I KNEW JOE FOR AN HOUR
Gretchen Rachel Blickensderfer
Amanda proposed I write a post entitled “Inside the mind of Gretchen Blickensderfer.” I’m not about to say “no” to the High Priestess of this blog and,sure, I could spend a couple of hours scaring the hell out of you with the foul demon that is my head. However, the best way I can describe who I am is to tell you about a man who changed the way I will forever view life. Thing is, I only knew him for about an hour but I found a kindred spirit in someone whom society chose to reject. For all my woes, for every day I may look back and think “well, that sucked,” I try to remember Joe and the education I was fortunate to receive from him.
It occurred on Thursday January 24, 2008 at around 12:30 pm.
Earlier in 2007, I had announced to my family, friends and colleagues that I was transitioning from male to female. The reactions I received ranged from wholehearted support to outright rejection. A woman whom I considered my most beloved friend hadn’t taken the news well. At the time, I was rather self-righteous about it. I didn’t understand why anyone would mourn the man I was. He was, after all, a self-involved prick more concerned with his own issues than those of anyone else. That particular character trait carried over to the early days of my transition and I was resentful of anyone who didn’t accept it.
So when my friend would send me emails questioning my decision or when she asked me to wear male clothes at her wedding, I became indignant. My friend was not one to wrap her feelings in niceties. She called it as she saw it, something I both respected but also loathed when I was on the receiving end of it. So when she termed me “a man in a dress” or told me that I would forever because finding someone who could love that man in that dress would be like finding a “needle in a haystack”, it hurt deeply. On the morning of January 18, 2008 I decided enough was enough. I terminated our friendship on the grounds that she was becoming “toxic.” Outside of our children and parents, friends are the most invaluable treasure you will ever know in life. They may come and they may go, but you never really forget them as I never forgot Simon Murphy or Helen Robinson from my early childhood. Always with me and even showing up to say hello in a random dream or two.
I think deep beneath my acrimony that morning, I knew I wasn’t doing the right thing. I was heart sick and in tears. But my stubborn streak runs so strong in me that there are times alternatives become lost in the dust it leaves behind. So I did it. I said goodbye. At around noon, I couldn’t stand to be in my office anymore. I was feeling desperately sorry for myself. In fact I was ready to call the whole transition off. The cost of my family and the nurturing shoulder of a once, dearest friend had already been so very high. I needed to think of a way out. For the moment, my plan only went as far as a Big Mac during a stolen, long lunch hour.
It was particularly vicious winter that year. January in Chicago is one of those months one hopes will be over quickly. Without the magic of holiday lights, all one is left with is a wind armed with razor sharp knives that tear through layers of clothing until you can swear there’s nothing defending your body from its attack. That afternoon the wind was decidedly brutal. As I walked up Wabash towards Randolph, it attacked me without respite. Its howls were hidden under the roar of the L train far above and I was certain there was no one who lay further below the tracks than I.
A man was standing outside of the Randolph St. Mickey D’s. He was tightly bundled in mismatched clothing; a grimy threadbare gray sweater, engorged by the multi-layers of T-shirts underneath it, and covered by a shabby, oversized black coat, torn at the seams and doused in filth. The logo on the arm of his coat, once a proud exclamation of fashion prowess, was dimmed and peeling away. His tarnished, shaking hands occasionally brushed under the nostrils of an inky face pockmarked by a wind carried by days of repeated aversion and nights of blithe disregard.
Despite a revolving phrase, indistinguishable in words or tone from the last, and mouthed with automated hopelessness to those who passed by him, he was neither perceived or acknowledged. The world had endowed him with an alchemy to make his base, shriveling figure invisible.
At the time, it was a gift I desired above all other and, ironically, it was only this frame of mind that revealed the man to me that day, because it was in front of the restaurant that my irredeemable self-pity was courteously interrupted.
THE MAN: Excuse me Miss, can you spare a couple a’dollars?
ME: Sorry, I don't have any cash on me.
THE MAN: Have a good one Miss.
I had just placed a mitten on the inviting yellow bars of the entrance, when something about the man became immediately perceptible. For one diminutive moment, he looked directly at me. Like so many others before him, he saw through my disguised face exaggerated with amateurishly applied color and in complete discord with my build, the size of my hands and who I obviously used to be.
But he said nothing.
There was no "Holy shit! It's a dude!" or "You faggot!" There were no quotes from Leviticus, no counsel for me to "find Jesus!" There was no sniggering, no pointing and no gibes about my appearance of any kind. In fact, was I wrong or did he just call me “Miss”?
At the time, there could be no greater compliment.
I turned back toward the man with a response compelled by years of rigidly indoctrinated, polite British upbringing.
