Over brunch this past weekend in New Orleans, Celino Dmitroff told me this story of his childhood, which I am going to retell for you as best I can.
Celino was about six, living in Hawaii, and he’d wandered far from his house to the edge of the water. An old wino known around town as Sewer Hole Joe saw him there and asked him what he was doing, and he said he wasn’t sure how to get back home. Joe asked Celino to describe what was nearby where he lived, and all Celino could remember was a Kentucky Fried Chicken. “I know just where that is,” said Joe.
As they walked, Joe and Celino talked about all sorts of things that were totally inappropriate to talk about with a young kid, but Celino found him fascinating. Things like how to use a lighter to squeeze the last few drops out of a liquor bottle, or how to poke a hole in the cork of a wine bottle and suck the wine through the cork so it won’t spill if you pass out.
Celino noticed that every time they passed a pay phone or newspaper stand, Joe checked it for change, and when he found something, he’d say “Bingo!” and his face would light up. Finally they got back to Celino’s neighborhood, and he went on home.
Over the next few weeks Celino would run into Joe from time to time. Celino came to learn that Joe lived in a sewer, that he had it set up pretty good with electricity he’d run from a nearby building.Whenever Celino found himself with change in his pocket, he’d leave it in a pay phone for Joe to find later. One day, Celino saw Joe sitting in front of a store counting change. So Celino walked up and said, “Hey, did you get the money I left for you in the pay phone?”
Joe said, “You left this for me?”
Celino said that yes, he left change for him there all the time. Sewer Hole Joe then started crying. And then Celino started crying because he thought he had hurt Joe’s feelings. And then, by happenstance, Celino’s mother drove up and saw her son sitting with this wino, both of them weeping. Of course, she wanted to know what the hell was going on and what the hell Sewer Hole Joe was doing with her son.
“This is your son?” Joe said. “He is one of the most gracious people I’ve ever met.” And then Joe proceeded to tell her what Celino had been doing.
She was not moved by the story. She accused her son of stealing change from her and demanded that he stop spending time with winos.
As Celino wrapped up the story, he teared up a little, wondering if Sewer Hole Joe was still alive.
I could only think about how I could turn this tale into some kind of updated Huckleberry Finn type thing, but then I thought, no… This is Celino’s story. I’ll just share it more or less the same way he shared it with me. So there you are. You are welcome.