Old Town Hero by J. T. Townley
But when we tottered into the dawn light for our morning constitutional, Old Town Hero was back. We stood there, hands on our hips, scanning up and down the empty block for deadbeats and thugs. How anybody managed such an act of violence on our watch escaped us since we surveilled the neighborhood around the clock, or paid a security service to. This was our home, and some of us had sunk our life savings into these places. For the rest of us, it was the principle of the matter. Our insurance premiums would skyrocket.
Yesterday, it was simply sidewalk graffiti—just outside our front entrance, but still. While some of us expressed moral outrage, those of us more practically minded radioed Trull, our maintenance man. He fired up the power washer, grinning like a little boy, and had the job done lickety-split. The only sign it ever existed was a bright spot on the pavement.
Now it was something else altogether. Forget sidewalk art: this time those vandals slopped their paint right onto the flawless steel-and-glass façade. We stood in the morning sunshine, gaping. Lifesize, Old Town Hero was quite a spectacle: welding goggles and striped engineer’s cap, cutoff overalls and saggy long johns and red velvet cape. A goofy, cigarette-yellow grin. He stood in front of railroad tracks and empty box cars, chest out, arms akimbo.
We called an emergency meeting.
The entire board showed up, despite tee times and water aerobics schedules and coffee klatch meetings. Questions spilled from our mouths.
Why would anybody paint that?
And on our building?
No way that’s paint.
Details are too sharp.
It’s gotta be a photograph.
Is that even possible?
We need to find out who’s responsible asap.
Make an example of them.
How could this happen?
We didn’t bother asking if anyone’d called the police yet. We all had, and more than once. The police were necessary, if incompetent, their illegible reports requisite for our insurance claims. While unlikely, it was also possible they might blunder into apprehending the good-for-nothings responsible for this violent act of vandalism. Protecting the rights of tax-paying property owners was their raison d’être, if we weren’t mistaken. Whether with or without them, we needed to nip this thing in the bud.
With the board’s blessing, Trull contracted with a commercial cleanup company that provided the most reasonable bid. It took them the whole next day to scrape and peel and wash that crazed lunatic off our building. By dusk, we stood across the street in Pearl Springs Park, our park, admiring the shiny façade.
Looks brand-spanking-new, we said.
Even better, we said.
That’ll show em, we said.
We strolled around our block in the falling light, nodding at the new security guards we’d hired to replace the incompetents. Then we retired to our balconies and courtyard patios, sipping pinot grigio in the warm June air.
All was well the next morning and the morning after that. For forty-eight blissful hours, we enjoyed the status quo, steady as she goes, proud that we’d run off the riffraff who thought they could sully our home. We hit the links for eighteen. We meandered along the river in the sunshine. We puffed cigars over the paper in our park. Summertime, and the living was easy. Plus, most of us were retired.
But soon it all came crashing down. On our way back from Pilates in the Park the next morning, we thought we’d have a heart attack as we glanced across at our building. Old Town Hero was back, and this time, he was larger than life, twenty feet tall and ten wide. Our jaws hung open. Red fists clenched in our chests. Across the river, a Union Pacific freight train blew its horn.
We used the intercom to call the rest of the board down from their frittatas and Earl Grey, and we stood together, goggling and muttering. When the new security guards, with their black tactical uniforms and Starseeds venti lattes, rounded the corner, their eyes saucered.
We didn’t bother pointing out the obvious or asking any questions, firing them on the spot. Such was our prerogative. Maybe we were lashing out, and maybe it even made us feel better. Yet Old Town Hero remained.
Most of us sensed the necessity of working back channels. We all had connections, however tenuous and exaggerated: it was a point of pride. Even if our HOA was a small fish in a big pond, our neighborhood association had real power. We knew we could throw our weight around.
Now was the time. We got on the horn and pestered Bill over speakerphone to convene an emergency Neighbors Northwest meeting that very morning. He balked at first, hemming and hawing about his grandkids and couldn’t we let it all blow over, but we were insistent.
We can’t wait until the levee breaks, we said.
What’s that spozed to mean?
One day, it’s Old Town Hero, the next, the neighborhoods will be crawling with them.
He cleared his throat. Who exactly?
Derelicts, we said.
Vagabonds, we said.
All the dregs of society, we said.
Is it that bad?
We fake-chuckled at his naïveté, then said: We’re barely keeping them at bay as it stands.
Static crackled as he rubbed his chin.
It’s their mess, we said. Let’s keep it from spilling out of Old Town.