ME: I could buy you some lunch though.
THE MAN: Would you? I'd be so grateful.
I paused rather self consciously.
ME: Umm, well, what would you like?
THE MAN: What they have Miss?
ME: Blimey, I don't know, a cheeseburger, chicken nuggets, what do you fancy?
THE MAN: A cheeseburger, I guess. Is that too much?
ME: I'm not sure really. I try not to have lunch here very often.
THE MAN: Oh.
There was another uncomfortable pause.
ME: Look, why don't you come inside and we can look at the menu? Then, just pick out what you want.
The man stepped back, his brown eyes grew wide and he shook his head.
THE MAN: No Miss, you jus' find me something if that's OK. I can wait here for you. I don't think they’ll let me in there.
ME: It's all right. I'll stay with you until you've ordered.
THE MAN: You sure?
As we went through the door, I should have been blushing quite profusely. I should have felt like a complete banana. However, for the first time since my transition began, the opinions of others could have gone to hell for all I cared. They simply could not have gotten any worse than my morning. This man who smelled like a urine soaked oil drum, and seemed as out of place in the restaurant as a politician does with personal integrity, was all that mattered to me.
ME: Bloody long line.
THE MAN: Uh Miss? I really don't mind waitin' outside.
ME: You're fine.
THE MAN: The manager's starin' at me, Miss.
ME: He's staring at both of us. The manager approached with the energy and determination of any acne-ridden twenty something, with a long career in the fast-food industry in front of him. Although from the moment we entered, he had been cautiously eyeing each of us in turn, his mission now was to eject my lunch partner from the restaurant.
MANAGER: Excuse me, sir, unless you're buying....
ME: Yes, hello. He is buying something. He's with me.
THE MAN: I can wait outside.
ME: He's a friend of mine and we're going to eat together.
MANAGER: Oh? He's been loitering outside this restaurant all morning, harassing my customers.
ME: You know he's standing right here.
MANAGER: I'm sorry?
ME: Don't pretend that he isn't right in front of you, Sir. If you've got a problem with where he's been all morning, then address him, not me. THE
MAN: I don't wanna be any......
MANAGER: You don't have to raise your voice, I'm just doing my job.
ME: I'm not raising my voice, and might I suggest your job would be better served behind the counter instead of in front of it, hobnobbing with your guests? Or do I have to take this up with your corporate office, let’s see, Mr. uhhh Hickman?
MANAGER: Yes, Daniel Hickman. I'm sorry. Please enjoy your lunch.
The manager retreated, brutally stung by his defenceless prey. However, from that point on, we never left his sight. My own temper, culled by antagonism towards me, was now focused in glares back in the manager's direction and I wondered whether the 45 minutes that followed were not the longest of Daniel Hickman's life. ME: There goes the undefeated champion of at least a decade's worth of arsewipe competitions.
THE MAN: I'm trouble for you, Miss, I'm sorry. Maybe this wasn't such a good idea.
ME: You haven't at all. What's your name?
THE MAN: My name, Miss?
ME: Mmm Hmm. Would you rather not tell me?
THE MAN: No, s'OK, Miss. My name's Joe. No one ever asks me that.
ME: You mean people like me?
ME: We should.
ME: Because you have one. Mine's Gretchen by the way. It's nice to meet you Joe.
JOE: Thank you, Miss.
ME: Are you all right?
MAN: Huh? No, I am Miss. I'm sorry. I jus' never had no-one ask....
ME: Hang on, please don't go anywhere. I'll go and get you a napkin.
MAN: OK, Miss.
ME: That's the idea!
I gently eased my way through the remainder of the line and grabbed some napkins from a pristine stack on the counter. The dirty look one of the cashiers gave me could have charred a hole through the Hoover Dam. I shrugged and returned to my place in line with the disconcerting feeling that Joe would be gone.
ME: Good you're still here. Here you go.
JOE: Thank you.
ME: You're welcome. Joe only briefly rubbed his face with the neatly folded white tissue, yet it came away looking like a mechanic's decaying, greasy rag.
JOE: S'nice and warm in here, ain't it?
ME: I never was very good with excessive temperatures. I accepted one of Joe's napkins, tenderly patted my forehead and regarded him tentatively.
ME: How are you are managing to stay warm out there?
JOE: Ain't easy.
ME: It's been such a miserable winter, and today, wow, I thought I'd become a badly dressed glacier by the time I got here. I shouldn't complain though. Not to you. God, how do you make it? I mean just standing out there all day? Where do you go at night?
JOE: You gotta keep moving. I walk up and down Randolph, you know, keeps me going some. Sometimes I get enough money together for a coffee. That helps, but you gotta keep moving. I keep telling people that. I known some brothers who was fine one night and the next morning I'll go see 'em and they’re gone.
