In a Large Coastal City


If you find yourself drunk, high, and kicked out of a halfway house in a large coastal city that you know to be called Boca Raton—take heart. Your stay will be wonderful.

Do not worry if this is your first time being a vagrant. There are many seasoned drifters who started out as displaced drug addicts. It will simply require small adjustments in lifestyle. It may be time that you embraced homelessness.

You’ll be happy to know that despite Boca Raton’s wealth, there are plenty of McDonald’s. With the last of your cash, treat yourself. Peruse the dollar menu. Choose from an assortment of these tasty items: the McDoubles, the McChickens, even a sweet fruit parfait, or a side salad. Order cookies. All meals ought to end with cookies.

Celebrate your new freedom.

Eat the McDouble on a bench along Federal Highway and look at luxury cars. Try and finish your food in one sitting. Once it is in your belly, you can think of something else.

Cigarettes—bum them at bus stops. Always offer to pay, but know that no one wants your change.

If you are alone, do not sleep in parks. Even in Boca Raton, parks can be dangerous. They are filled with vagrants probably hungrier than you.

Which is why you need to make friends with other street people. Just because you are homeless, does not mean you have to live without friends.

Drink malt liquor with them behind the CVS on Glades Road. After you are finished with your beverage and feeling levitated, you can beg for change.

James Rutherford Park is a lovely place to spend the day. You can recline with raccoons beneath the mangroves, look out upon the Intracoastal Waterway and watch the yachts float by.

But do not stay in one place for too long. The Boca Raton Police Department does not want you to get comfortable, so practice becoming invisible. Do not panhandle at intersections. You will get money, but you will also get a reputation. Never forget that, as you traipse through the streets disheveled, you are probably ruining someone’s lunch.

Learn a pointless skill to peddle. Make roses from the husks of palm trees. Create bouquets and sell them to the lovely young couples coming out of the bars in Royal Palm Plaza. Approach the boys. They’ll want to impress their dates. Sell the bouquets for five dollars, but accept anything.

Throw a party for yourself. Go to a McDonald’s restaurant and order this: two McDoubles, no pickles, ketchup, or mustard. Add Mac Sauce and shredded lettuce. Each McDouble is one dollar. Shredded lettuce and Mac Sauce is an additional thirty cents. The total comes to $2.60. Discard one half of one the buns and slap the sandwiches together to create a Big Mac that costs about four dollars on the regular menu. Eat it on a bench or in the grass. Watch the cars, watch the yachts. Enjoy the Big Mac.

But remember this: it is important you not appear ridiculous. Try and take a bath in the ocean at least once every two weeks. If you need to use a plastic bag to store your things, only use one. And don’t ever push a shopping cart down the street; it is a surefire indication that you have lost your mind.

Nevertheless, when the city has taken its toll, get bed rest. Go to Boca Raton Regional Hospital and claim that you want to kill yourself. They’ll admit you to the psych ward and you’ll get off the streets for a few days.

I think you will find your experience of Boca Raton very different from the one you may have heard about.

Boca Raton is a place that people discuss as if it were an amusement park, a country in Epcot. They’ll recount a tired narrative about rich women who dress up their dogs like children. They’ll drone on and on about fake tits, plastic hips, liposuction, and Botox. They’ll tell you about the rich geriatrics and their beautiful young wives, or how the sixteen-year-olds drive BMW’s to school. They’ll tell you that Boca Raton is a plastic city, a place that the rich come to retire so they can die in the tropics.

But understand, as you push your shopping cart and carry plastic bags across an intersection of brick pavers, that there are so many different kinds of misery in the world.

About once or twice a year, someone throws themselves in front of the train that runs along Dixie Highway. The roads are closed for hours so the police can investigate and remove the body.

And in the winter of 2010 it was so cold in Boca Raton—in the thirties and forties well into March—that the iguana population was decimated.

Frozen iguanas dropped from the trees.

The iguanas are making a comeback now, though. You’ll see them, sometimes, sun tanning on the banks of canals. I’m beginning to notice them, more and more.

There are, of course, many halfway houses in this city—hidden in plain view as apartment complexes and single family homes—and if you want to avoid vagrancy, you can be sure that someone will give you another chance, provided you have the cash or kind, northern parents that are flush with currency and just want to see their sweet drug-addicted child get better.

