

“What about you, man? Look, see. You’ve got to have some big stuff going on? Right, man.”

“Not really. I’m meeting with some of the small group leaders at the coffeehouse this morning, and then I’m-”

“Which leaders, man?”

“Um. I don’t think you know any of them. Most of them go to the Sunday night worship service. Brian Howard? Tom Suit? Susan Anderson? John Smith?”

“I know John Smith.”

“Really? How do you know John? Did you meet him working on the house?”

“No man, I haven’t seen him for, like, twenty-five years. But we grew up across the street from each other.”

“I don’t think so.”

“No, man. We did. I’m telling ya, man.”

“You may have grown up across from a John Smith. Smith is a pretty common name, but I don’t think it was this John Smith.”

“Look, man. I’m telling you. I grew up across the street from the John Smith you’re meeting this morning.”

“How do you know? You don’t even know what John Smith I’m talking about. This John’s not even from here. I think he grew up in Chicago? He’s been living in Montana for a while. He just moved her a few years ago.”

“Look, man. See, he did grow up in Chicago, after he grew up across the street from me, man.”

“I don’t think so.”

“I’m telling you, man. He had three brothers. And one day, we were all outside. And Little Johnny’s older brothers were all telling him to pick a fight with me. And I didn’t want to fight him, man. I just wanted to play ball. But look, they all thought it would be funny, man. So, see, Little Johnny comes up to me and takes a swing at me. And I took it right in the jaw, man. But then I punched him back. But then all his brother’s jumped on me. But then I kicked two of them in the nuts, and then I got the third one in a headlock, man. And then Little Johnny comes up and bites me in the leg, right here.” Joe pulled up his pant-leg and pointed to a vague discoloration on his calf. “And then I smacked him, man. And then they moved to Chicago, because their mom was scared of me, man.”

“It’s not the same John Smith,” I said.

“Man, look. Would I lie to you, man? I’ll come to the meeting, and then, you’ll see, man. You’ll see.”

An hour later, Joe and I walked to the meeting together. As we walked, I teased him, telling him it wasn’t too late to recant this whole, “I know John Smith” thing.

Joe just laughed and said, “Would I lie to you, man?”

Brian, Susan, Tom, and John were already at the coffeehouse when Joe and I arrived. They had gotten a table in the back. As Joe and I crossed the room, I saw John’s eyes grow wide with surprise.

“Hey, little Johnny Smith,” Joe called from across the room. “I still owe you one for biting me on my leg.”

“Oh shit,” John said, standing. There was a look of alarm on his face. “Is that Joe Capella?”

Joe leaned over to me and whispered, “Look, see. I told you, man.”

Most mornings with Joe were like that one — full of crazy and inexpiable things.

— — — — — — — — —

Joe’s name is not Joe. As I do with all pieces about my life, I’ve changed all the names.

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