The policewoman pulled off her radio headset and glanced at the pudgy detective who leaned against a counter in the Laurel City police station, toying with a pair of handcuffs dangling from his hip.
"I don't know, Jack," she sighed. "We have lots of room back there in jail, but . . ."
"Well," the detective answered, smiling and turning to me. "You say you're hitchhiking your way south, right?"
"Right. I don't have any money and just want to say in an extra cell here, if I can," I replied. "Just until first light."
"There's a group called Laurel Help," the dispatcher offered, as the radio crackled behind her. "They might be able to do something."
"Nah, they're just for fires, stuff like that. You see, there really isn't much for ya' round these parts.Can't let you stay in jail because you haven't broken any law," the detective concluded. "We usta let bums sleep it off back there, but a freak tried to set the place on fire a couple of years back, and city hall told us not to do it no more.
"Best I can do," he said, "is let you sit in here to warm up an hour or so, then you gotta go."
The temperature was 21 degrees outside when I arrived that night at the city hall-jail complex in Laurel, stationed off Main Street at the very northern tip of Prince George's County. I hitchhiked there after spending three weeks as a homeless derelict in Baltimore, and when I arrived I knew I was in trouble.
Suburbia was a no-man's-land for the down and out. In Baltimore, my legs were invaluable because they got me around to the blood banks, soup kitchens, libraries and labor pools where I could eat or kill a day and still get back in time to spend a night at the mission. There were, in other words, basic necessities for survival a derelict could count on in the city.
The suburbs, especially the twilight zone of fast foods, road signs and neon marquees along Rte. 1 in Laurel, were another matter entirely. This was no place for a mission or soup kitchen and in the winter, at least, no place for an indigent soul who considered his legs his greatest asset.
As soon as I got to Laurel I remembered something Country Slim, a Baltimore mission friend, once said about such places. "Looky here," he said, "if'n I was caught somewheres in the sticks with nothin but the shoes on my feet, I'd go to that boss man in jail and tell that sucker I needed me a place to sleep.
"I'm proud," he said, "but not that proud."
So I ended up here in the drab entryway of Laurel city police headquarters, discussing alternatives with this detective, who wore a blue cardigan sweater and beamed a constant but inscrutable smile.
"Well, if I can't stay in jail, can you think of anywhere else round here?"
The detective grunted, thought a moment, then said: "Try going down Main Street a few blocks until you get to Seventh Street. Turn right there and you'll see a bridge going over the river. If you sneak down there underneath you might find a pillar or something to snuggle up against."
He went back into a back room, the dispatcher went back to her radio, and I slouched down in a plastic chair in front of a steaming radiator.I awakened shortely before midnight, after the shifts had changed, when a different dispatcher clapped his hands and hollered, "Time's up!"
The wind hurled bits of ice and dead leaves into the air as I wandered toward the bridge the detective told me about. The Seventh Street Bridge carried Route 216 across the Patuxent River, which was frozen about fifty yards below the span. I slowly made my way through crabgrass and darkness to the underside of the concrete bridge. It was a 45-degree decline to the river bed.
I hung on to the underside of the span and wedged myself in between the bridge and a concrete post, but I soon found that the protection didn't matter in the slightest. The wind swirled here beneath the bridge, and the cold was brutal. So much for that idea.
I trudged back to Route 1 and, fortunately, discovered a 24-hour Little Tavern. There I met one Maxwell Ralls Moffett, a self-proclaimed former relief pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals and expert in suburban survival. He helped me bear that night in the cold.
Max understood certain facets of suburban living that most folks wouldn't think about. For example, when the temperature dipped below 30 degrees at night, he knew he couldn't sleep in his broken-down Chevy in the parking lot behind the Laurel diner, because that was the cutoff between barely bearable and unbearable cold, no matter how much booze or blankets he had for protection.
He also understood that the graveyard shift of workers at the nearby Howard Johnson's featured a sympathetic crew who would sell him a $1.50 pitcher of coffee for 15 cents and let him nod off in the bathroom there, so long as he wasn't too indiscreet about it.