But if you do not want to be homeless and do not want to get better, do not waste your time in halfway houses or twelve step meetings.

Get on Craigslist and find a room to rent. There are so many rooms to rent and so many people in Boca Raton that will listen to your sad story.

If you have a job, try your best to keep it.

After you lose it, call your kind northern parents that are flush with currency and just want to see their sweet drug-addicted child get better. Ask them to wire money.

Get as fucked up as possible.

Don’t waste your time with the synthetic drugs at gas stations—the Kratom and the Spice won’t get you to the edge of oblivion and that is what you should try and do.

If you like alcohol, drink long and drink for the effect.

If you cannot find heroin, switch to pills.

Doctor shop. Clinics line the streets and they are filled with physicians that want to help you with your pain.

Clean your needles. Hepatitis C is contracted through old, rotted blood.

Find a friend, any friend. No matter what, it’s always good to have a friend.

When you lose that friend, find another.

Tell your Craigslist family you are trying to get a job. Call your kind, northern parents that are flush with currency and just want to see their sweet, drug-addicted child get better. Ask them to wire money.

Get as fucked up as possible.

Rob your drug dealer.

Get as fucked up as possible.

Invade a home and steal some minor heirlooms.

If you are not prepared to do that, maybe this life is not for you.

Prick yourself with dirty needles.

Have unprotected sex you cannot remember.

And when you are arrested, evicted, beaten, raped, robbed; when your Craigslist family has had enough; when your kind, northern parents that are flush with currency cut you off; when everything you own is in a shopping cart; when you, for the first time, understand what it is to be thirsty—take heart.

Every day can be a holiday in this large coastal city.

From atop a parking garage in Mizner Park, I watched the Fourth of July explode over the campus of Florida Atlantic University. From the roof of the garage, I could see every fireworks demonstration between Deerfield and Delray Beach. Boca Raton’s finale made the night glow white—for fifteen seconds it looked like the end of the world.

And I have kissed a Jewish girl I hardly knew underneath the Christmas tree in Mizner Park. She thought it romantic, how we made out on a bench in the golden, red and green twinkle. And despite my skepticism, even I felt blessed. “Joy to the World” played from speakers disguised as Christmas presents and, from within the compound of Mizner Park, I could forget that you might be drunk in a gutter, still outside and without home.

But if a peculiar thing happens and you find yourself struck sober in this large coastal city—take heart. Your stay will be wonderful.

Get on your knees and say a prayer. Even if you do not believe, say a prayer.

Get a job, any job. It doesn’t matter what you do. It only matters that you work.

Call your kind, northern parents that are flush with currency and just want to see their sweet drug-addicted child get better. Tell them you are alive and end the conversation. When they offer you money, tell them no.

Find a twelve-step meeting. It does not matter which, it only matters that you go. You can recognize the meeting places by the giant plumes of smoke rising from the thresholds of churches and clubhouses, fifty cigarettes burning simultaneously, magical wands rising and falling in angelic choreography.

Be faithful to a divinity, any divinity. Understand that you have taken your place inside the celestial blueprint. Angels and spirits guide your feet.

Walk or ride or crawl—a combination of all three. It doesn’t matter which. It only matters that you move.

Know that you are exactly where you need to be. If you were supposed to be somewhere else, you would not be in this large coastal city.

But don’t be too proud—all you did was stop killing yourself.

Buy a bicycle. Do not steal it.

Ride your bicycle around the city: west on Glades Road to Military Trail, south on Military and then rock east upon Camino Real. Ride by your old Craig’s List family home and wave, keep moving east—pump the pedals all the way to A1A and hit that beach road at twenty-five miles an hour. Take it all the way to Delray with the wind at your face.

Go to a twelve-step meeting.

Try very hard not to judge the people that you meet there. Try very hard to keep an open mind about the people sitting in those windowless rooms. Even that lady next to you, the one wearing the red hat and a shirt that’s seven sizes too small—she too, is a personification of God.

Your life depends on this belief.

Even after your bike is stolen and you lose faith in those windowless rooms and the cigarettes and the damned book and everything that I have told you to hold sacred—move about this large coastal city and seek something that you can understand.

