Karl: A Portrait

Karl is a thin man in a faded black t-shirt. He wears thick glasses that stretches his face past the skin above and below the frame. He wears wrinkles and a jack-o’-lantern smile.

We think he wants a cigarette, but he wants money for a drink. We ask for a joke in return, but he doesn’t have any good ones. Sorry, he says, I got a bit of a st-stutter. We shrug and give him loose singles because hey, we respect the need for beer money.

No jokes? Tell us a story.

A story? Okay.

Karl was a track runner. He ran the mile in high school under five minutes. He went to college in Rhode Island, studied nutrition. There he ran the mile in under four minutes. But at the Olympic trials, he ran a four-oh-eight. He knew that the marines had a track team so he enlisted. It was the late eighties.

Then came Operation Desert Storm.

Karl lives in an abandoned building on Avenue C and Twelfth Street with his pit-bull Tina and a few other squatters. Two of the squatters were friends, army brethren, from his squad.

Don’t fuck with Tina, Karl says. She’s an old girl, but she’s still got a death grip. This guy stumbled in one time and Tina got aholda his leg. Wouldn’t let go. Tina I said. Settle. I said to the guy, what do you want. He said he don’t want no trouble. Just a place to shoot up. Shoot up, I said. Tina, get on him. We don’t got no lock on the door. But we don’t want no dope fiends in there. Grass, yes. But dope, no.

Not to be too personal or anything, but do you ever want to do something, well, normal, we ask. We ask Karl if he’s happy on the street.

Happy? Hell no.

He points to his right eye. Detached retina. He points to the other eye. Shrapnel. I’m legally blind y’know. Can’t see for shit. At least I got the VA hospital, he says. Shoot, sometimes they’ll even check up on Tina.

Karl splits his time between the city and Florida. His mother-in-law is down there, raising his two kids. The problem, he says, is this lady I met a few years back. Gave me AIDS. Now he’s just biding his time. Don’t worry nothing boys. You can’t get it from shaking my hand.

We say it’s no problem. We know that. When he’s not looking though, we wipe our hands on our jeans.

After a while, Karl leans in. Hey I’m going to talk to these drunk guys and try and get some money. We watch him stalk away into the night. We watch smoke snake around our fingers. We watched our cigarette butts flicker in the moonlight. We stamp them out, ashes like black chalk on the sidewalk.

July 2008

One Comment on “Karl: A Portrait”

  1. Got the details just right…

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