ME: Gone where?
JOE: They dead. They frozen and they dead.
ME: Jesus. I'm sorry.
JOE: Ain't my problem. They stupid and don't listen to me. They don't try find a shelter or steal somethin' to get arrested, so they die. I can't do nothin' about it. I tell 'em every time I see 'em. Like my man, Grey. He died on Monday night and I knew it was gonna happen. I tried to tell a cop but they don't listen to me. I tried not to be upset. You don't need to worry your pretty lil' head about it. But if you don't mind...
ME: Tell me.
JOE: I mean, I don't wanna ask you. You've been so good to me, but would you not take the Lord's name in vain?
ME: I did? Oh right. I'm sorry. Habit.
JOE: S'OK. It's jus' Jesus is all I got.
I blushed and lowered my head, remembering cussing once in front of my father. His correction wasn't so gentle and involved a heaped spoonful of chili powder.
ME: Would you mind eating with me? It'll keep us both out of the cold and besides, I think Danny Boy over there needs to sweat for a little while longer.
JOE: I wouldn't wanna keep you, Miss Gretchen.
ME: It's just Gretchen, and what are you keeping me from? The rest of the day strapped to my phone begging for a donation to my organization's gala? I can live without it.
JOE: Careful with your job. You might end up standing outside with me.
ME: I can think of worse company.
JOE: You don't mean that.
ME: Actually, I do. I'm what most people in outwardly polite society call 'a deviant.'
JOE: So you're a....
ME: (rather tersely) Yes.
JOE: I honestly didn't notice 'till you told me.
ME: Ha! Bollocks. No wait, I'm sorry, but you're being much too kind.
JOE: I mean it. You're a classy lady.
ME: Never heard it put quite that way before.
For the first time in months, I genuinely smiled. Meanwhile, we finally reached the front of the queue. The assistant was a girl of no more than 19 who looked less than pleased to see us.
ME: What would you like, Joe?
JOE: Is a burger, fries, and a Coke OK wi'you?
ME: Please get my friend a Number One with a Coke. Large-sized. I'll have the same with a Coke, and ten pieces of near-fried chicken gizzards or whatever they're supposed to be.
JOE: You're really going to eat all that?
ME: We can share the gizzards. I need the indulgence today.
ASSISTANT: For here or to go?
ME: For here.
ASSISTANT: For here?
If there's one thing the manager's staff has been trained well in, it's the declared, elongated pause.
ME: Problem? Both the Assistant and I looked over to the manager who was between bagging hamburgers. With no words an entire argument between the three of us was carried out and resolved.
JOE: Thank you.
ME: No, thank you. There aren't many people who would call me a classy lady.
JOE: That's so hard to believe.
ME: My best friend said something terrible about me a few days ago.
JOE: Why’s she your best friend then?
ME: She isn't since you ask. I wrote her an email this morning pretty much saying, "goodbye."
JOE: Just for callin' you one name?
ME: Not just one name, Joe, but a lot of them over the past year, since I told her I was going to transition. It was starting to destroy me, physically and mentally. I'd no choice but to just let her go.
JOE: I'm sorry.
ME: Don't worry about it. I'd say that my problems are fairly trivial.
JOE: I just want somethin' to eat, a place to live and a job.
ME: I just want my friend and my family back.
JOE: Sounds a lot harder.
ME: Really? Find us a place to sit, Joe? It isn't a huge problem. Like a pair of magicians, we both seemed to be able to make people disappear, as easily and rapidly as Trixie within the sword impaled box. We sat in silence for a moment. I scarfed down my Big Mac as if I hadn't eaten in a week. However, Joe was taking his time.
JOE: You eat quickly.
ME: Always do when I'm hungry. My Dad would be upset. He was definitely one for 'relishing flavors', you know chewing four times before swallowing. Though he'd never approve of this as food.
JOE: I used to be the same way with my kids.
ME: You have kids?
JOE: Had. Don't know where they is now. I haven' seen 'em since they left home.
ME: How long ago was that?
JOE: Before your time. I was livin' in Gary. They laid me off and I couldn't get work. None of us could. Some stayed in town, some split. My wife took the kids to live with her old boyfriend in Cleveland. I just let myself go. I lost my home, everything. Never saw my kids again. They so young when this happened I don't think they'd remember me if they saw me again. She probably told 'em I died. Better that way.
ME: I lost my Mum a year ago.
JOE: I'm sorry.
ME: Oh no, she didn't die. She just stopped talking to me.