Trull got on the phone with the cleaning company, but they couldn’t come until later in the afternoon. In the meantime, people started to take notice. Commuters barely broke stride, but kids and their live-in nannies clogged the sidewalk. Students loitered, laughing. Tourists visiting our beautiful park snapped selfies and group shots. A frenetic hum filled the air. We still couldn’t rouse any boys in blue to the crime scene, so we stood sentry in shifts, ushering along the idle and curious.
Nothing to see, we said. Keep moving.
An hour later, we sat around a long table at Café Clochard. We started with espresso, but quickly moved to pinot noir or cognac. Bill sat in the middle, looking annoyed, checking his watch every two minutes. Cleaning fumes mingled with the earthy scent of French roast. We filled him in on the situation. When we’d finished, Bill shook his head.
Signs and wonders, he said.
We have to act now, we said.
Get ahead of this thing.
Cut those anarchists off at the pass.
Anarchists did this? said Bill.
See for yourself, we said.
He staggered to the window. You could make out Old Town Hero clear as day from all the way across the park.
Bill shook his head, rubbing his chin. So what’s the recommendation?
Chief of police, we said.
Bill flinched. His cheek twitched.
Hell in a handbasket, we said.
He glanced at his watch and chewed his lip. Then he knocked back his cognac and said, I’ll see what I can do.
Once a gawking cyclist smashed into a law-abiding driver, denting his brand-new Tesla, the police finally sent a pair of beat cops to the crime scene. We expected they’d begin an investigation while they were here, or at the very least direct traffic, but we were sorely mistaken. They don’t make policemen like they used to. We stood out front in a huddle, hands on our hips, gazing at them as they double-parked their cruiser, then went about their business. To our shock-horror, they ticketed the driver, double-checked the cyclist’s condition, then sauntered back toward their car, gazing up at Old Town Hero.
Might wanna do something about that eyesore, said the driver through his open window. Too much rubbernecking’s stunting the regular flow of traffic.
Before we could shamble over to demand action, they sped away.
Meanwhile, traffic went from bad to worse. It was all Old Town Hero’s fault. When we glanced up again, he was now three stories tall and painted right over windows, balconies, and doors. Poor Ms. Flemmarde, taking in the afternoon sunshine, nodded off on her balcony and woke covered not in sunburn but graffiti. She paced and shook her bony fist, cussing a blue streak. Afraid she might give herself a stroke, one of us summoned an ambulance. The paramedics had a hard time getting here, what with crowds swelling by the minute, but when they finally made it, they checked her vitals, cleaned off the graffiti (non-toxic, apparently), and gave her a Diazepam.
The rest of us were beside ourselves. As if the onslaught of tourists and locals wasn’t bad enough, word must’ve gotten around among the transients because they came out of the woodwork. We caught a whiff of them before they ever made themselves known, a mélange of charcoal smoke, unwashed armpits, and rot that brought tears to our eyes. A pair of them stumbled up, hair in tangles, clothes in tatters, black grime beneath their fingernails. They studied the enormous image for a long moment before one of them said, One time Old Town Hero gave me a brand-new pair of boots. A perfect fit! The other nodded. He once gave me half a pizza and let me sleep in his tent when I woulda froze to death. Saved my life, sure as I’m standin here.
Over the next few days, we heard all manner of implausible tales about Old Town Hero. To listen to those sluggards, that caped wonder routinely saved them from drowning and overdoses, unprovoked knife attacks and the awful charity of do-gooders. He provided them with hot coffee and cigarettes, warm meals and shelter from the rain. In their view, that unlikely superhero in saggy long johns could do no wrong. Although it was clear their idolatry was sincere, we didn’t believe a word they said. They were leeches and parasites and pariahs. We wanted to say, What are you contributing?, but couldn’t bear their stench long enough to gag out the words.
The tents popped up before nightfall. Dogs weren’t even allowed into Pearl Springs Park, as it was a natural wetland and bird sanctuary. We’d spearheaded Friends of Pearl Springs, tending to the fragile ecosystem since all the city landscapers were good for was mowing the grass. Yet now we had a bona fide hobo village crushing the hyacinths and asters. They’d erected their filthy hovels willy-nilly wherever they saw fit, on the grass, across the paving stones, right smack in the damn flowerbeds. A few of those squalid shelters drooped into the creek, and soiled sleeping bags, sweaters, and old newspapers flowed through the park and collected in the pond on the far side.