Those were only two of the lessons Max taught me that night in Laurel, but it was his companionship I appreciated more.
Max was a slender, slightly balding little man of 47, draped in a faded black turtleneck, plaid pants and an old wool coat given him by the Little Tavern's toothless cook. Two weeks back his car broke down in the diner parking lot. Stranded, he became the one and only street bum of Laurel.
His story was that he was on his way from a New York race track, heading for some obscure insulation job in Gaithersburg, when he stopped here for a quick liquor fix and couldn't get his jalopy going again. He was born in Warrenton, Va., and spent most of his childhood growing up between there and Washington. His parents died when he was young, so he was reared on a Warrenton farm. School teachers told him he had a speech defect, and he was sent away to a special school in Washington.
"Hey," he said, jabbing me in the ribs, "they didn't know I just talked slow, you know what I mean?"
Max was broke, "flatter'n an iron'n board," he drawled, but when I met him he was eating hamburger and sipping soup, courtesty of a night owl who popped in for a cup of coffee at the Little Tavern and felt sorry for him. "Little Tavern's done save me from meeting the Head Maker quite a few times," he said with a contented smile, "if you catch my meanin'."
When he finished, we braced ourselves against the night wind and crossed the street to Howard Johnson's where two bored-looking waiters served us a pitcher of coffee amid strains of "Nadia's Theme" on the Muzak.This night went quickly, as Max and I talked baseball in between snoozing sessions in the nearby washroom.
"All you gotta do," he told me, "is avoid bringin' 'tention to yourself. Go back there real quiet to the stall and stand against the wall facing the toilet like you're (urinating). You can stand like that and sleep a good sleep for an hour or so.
"Then," he went on, "sit down on the toilet and sleep that way, know what I mean? You're either doin' one thing or the other, but don't do one thing all the time or you're liable to mess it up for the both of us."
Max was a drunk, and that night had a hangover. He sipped glass after glass of water to clean his system out. Earlier that day he'd run into a man who bought several shots of whiskey for him, a drink that didn't sit well with his stomach. But the gentleman was kind and decent, not like some others off whom he'd bummed drinks, who would grudgingly throw a little change his way and then turn around and tell him to drink in silence.
He cradled the water between two dirty but delicate hands -- hands so tender they appeard effeminate -- and sometimes pulled out a thick magnifying glass to read celebrity gossip and the latest ball scores in a leftover evening newspaper.
Whenever I asked him about baseball Max smiled a delightful browntoothed smile. "I never threw fastballs. I'm too small, know what I mean? I'd just stand there on the mound and lean down and look 'em right in the eye and toss a few changeups and sliders."
Max said he started his career in the minor leagues, in Bluefield, W.Va., then moved up to Vero Beach and St. Petersburg in the Florida League. St. Pete was a farm club of the Cardinals then, he declared, and there he got his big tryout.
"Ol Augie Busch loved me," he grinned. "Loved the heck outta Southern boys. So did Red Schoendienst. He was the coach, you know. Whenever I got in trouble up there on the mound, he'd walk over and look me dead in the eye and say, 'Do what you're getting paid for, kid.'"
He told endless, fascinating tales of the dugout and ball diamond, of Sandy Koufax, Curt Flood, Stan Musial and Joe Torre. He told this story, the highlight of his career, standing up, leaning over the Howard Johnson's booth with a salt shaker behind his back as though he was waiting for the catcher's sign.
"We're in Los Angeles, right. It's the bottom of the ninth and we're ahead 5 to 4. The crowd's roaring right, and Ol' Wes Parker got up there and took a few practice swings and looked at me like I was nothin'." he said, wide-eyed with excitement. "I wind up and throw this lazy curve way outside. The crowd's really roaring now! So I wind up real hard and throw like I'm tryin to throw the fastest stuff I got 'cept it's a changeup." t
"Ol Parker swung so hard the flag waved and he hit this sky pop to Brock and that was it."