JOE: But not loving you I bet. Not deep down. I don't blame my wife for what she did. She had to look after our babies. I sure wasn't doin' anythin' to help. One day you’re on the top of you’re world and the next s'all gone from you. Happens faster than getting yours by a semi on I-90.
ME: No one can help you? I mean, you've no friends?
JOE: They all left, one at a time. Some of 'em I lost to age. Some jus' fell away from me. I was too worried 'bout my own problems to care about theirs, I guess, or I ask 'em for money too many times. Now I don't have no-one. You gotta be so careful, Gretchen. What you told me earlier. Don't let that happen again. Your family and your friends. You need 'em. Don't be stupid with 'em.
ME: Wait a minute, I wasn't. It's more complicated than that. They broke my heart.
JOE: Well next time, you just let ‘em break it, then you find it in your heart to forgive 'em.
ME: I doubt there’ll be a next time.
JOE: Sure there will. I can tell. You ain't going to be an angry bum like Ol' Joe here.
ME: I'm not going to end up as a woman either.
Totally perplexed, Joe dropped the french fry he was holding.
JOE: You're one now.
ME: No, I'm a man in a dress. My friend was right about that. The whole da....the whole wretched idea was just a selfish pipedream and it's hurt too many people. I spent my entire life desperately wanting to be someone else. I never once imagined that the world preferred I stay the way I was. I miss them, Joe.
JOE: I'll go get you a napkin.
I wiped my eyes with my sleeve.
ME: No, I'm OK. I'm sorry. Hormone therapy. I cry at the bloody Geico lizard these days. But I just...I just want it to stop. I'm supposed to spend this year living full time as a female. Bloody lonely year. Then they'll let me have an operation I can't afford. $45,000 dollars. My neck's killing me just from spending every day looking up at the bill. I feel like an idiot even thinking about it now.
JOE: We both got cash flow issues then.
ME: Yeah. I keep this up and I'll be standing outside a restaurant myself. It's only been four months but I've lost almost everything. Even my job's going downhill. They've been supportive but I don't how long it'll last. My boss keeps hauling me into the office and lecturing me on 'appropriate office attire'. My own silly fault. I never got to have a 'pink phase' when I was twelve. Hell, I can't even put on hose without completely destroying the point of the bloody things. My colleagues try but they can't get the pronouns right and I end up locking myself in my office totally embarrassed. I keep thinking, staying a guy would've been so much easier. But if I turn back, if I do that, I'll be right back to the way I was, hating my own skin.
JOE: This'll make you better?
ME: Dreams usually do.
JOE: Then you've gotta keep moving.
ME: Is that what you're going to do?
JOE: I'm 63. Ain't nobody gonna give me a job or a home now.
ME: No choice. You know if I could...
JOE: You got your own pretty life to lead.
ME: No, I mean it. We’re both the same. At least as far as everyone else is concerned. Shouldn't we both be under a rug? One stared at, one ignored. Why is breaking away from what everyone considers normal so very wrong?
JOE: Why d'ya think we ain't normal? I was, till it all came down. You are now. You didn't ignore me and I ain't staring at you.
ME: We don't run into each other every day.
JOE: Sure we have. You been here before. So have I. See, it don't matter what your friends say. Even if you hadn't taken me off the street, I'd still think you were like the most beautiful woman in the world.
ME: And you're a decent and amazing man. Someone who should never be ignored, even if you hadn't called me 'Miss'.
JOE: Then we’re rich.
ME: Richer than Warren Buffett.
JOE: Next time, I'm buyin' then. Gretchen?
JOE: You ain't alone.
I grabbed his hands, brought them to my lips and kissed them.
ME: Thank you. We should do this more often.
JOE: You know where to find me.
For the last twenty minutes they had together, we were old friends, repudiated by the world but without a care in it.
The following day, and for months afterwards, I returned to the same restaurant at the same time but Joe was gone. I asked if anyone knew what happened to him. I even called the CPD and was promptly rebuffed.
But I kept moving and, one year later, I got my surgery. Although some of my friendships were unredeemable, I made others and reached an accord with my family. I even found and began one of my own with that “needle in a haystack.” Someone who accepts and loves me for who I am.
Today, no one points and no one stares. I walk in and out of restaurants without a complaint, and if there is any old Joe out front who needs it, I will make sure to buy him or her some lunch. The logic being, if you bring them out of the cold for a while they will always do the same for you.
I only knew Joe for an hour but I learned enough for a lifetime. He was a decent man, hit by a semi full of economics and bad luck obliterating everything except the last shred of dignity that keeps someone from just standing still and going into a final sleep. He kept moving and so shall I. He has forgiven and so shall I. He saw her me beautiful woman. I saw him as the wisest man alive.