Disgusting, said Mrs. Clodo when she spotted the destruction. She clenched her fists and set her jaw, but before she could march across the street and give those ne’er-do-wells a piece of her mind, we blocked her path.
Not on your life, we said.
You’re no good to us if you get yourself, what’s it called, shivved.
That was before the loud music and reefer smoke. Before they hunted robins and mallards, squirrels and raccoons, barbecuing them over open flames in our park. Before the rusty vans and sputtering RVs showed up, parallel-parking right out in front of our building. Those vagrants screamed and ranted and yelled late into the night. They sang crazy campfire songs to out-of-tune guitar strumming into the wee hours. The pandemonium kept us up, watching at the windows, cradling pepper spray, baseball bats, and copper sauce pans.
Something had to be done.
Early the next day, Bill broke the bad news: both the Mayor and City Council had denied our request.
They won’t even take a meeting? we said. Who’s running this town?
Have they seen what we’re dealing with?
We meant the orgy-carnival of mayhem that’d invaded our neighborhood. In one short night, our quiet, pristine streets had become a disaster zone. Tents lined the sidewalks, bums sprawled in the gutters, the streets were littered with fast food wrappers, empty Rainier cans, and broken Johnnie Walker bottles. T-shirts and underwear were scattered across bushes and hung from the low limbs of alders and white oaks. None of us understood how anyone could live like that.
Did they have no sense of dignity and self-respect?
But we also meant Old Town Hero. By now, he’d expanded to cover the entire façade. None of us understood how. A group of activist-artists calling themselves Not Right! had claimed responsibility, but we knew it was simply opportunism. Despite our enhanced surveillance, we had witnessed exactly no one with spray cans or brushes or any other supplies in the immediate vicinity. A couple of us even poked around at nearby hardware stores, but none of the clerks reported anyone purchasing the volume of materials necessary to deface our building.
What sense did any of it make?
We assembled in the quiet of the courtyard that evening. Most of us kept mum, at a loss for words. We fiddled with glasses of rosé, but the sour taste in our mouths ruined the bouquet. From the park, a cacophony of out-of-tune guitars, insane soap-boxing, and wild cackling. We sat there, swirling our wine and chewing our lips. Then one of us said:
We call a press conference.
To what end?
We’d lost our slouches, sliding forward on our patio chairs.
Court of public opinion.
We mulled on that for a moment. From across the street, an uneven rhythm on cowbell and tambourine. A twangy banjo. A didgeridoo.
Anybody have contacts at the papers?
We nodded. If there was one thing we had, it was connections. It was time to bring out the big guns.
We made the calls we knew would summon the press to our doorstep. Trouble was, we couldn’t get anyone on the line. We hung up and dialed again, and when the outcome was the same, we left long-winded, impassioned messages. Out of all of us, only Mr. Racaille made contact with an old reporter friend.
She’s on her way, he proclaimed.
The news provided a measure of comfort.
The havoc only worsened as daylight fell again. More vans and RVs showed up, belching foul gray plumes, parking in loading zones, in front of fire hydrants, in handicapped spaces.
Hollow-eyed men juggled empty Jack Daniels bottles. Strung-out ex-cons built a huge bonfire in the middle of our park, then danced around it in a lunatic frenzy. A stilts-walker dressed up as Old Town Hero gyrated to a drum circle’s uneven rhythm. Illicit substances were sniffed and smoked, swallowed and injected. A fight broke out, followed by another. Firecrackers popped—or perhaps it was gunfire?
Most of us were up all night. We made repeated calls to the police but couldn’t scare up a response. Mr. Racaille’s reporter friend never showed up, and none of our other contacts at the news outlets even bothered returning our calls. So much for connections. So much for throwing our weight around.
While we never sleep much anyway, when dawn leaked through the blinds of our luxury condos, we scowled into our coffee. Some of us went back to bed or laid down on the sofa, a cold compress covering our eyes. We drew the curtains and closed the drapes. We stuffed in earplugs or played Rachmaninov on the hi-fi at a dull roar.
But then, later that morning, seven cruisers and a paddy wagon arrived on the scene. Took them long enough. Still, once they made their presence known, the officers issued citations and made arrests. Reminded us of the good old days. Soon an ambulance showed up, followed by another, though we didn’t bother inquiring what’d gone wrong. Whether by police car, ambulance, or hearse, we just wanted those layabouts gone.
We thanked the Chief with two boxes of Montecristos.
