Chapter One

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Charlie Thompson woke to a jumble of voices and thought it must be Sunday, the best day of the week for scavenging. But if memory served him Sunday was yesterday, the park filling with dog walkers and joggers and soccer and baseball players and kick boxers. Sure, yesterday he chased away the squirrels from a corn puff spill. He hated the squirrels, their bushy tails good for conning the public into viewing them as adorably fuzzy creatures instead of the nasty little rodents they were. Since it couldn’t be Sunday, the buzz he was hearing had to be city business.

Opening his eyes, he expected to see the orange-shirts of work crews. No orange in sight. Instead he was staring at white tents bivouacked across the grass and a fleet of white trucks parked at the curb. The air was thick with the smell of fried potatoes and sweet bread. Alert to the possibility of free eats, he rolled out of his blanket on the concrete slab by the tool shack where he slept safely beyond the range of the lawn sprinklers. At night he kept watch for adolescent boys known for torching the homeless. Charlie regarded the pimply-faced storm troopers as advance scouts for the city planners who were always scheming to evict the park’s tenants.

He got up and folded his blanket with snapping movements that sent up clouds of dust and dead grass. He secured his hand-lettered sign, HELP A VET, inside the blanket. More fully awake, his movements slowed. If this was a municipal function, then manpower was being fed: manpower exclusively, not Charlie Thompson, who had been reduced to half-a-man status by juvenile arsonists. What was the city up to now? Expanding the parking lot? Uprooting shrubbery and men alike?

He dropped his bedroll beside a tree and walked out onto the grass to get a closer look into the food tent. Clearing his throat, he rehearsed what he would say. He’d humbly ask for a little “side dish.” Embarrass them for their wealth of riches. Closer to the tent, he saw that the people inside filling trays were not the usual city rednecks, but girls in summer dresses and guys in slacks and sweaters. College kids. Were they volunteers, taking X-rays or drawing blood? Maybe a free plate in exchange for a needle prick?

Charlie hesitated, then turned away. He had no way of knowing how these young go-getters would react to a stark reminder that life on the street is trench warfare. He could walk over to the john and rinse his face, but there might not be time for that.

What the hell. I am who I am. He whipped around and peered again into the tent. Now he thought he was hallucinating. The kids were sitting down at tables. And the ones now heaping food on trays were . . . filthy old men—just like Charlie! Dirty faces. Ratty clothes clinging like scabby skin. And not a single one of the panhandlers did he recognize. Were they bussed here? Did they come in the trucks? Whatever the case, the suburbia-bred kids should have let age go before beauty.

But what do kids today know about respecting their elders?

He ran his fingers through his beard to sweep away any overnight debris, and marched on into the tent. He loaded a plate with two layers of scrambled eggs, pancakes, toast, bacon, scraping clean most of the pots and pans as though it were his duty to do so. He carried a used plastic bag in his coat pocket for collecting leftovers, such as half-eaten hot dogs from the plates of Mexican kids distracted by a soccer game.

Today any leftovers would be his.

He slid his tray onto a table where clean, good-looking girls sat side-by-side with used-up throwaway men. A young black woman in a powder pink outfit, chatting it up with a light-skinned black guy with tattooed forearms; an ex-con, Charlie was convinced. This was real democracy. And there was even something special for Charlie. Sitting right across from him, a gorgeous little blonde, with violet-blue eyes . . . and she was watching him.

Watching and smiling at him with no sign of pity; no condescending curiosity about how the other half lives.
“You look the part,” she said with a wink. “Nice beard.”

Having no idea of what she meant, he smiled back, then cut up a pancake and proceeded to eat with gusto, unaware of the man next to him having to duck Charlie’s flailing elbows. The man snickered, “He is the part.” Meaningless words to Charlie. He chortled to himself and kept chewing, between bites noticing the girl was still smiling at him. He remembered a smile like that one time on the face of a store clerk. He had been about to pocket a pair of tube socks when he saw a smiling face attached to an arm that was reaching for the house phone.

Nodding at the blonde, he said, “Compliments to the chef,” and ate faster. The blonde erupted with a burst of laughter that escaped her lips like a sudden hiccup, startling her.

All was going well until a fat man in a khaki shirt and brown cargo shorts, his belt festooned with all kinds of doodads and instruments, walked up to their table. He resembled a woefully out of shape drill sergeant. When he began calling out names and passing out papers, the noisy chatter in the tent subsided. Charlie puzzled over why both rich kids and geezers alike were being served papers. But he knew that once they were all distributed, he would be the odd man out. He ate faster, sopping up runny egg with sourdough, stuffing a last big bite into his mouth. He was maneuvering a slice of toast into the bag in his coat pocket, timing it to when the pretty blonde wasn’t watching, when he suddenly began hearing things.

“Charles Thompson!”

The fat man calling my name? The paranoia bells were ringing now; they rang in every season of Charlie’s life, they rang like those cell doors closing at Lompoc.

In his mind he prepared a defense: All I did was take my share with these other poor souls.
“Charles Thompson!” The words rang out angry and impatient this time, compelling Charlie to jerk his hand into the air.

“Here.”

The sergeant guy slammed a sheaf of colored papers, triplicates, down on the table and moved on. Charlie immediately spotted his name typewritten at the top left margin. Charles Thompson. Knots formed in his stomach, as he thought, not too sanely, how did they know I was coming for breakfast? Did I wake up on another planet where everybody knows you? Then I’m the village idiot, or woke up drunk, because I don’t know any of you. Charlie looked out from the tent into the park. Same old park, same old planet earth. Same old freeloader. This was too easy. He smelled a trap. He got up, dropped his paper plate into the trash, glanced around at the people filling out paperwork. No one had budged from the tent, and he needed a general exodus to make his getaway inconspicuous. He sat down to have another look at this paperwork. At first he’d focused only on his name. Now he saw the large print at the center of the page.


