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You Can Make It Up: A Homeless Man With No Discernible Skills Becomes A Viral Sensation

By Gabe Delahaye / January 6, 2011 - 5:45 pm

Pinto Pete, who had gotten his nickname years ago while riding the rails because he refused to eat pinto beans even if that was the only type of beans available, could hardly believe his luck. Here he sat on the Today show couch surrounded by these shiny people who smelled great, and he was wearing a brand new sweater over a brand new shirt with brand new pants and everything, and he didn’t smell so bad himself if he could be so bold as to say such a thing. To think that just a few days earlier he had been sleeping under a tarp tied between a rotted out tree trunk and a burned out Chevy, picking at scabs on his shins to pass the time. The shiny people with their hair and their teeth looked at him with these eyes that just seemed to take everything from inside of him and make it their own. How did they do that? Like magnets, they were. Human magnets. Were all people like this? Pinto Pete didn’t think so, but it had been awhile since he’d been in “polite society,” so to speak. Perhaps there was something in drinking water now that made you almost painfully charming. A medicine that made other people want to cower in the shadows but also warm at the same time, as your beaming face just pushed and pulled them, as these glowing faces pushed and pulled Pinto Pete now. He didn’t want to think about it too much because sometimes when you thought about things too much they went away, and Pinto Pete wanted to stay on this couch forever. He could live on this couch. It beat where he’d been living before heh heh. Whoops. Pinto Pete realized that the woman with the makeup and the fresh skin was asking him something. “What’s that?”

“Can you believe all the attention you’ve been getting lately? It’s really incredible.”

“Nope,” Pinto Pete said, and then clammed right back up. Like thinking, talking too much also had the habit of making good things be nothing at all.

He had spoken true, though. Pinto Pete could not believe the attention he’d been getting lately. It was really incredible. It had all started when a young woman with a video camera walked up to him on the street where he usually sat for up to 12 hours at a time asking passersby for change and asked him to say something for the camera. “Like what?” he had asked, his voice a little creaky from disuse.

“That’s amazing,” the young woman had said. She asked him to tell her his life story, and Pinto Pete got some of it out, mental illness, a brief stint in a low-security prison, but there wasn’t much to tell, so mostly he just didn’t tell it. She thanked him, handed him a dollar, and walked away.

Pinto Pete didn’t know what was so amazing about anything. There were ants in his pocket and he didn’t even care, that’s where he was at. It wasn’t that he’d given up hope that maybe someday the world would recognize his inherent humanity and allow him to live his life the way other people seemed to so easily live theirs: with dignity, and food, and sleep. Normal people, he figured, didn’t get woken up three times every night with Old Beard trying to steal their radio while they were sleeping on pillow made from rain-soaked newspapers and a child’s t-shirt. They also ate their food off of real plates, probably, not just out of the cans in which the food came, or the wrappers in which the food had been casually tossed away. Sometimes Pinto Pete was handed a bag of leftovers by someone and it was just like, the fuck I’mma do with this? Pinto Pete preferred money, thank you very much.

Two days later he’s on the Today show. He had an offer from a Chicago television station to present sports news even though he hadn’t followed sports in years, had dropped out of high school his junior year, and over the years his nose had been broken seven times so that it was now a zig-zagging lump on his splotchy, sun-crisped face. Also, a woman had offered him a rent-free apartment for a year in Florida after hearing his “story” on the news. How he was supposed to live in Florida and work in Chicago he did not know and why people were doing these things for him was even more confusing still, so mostly he just kept quiet.

“Well thank you for sharing your amazing journey with us, Peter,” the shiny man said in his wonderful suit. “I think I can speak on behalf of all of America when I say that everyone is pulling for you, and best of luck with everything.” Pinto Pete wasn’t sure what to do with his hands, so he ran them through his neatly cropped hair. Dragged his fingers slowly across his recently shaven chin. He felt OK!

Then, with a shudder, Pinto Pete woke up in a library bathroom. It had all just been a dream.