As the officers were leaving, the cleanup crew arrived with a pickup and a pair of tow trucks. They donned rubber gloves and face masks, then used shovels and pitchforks to scoop the detritus—tents, tarps, Jim Beam bottles—into the pickup’s bed. All the while, the tow trucks plied their trade. While the police had already run off most of the shabby vans and RVs, those that remained were hauled away to an impound lot. Our neighborhood was cleared in under two hours. A breeze off the river soon dispelled the fetid funk.
That afternoon, we celebrated on park-side balconies with hors d’oeuvres and Barolo.
Congratulations, we said.
Hip hip hurray, we said.
Huzzah, huzzah, we said.
We had reason to celebrate: we’d routed the great unwashed. And while we would have to remain vigilant, we now had the backing of the powers that be. The Mayor’s office and City Council had already issued separate press releases about the importance of restoring law and order—with specific reference to our neighborhood, the gem of the city. They simply couldn’t pass up the good publicity.
Despite all our positivity and good cheer, one nagging problem remained: Old Town Hero. He was still there, beaming his snaggled, cigarette-yellow grin down on us. We tried one commercial cleanup crew after another, offering exorbitant sums (to be gathered via special assessment) for whomever could scrub, scrape, prise, or otherwise remove that image from our building, our neighborhood, our lives.
No one made the least headway.
Even worse, he’d kept growing—through the degenerates’ festivities, through the arrests and cleanup and towing, through all our efforts to salvage our precious park. Over the course of a couple of days, Old Town Hero expanded across the sidewalk and bike lane, over the streetcar tracks, and right into the middle of the street. He made similar advances overhead. By now, we’d stopped puzzling about blame or mechanics, as we simply didn’t care anymore. All we wanted was for Old Town Hero to disappear. Forever.
As that deranged image inched its way across 11th Avenue and into the park, as it blotted out the summer sky, we couldn’t stop seeing Old Town Hero no matter where we were. He took our orders and bussed our tables, rang up our groceries and filled our gas tanks. We chalked the sightings up to stress and overwrought emotions and lack of sleep. While we locked ourselves inside and sat unmoving in the semi-darkness, Old Town Hero appeared on every wall. We gazed at our wan faces in the mirror, and Old Town Hero stared back at us, grinning. When we popped Doxepin and lay down on the sofa, who should we see in our private darkness but Old Town Hero?
Although it took us a while to come to grips with it, we had to get out. It was the only way. Ms. Flemmarde was the first to sell, and the rest of us tumbled like teeth from rotten gums. After everything that’d happened, no one—meaning no one of our ilk—was buying. Our neighborhood’s reputation had changed. By now, Old Town Hero’s feet were firmly planted in our azaleas, and he graced the façade of every building surrounding the park. His deranged grin filled the cloudless summer sky. Naturally, prices fell and fell, settling well below taxed value. Still, most of us went on the market. What choice did we have?
We sold to a bunch of liberal bohemian schlubs. Who else would invest in a neighborhood besieged by the image of a demented super hero for the homeless? Hippy girls with flowers in their hair, young men with beards and tattoos, skinny androgynous types with dreadlocks. Soon we had dirty musicians playing jangly rhythms late into the night and unshaven poets brooding in the courtyard. Every hallway stank of patchouli and reefer smoke, and empty Gallo wine jugs piled up in the hallways. They were alarmingly friendly, inviting us to their armpit-stinking soirées. We begged off with polite excuses. Their presence only drove prices down further.
We signed the paperwork, grimacing at our losses.
We relocated to farmhouses on the Kansas prairie and ranch houses on the Texas plains, log cabins in the Montana wilderness and Modernist marvels on the coast of Southern California. The more adventuresome among us bought luxury yachts and sailed across the Pacific to beach houses in far-flung places like Fiji and Bora Bora. A few of us even lost our resolve, donating generous sums to homeless shelters, soup kitchens, and rescue missions. But it was all for naught. No matter how far we went, no matter how much we gave, it did nothing to distance us from what we’d experienced. He was threshing wheat and herding cattle, felling trees and surfing swell. He mingled with the natives, served our umbrella drinks, scaled palms to machete down coconuts. It didn’t matter where we went or what we did, every time we lay down and closed our eyes, Old Town Hero was there.
J. T. Townley has published in Harvard Review, The Kenyon Review, The Threepenny Review, and dozens of other magazines and journals. His stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize (three times) and Best of the Net award. He holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of British Columbia and an MPhil in English from the University of Oxford, and he teaches at Pacific Northwest College of Art at Willamette University. To learn more, visit jttownley.com.