Purchase another bicycle.

Mount the contraption that is rusty and blue with a chain that clink-clanks and a seat that shakes.

Name it Rusty Blue.

Resent that you have to ride a bicycle, but ride it anyway.

Stop at all intersections. Obey all traffic laws. The street signs will ooze by. Every crack in the sidewalk will feel like a small catastrophe, but do not consider them this.

Get faster. Pedal harder. Soon, you will not notice the cracks. Careen over them. Find purpose in the rhythms.

Do not stop at intersections. Dive through traffic and wave at the cars that stop in your powerful wake. Abandon the sidewalk. Crash onto the road and needle a path between the white line and the grass. There isn’t a bike lane and you shouldn’t care. Fuck the bike lane.

You’re a rusty-blue blur against the black asphalt that hugs the edge of the world.

And this is you at your best: on Rusty Blue pumping those piston legs, not caring about anything but speed and that strange hope in something you cannot see. Hold onto this conviction.

Scoff at those who say Boca Raton is only pavers and landscaping. Scoff at the naysayers who insult your city.

Go west on Spanish River Boulevard. Behold Pondhawk, a 79-acre wetland preserve that lies just north of the Spanish River Library. Behold the Mediterranean Revivalist architecture of the library, the brainchild of Addison Mizner, Boca Raton’s architect and the namesake of our lovely park.

No, the library is not some ancient Spanish village that sits upon a cliff with a transcendent ocean view. But it is all we have and it is time you learned to recognize the sublime. Your life depends on the skill with which you observe.

Buy a coffee and a cookie—they make them fresh in the library café. Go out on the covered patio and sit at the iron tables beside the Corinthian pillars. Drink the coffee. Smoke a cigarette. Eat the cookie. Everything is better with a cookie.

Look out on the perfect roundness of Blue Lake. Observe the anhinga and mottled duck and great egret. Forget that the lake is a manmade product of IBM’s 1970 headquarters. It is a lake and it is blue. It is as authentic as it will ever be. And it attracts birds that don’t know the difference; to them, water is water and land is land.

All kinds of things are drawn to Boca Raton—the old and wealthy, the empty and thirsty, the beautiful and feathery.

Ride your bicycle, rusty and blue, along the path that encircles Blue Lake.

Behold the light, the way it strikes the red-shingled roof of the library. Behold the anhinga that soars and then nose-dives into the lake filled with fish that swarm beneath its blue waters. Behold all these things at once as you push your bicycle down the path and into Pondhawk.

I can remember when the preserve was not finished, when it was just a construction site, a chaotic bramble. A girl I once loved was among those who helped to create it. She removed invasive species that sprang up between the pond apple trees and slash pines. She pulled Old World climbing ferns from the ground. With a machete, she cut down Brazilian peppertrees at the stump. She did these things and told me about them and, for the sake of love and her pretty face, I was interested.

She taught me to bird watch, to recognize the anhinga and the mottled duck and the great egret. She taught me other birds too, so many I cannot hope to remember them all.

My eyes followed her finger when it pointed.

Look, she said, and I looked.

Behold the colored birds on their stilt legs. Try hard to appreciate their beauty—it is impossible to know where girls go when they disappear north, to the Middle West.

And sometimes, when I’m driving a car that is dented and rusty and blue, I remember her pretty face and the finger that pointed in the glimmer of those first sober days. Do you know what bird that is? she asked.

Yes, it is the most beautiful bird, I said. It is the purple gallinule.

Find a purple gallinule: yellow tipped and red beaked and brilliant yellow feet; green and blue feathers that glow.

You can find them foraging for food in the shallows, at the roots of fireflags.

That’s the most beautiful bird, she said.

It is the most beautiful bird, I agreed.

And just yesterday, I was at Pondhawk sitting in the gazebo and the sun was setting. Fish jumped in the pond below and within the water grasses I could hear the wading birds call out. With their peculiar squeals and guttural squawks, they sang and I was filled with birdly mysticism.

I peered into the shallows, and I looked for a purple gallinule.

The birds cried so loudly last night, I could barely hear the cars on Interstate Ninety- Five.


(winner of the Editors’ Prize in Prose for issue 20)