CENTRAL CASTING – BACKGROUND COPY

It was a movie! Or a TV show! He wasn’t dreaming. He wasn’t drunk. A work voucher for a show called Campus Rules. His Category: Bum. What angel face said now made sense. You look the part.

Actors! Actors all around him. And miracle of miracles, they think I’m one of them. A warm tingling traveled from his chest, up his neck and into his brain; the sweet serum of opportunity flowing through his veins. He felt like a forgery artist who has, himself, become the perfect forgery. This voucher belonged to another Charlie Thompson, or Charles Thompson, as he calls himself. And if this Charles Thompson is a no-show, out sick, or whatever, then who better to play a bum than . . . Charlie Thompson. But if Charles Thompson is late and about to arrive any minute? He would not be pleased to find that somebody, some nobody, had taken his part.

Charlie was on his feet ready to bail. Then he saw her. Watching him. The blonde. In those eyes, those eyes made in heaven, he didn’t want to appear stupid. Nice beard, she had said. Wanting to be what the beard conveyed, he sat back down.

He saw that she was about to speak.

“Could you help me with this?” he was about to ask, got as far as help, when she said, “Need some help with that?”

That had them both laughing.

“You’re new at this.”

“Oh yeah,” he said. His sappy smile a cover-up as he thought: brand new crime.

“I’m Stacy.” She held out her hand.

Turning his hand to conceal dirty knuckles, he grazed her slim fingers. “Charlie,” he said, then more forcefully, “Charles. My show business name.”

There! He had crossed over. He was now Charles Thompson the actor. What an upside down day. He was not an actor playing a bum, but a bum playing an actor. His confidence was growing and he owed it to this sweet cherry child. Why not be Charles Thompson? It’s my name. I have proof. Somewhere in these pockets, a picture I.D. card, good for cutting short Gestapo-like shakedowns on the street.

Stacy handed him a ballpoint pen, her hand brushing his arm, Charlie observing how she didn’t recoil from his dank breath or his inky coat sleeve. Pushing away strands of hair from her forehead, she leaned over the table to read his voucher, the white cups of her bra visible at the neckline of her blouse. “You’re with CastQuest. That’s my call service. Have you checked with wardrobe?” Before he could answer, she laughed and said, “Never mind, you’re ready. You’re perfect.” When she sat back down, her perfumed fragrance remained palpably close. “You look good, Mr. Thompson.”

That did it. Charlie’s hand came down as though he were breaking a bottle across a maiden craft. He signed his name. But whether he had crossed a river, or was about to sink in a tide pool, there was more sea to navigate. If he wanted to get a check in the mail, he’d have to provide an address. There was only one he could use. It had been a while since he last camped out in Marsha’s backyard. Working the night shift, she had no idea her ex-old man was snoring away out back under her magnolia tree. On the weekends when her new boyfriend visited, Charlie returned to the park. The houses on Marsha’s block all looked the same, so he had committed her number to memory. 5810. If she was still working nights, sleeping during the day, and if he timed it right, he could go there and sift through her mail. Yeah, he had the number, now what the hell was the street? Words came to him: Always double drill . . . and no canteen. There. Canteen Street! That old poem always kicked it in. No, not canteen. Corteen. That was it.

He wrote: 5810 Corteen St., North Hollywood.

He looked up at Stacy. “What do I do with this now?”

“Hand it in. End of the day.”

“End of the day,” Charlie said, in a daze, envisioning the day passing with his keeping a look-out for the real Charles Thompson.
He caught the tail-end of Stacy saying “. . . or a long day. You never know. We could be here till noon or to midnight.” Smiling, dimples creasing her cheeks like question marks. “This is your first time.”

“I’m an amateur,” he said, giving one of his aw shucks smiles, careful not to reveal rotting teeth.

“What have you been doing with yourself, Charles?”

It took him two seconds to reply. “Well, I used to fly planes.” Not exactly a lie. Just that it was only one plane, one historic flight that landed him in jail.

“That must have been exciting.”

Charlie nodded, recalling how sweet it was before he was taken into custody.

“Did you retire from that? From flying?”

Charlie gave his world weary aviator’s sigh: “Yeahhh.”

Stacy said, “A lot of older, retired people are doing movie work.” Her face reddening, she quickly added: “Not that you’re that old.” But Charlie was not offended. He knew that life on the street had aged him. Somehow, in Stacy’s youthful eyes, he began to think he could reverse the process. Stacy changed the subject to tell him that this company pays promptly, that he should have his check in two to three days.

He was about to ask her how long she had been background acting, when the guy in the safari outfit, the sergeant-in-charge, reappeared and began barking out orders.

“Listen up! Students, go on over there by the wardrobe tent.” He pointed across the park to a tent near the roadside. Stacy and her peers stood and marched off in that direction. Then the sergeant swiveled around to face his squad of dregs, focusing especially on Charlie with a look that seemed to say the game is up, a bad apple is about to be tossed. But Charlie, believing this role belonged to him now, that the other Thompson could only be a rank amateur when it came to playing homeless, gave back an unyielding stare that seemed to melt away some of the sergeant’s tough veneer.

Glancing with pride at his cast of bums, the boss man said, “You gentlemen who are down on your luck, follow me.”