At about three that morning Max stumbled into the bathroom and awakened me from an uneasy rest on the toilet seat. He wanted to show me his car. It was an old rusty blue 1965 Chevy lodged in a concrete lot between a roadside diner and motel across from the Little Tavern. The transmission was shot and the car had been idled here for two weeks.
The sun visors were attached to the tattered interior ceiling by masking tape, and the upholstery was so shot the springs popped through. In the back Max kept bundles of old clothes, including a wrinkled black top hat, blankets and empty bottles that still emitted old odors of booze. Still, Max was proud of that car, and boasted that he purchased it from the sheriff of Calvert County for a pittance. It was his home, he said, and just about his best friend in the world, and he wasn't leaving Laurel until it was fixed. h
"Stretch out in the back there, go 'head," said Max. "I'll take the front. You an ol' D.C. boy, huh? Shoot, what you talking bout. I know all there is about D.C. -- Casino Royale, Silver Slipper, 14th, 13th, K, all round there."
"Wheeeeeewwweee! Hey! Been 10 years since I been to D.C."
Just then two figures, a man and woman, staggered out of the diner and collapsed against Max's car, and he suddenly became irate. He sat up in the front seat, waved his arms and shouted, "This is my car! Hey, this is my car!"
After the suddenly sobered couple stumbed into the darkness, Max fell asleep in the seat, occasionally mumbling semiconscious remembrances of Washington show bars. Then, shortly after sunup, the cold drove us both out of the car and, in passing, I told Max about the smiling detective and the bridge over the Patuxent River, and how cold it was out there the previous night.
"You mean, you didn't see the hole?" he stammered. "Man, you musta stepped all over it."
I asked Max to direct me to this hole, and so we walked back up Main Street, past the Post Office and City Hall, and turned down Seventh Street to the bridge I had left six hours earlier. We moved through the brush alongside the bridge and Max pointed excitedly, "Here!"
About five feet from the spot where I attempted to spend the night was a work of architectural genius. There, carved out of the 45-degree decline of frozen earth, was a cave-like space seven feet deep, five feet across and nearly three feet high. According to locals, this mini-cave was dug by children several years ago. In the summertime it belonged to them, but in the winter it belonged to the poor luckless souls who found themselves trapped in this section of the boondocks with nowhere else to go.
"It ain't much good when it's too cold out," Max smiled, brown-teeth glistening. "But, hey! It's a good thing to know about, huh?"
Max had been caught in no-man's land for about two weeks. He was broke, and his car was busted, but he knew what it took to get by, how to sleep in Howard Johnson's rest room without bringing much attention to himself; how to sit in the Little Tavern and get a meal or two from strangers; and where to go, when all else failed and he didn't mind wedging his slender body between walls of frozen dirt just as long as it was a bit warmer than the dark outdoors.
Most important Max had a gift so common among the down and out -- that faint but alive sense of optimism. He somehow recognized that this suburban purgatory -- like all others -- was only temporary. The pension from major league baseball would come, or the welfare check would come, sooner or later. Then the car would be fixed and Max would be off again to the race track or the insulation job in Gaithersburg, or maybe even down to the show bars of D.C.
Several weeks later, after this assignment was finished, I pored over old baseball directories and digests in search of Max's name. Although I never found him mentioned in any of the texts, my respect for him was not diminished in the slightest.
I left Max and later one afternoon arrived in Bethesda, at a Montgomery County police substation, where I asked for overnight lodging. After running my name through a computer, a policeman referred me to a clinic off Old Georgetown Road known as the Montgomery County Crisis Center.
The anteroom there was filled with modern chairs, carpeting, magazines such as "Home Beautiful" and "Psychology Today," and many hearty house plants. A social worker, counseling a badly beaten young housewife, looked up and said she'd be with me in a moment. Then a young man, sporting long brown hair and a beard, appeared from behind the door, slapped me on the shoulder and told me to call him Carl.
"Don't tell anyone," he whispered, "But my real name's Jesus."