The Heart Goes for a Haircut

How to be homeless on Miami Beach

Eby, 52, from Glens Falls, New York, was an electrician in the Coast Guard, where "if you didn't drink you were a pussy." He's now drunk so much that he has seizures without his daily alcohol fix. He has a son, "Eby, Jr., just like me!" out there somewhere, and five former wives, Rose, Patti, Cookie, Joan and one he can't remember. When he gets sick, as he does more and more frequently, he prefers Jackson Memorial to South Shore, the two hospitals where Beach homeless are most often directed. "At Jackson, they treat you like they know you; at South Shore, it's yore typic money factory . . . One night me and my buddy Terry was tryin' to carry a guy across the road and some broad hit us. Didn't have her lights on, I was first in line, so I got it worst . . . Cops come, they say 'It's just drunken Eby and Terry, hell, you can go.' Didn't even give her a ticket! Nice-lookin' tourist, out spendin' money! At South Shore, they give us an X-ray an' throw us out. Shoulder stillhurts. If we'd had insurance, we'da been there a month!"

Another time, when he'd tackled a guy who'd snatched an old lady's purse, and held him for the prowl car, the cops just ran him off.

The worst part of homelessness is the sense that you're "already gone," that you've crossed so many lines that it no longer matters if you wake up again. When Eby first lost his job as a meter man, he decided he didn't want to go to Miami to participate in the "continuum of care." That left eating out of dumpsters, an idea so repellent he nearly starved, being then too proud to beg, and a non-thief, and only working occasionally for his friend Zack, who ran a boat rental place. Eventually, hunger overcame delicacy and Eby began to hit the Days Inn dumpster at 21st and Collins every morning at 11:30 for the leftover breakfasts (scrambled eggs and pancakes hold up best in the garbage). From there he progressed to the Publix dumpster at Twentieth and West Avenue, where "you can get slightly spoiled fruit and meat" that won't make you "too sick, you just gotta sorta not breathe while you're rummagin' around, ya know?" Dunkin' Donuts at Sixteenth and Alton puts a lotof day-old pastry out "if you're lookin' for a sugar fix." Sbarro's Pizza at Fifteenth and Washington "is real friendly, he puts fresh pies out separately, sometimes," and lays them on top of the dumpster, in the alley behind the store, "so you don't have to actually climb in" . . . Then there are "New York Spiders," the slim "heels" of booze found in the bottoms of bottles in black plastic trash bags in the dumpsters; these are often sloshed together randomly and drunk as "South Beach Punch."

Eby would rather use these means to stay alive now. And he likes his bridge home. In the Salvation Army and the other Miami "help" places, the men get crushed together, and the younger, tougher tramps push you around and take your stuff. And the social workers don't seem to understand -- some people are just loners; regimentation is bad for them.

"I know I'm the one that got me in trouble, but guys like us -- we're bums, not 'homeless.' Ever hear of the 'Wobblies' -- the IWW [International Workers of the World]? Back around 1910? They were guys -- Big Bill Hayward, Joe Hill -- they knew things weren't right. You got to change a lot of stuff . . ."

"Like the parking meters, Eby?"

"Aw," he said. "That wasn't even me. It was a guy named Rick. Big sonofabitch. He's dead now . . ." He looked at his hands.

"Naw, I can't be a electrician again," he answered a question. "I get the shakes too bad, and I got arthritis . . . Too many hot shots." His blue eyes flashed mischievously then, and he wondered facetiously if he got a ladder and climbed up to the balconies of those ladies who kept calling the cops on him at the Helen Mar, if one might maybe change her mind and take him in.

The idea made him feel better. "You know," he said, "there was a bunch of us when I was young who thought about Amurcan socialism . . . Now I wish I just had enough money to get a haircut. And buy a beer . . ."

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