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 ahead.

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 war.

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.










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