Mac in the Box: Patrick Pearse
The first thing that should be understood about Mac is
not that he lived in a box behind a restaurant on the Tottenham
Court Road, which he did, inviting innumerable tired attempts
at wit. The first thing to be understood about Mac is that
he saw himself as a man of dignity. He was a man of pride.
Chance had sent a lot of hard knocks his way- some of the
finest in the arsenal. But he never showed any of the scars.
He was the kind of Tommy that sat out all those V2's, courtesy
of Hitler and never batted an eye. Self-pity is a luxury
for children in a world like that.
I used to see him all the time flitting back and forth across
Tottenham Court Road. Thin as hell. He had a hawk face and
an aquiline nose, in a sense of that term before Sherlock
Holmes was given custody of it. He was bird-like but everything
he knew was down to the ground. Down to the second. Down
to his last hay penny. Down the pub. Down the street. Up
the street. In a hurry. Mac spent every waking hour in a
hurry. He had to be. He had his health to earn everyday
and if he was lucky, a little bit more. Besides that, the
drug squad was forever trudging up one side of the street
and down the other, never once realizing what a ridiculous
spectacle they made of themselves. Five full grown athletic
types, preposterously healthy, wore clothes as calculatedly
casual as a uniform. Goodge St. station and back again.
Over and over. They must not have wanted to bother anybody
too much but you had to keep a lazy eye out if only to avoid
the humiliation of being nicked by such a contradictory
gang of underachievers. At a glance, Mac seemed to be something
like an errand boy, a runner. In reality he was an intimate
middleman for chippers who either didn't know who to see
or couldn't get away to see them. This is, by its nature,
a very precarious existence. Not everyday would be successful.
By midday without a wake-up, Mac would begin to slow down.
Around six, when the shopkeepers had started closing and
the drug squad left off surveying the pubs and became real
customers, he would drag himself back to his refrigerator
box, sweat through a rough night and hope for a better day
Two bad days in a row would begin a sickness punctual in
its arrival and unendurable in its severity. Three days
once had meant the hospital and his estranged wife, his
frightened children and a degree of humiliation to match
his illness. There were all the usual tedious promises and
then escape at the very first opportunity. Your dignity
is what they want from you first and it was the last thing
Mac wanted to give.
T. and I met Mac through a Scot named Reb. I could rarely
ever understand a word he said and he had some pretty awful
sores on his leg, but he never beat anybody that I knew
of and certainly we would have been easy targets, coming
from out of town. Reb used to talk cheerfully about the
day he would have to have his leg taken off and all the
ramifications of that infirmity. It sounded more like he
was considering a change of an address rather than losing
a limb. That kind of bravado can come off as something admirable,
but in Reb it was mixed with such a meager helping of intelligence
that it was difficult to know whether he truly had a fair
idea of what amputation consisted of. For whatever reason,
one evening, he hadn't the time to make a run for us and
declined our usual five pounds for a five-minute walk. This
was an extremely generous arrangement and Reb must have
had something very enticing to give it up. But give it up,
he did. He was loathe to leave us totally and introduced
us to Mac, whom we had often seen speeding around Soho and
down Tottenham Court Road. I suspect that Reb had intended
this arrangement as a kind of stopgap expediency for just
the one evening. Alas, Mac proved to be so much more reliable,
capable and friendly that we had little use for Reb after
that and he drifted into the peripheral line of our sight.
After a little while, T. and I got to know Mac a little
better. He took us to his home, the box. He showed us inside
and the things he had collected. There were only a few things.
A blanket or two rolled out to form a bed. A gallon bottle
of purified water. A comb and a razor were placed next to
a small mirror. His works. A photograph and a magazine he
had been reading. Nothing else. No food because of the rats.
Everything that he did have was laid out neatly and with
care. Mac was proud to show us his home. He pointed to his
magazine, open to the article which he had been reading.
He believed us to be intelligent and was anxious that we
see him in the same light. He explained how a literate man
might continue his reading in spite of his poverty and homelessness.
When he had finished his brief tour, he pointed casually
to the bottle of purified water and we both knew the history
of suffering it represented. He knew that I had surely already
seen it and realized what it meant, but I guess he wanted
me to know he wasn't hiding anything. He was putting everything
out for inspection, an old soldier still fighting the same
The second last time I saw Mac, I gave him a few things
I didn't need. There were some articles of clothing including
a shirt, military green with one giant red stripe across
the front. It was hard to miss. The last time I saw him,
he was wearing it.
I was able to go back to Soho years later and then again
a couple of years after that, but I could never find Mac.
Maybe he relocated. Maybe the hospital finally got him.
I would like to think Mac is still above ground, but I guess
it would surprise me more than a little if he were.