I had seen Jeff with his five-year-old buddy around the neighbourhood a few times before I ever talked to them.One time he was patiently helping the boy get the hang of a bicycle, and another time they were poking around the sides of the bike path looking for interesting things that had been left there as trash.
The day I finally stopped and talked with them, they were heading to a playground so the boy—I’ll call him Daniel—could fly a paper kite he had made. Both of them were wearing cowboy hats.
Jeff explained that he isn’t related to Daniel.
“I used to go out with his mum, and his real father ain’t around,” he said. “I’m the only male figure he has in his life.”
Jeff said he’s had a lot of time to spend with Daniel over the past year because he’s been unemployed.
“I’m 54 years old, and this is the first time I’ve been out of work,” he said.
In the past, Jeff said, he’s worked a lot of different jobs. He was a mechanic for a small town near Nashua for a while, and then he ran his own business.
At one point he worked for a travelling carnival, fixing the trucks and the rides as they went from town to town. When he told me that, I had to ask about the safety of carnival rides, which always seems questionable to me. He told me they actually have fewer accidents than amusement park rides because they have to be inspected by an engineer every time they move.
Jeff said he wrote songs about his time on the road—he plays a few different instruments, he said—but he’s not interested in travelling any more. He’d like to find a job locally, but it’s hard, both because of the economy and because he lost his licence thanks to a DWI. He said it’s almost impossible to work as a mechanic if you don’t have a licence.
Jeff lost his apartment in March, when he’d been out of work for a few months and couldn’t pay the rent anymore. He’s a veteran, so he’s been able to get help through the VA, and he’s now living in transitional housing through a two-year program.
He’s not sure what he wants to do next. He could go back to school with help from the VA, he said. He’s 13 credits short of a degree in electronics. But he’s not sure he wants to do that. Mostly, he just wants to find a job that will last him the 10 or 12 years until he can retire.
“I just want to find something I can get into, some tiny niche,” he said.
Jeff has six grandchildren living nearby in Manchester. He doesn’t see them as often as he’d like to, he said, but he gets along with them, and with his two adult children.
He had two other children who died. One was murdered about eight years ago, when he was 21. The other died of SIDS at eight months old.
“I have nightmares,” he said.
The VA has helped him get medication to help him sleep. In the past he’d been wary of using that kind of drug, but lately he’s been having enough trouble that he decided to give it a try.
“So far it ain’t working, but I just started it,” he said.
While we talked, Daniel found a Christmas tree that had been discarded by the edge of the playground and begged Jeff to bring it back to his apartment. Jeff noted that the boy’s mother probably wouldn’t be thrilled at that idea, but he suggested he try to drag it back himself.
Jeff said one time Daniel found a piece of lumber almost as big as himself in Mine Falls Park and pulled it all the way back home. Daniel likes one particular spot in Mine Falls where he can dig in the dirt, Jeff said. He said the two of them go all kinds of places. Over the summer they visited a fish hatchery a bunch of times, and there’s a lake they like to go to too.
“Every park in the city,” Jeff said. “We just go. I usually let him decide.”
Jeff said for a while they rode together on a bicycle that he had fixed up with two seats, but someone stole it recently. That might be a good thing, though, he said. He gave Daniel his own bike a while back, but the boy didn’t want to learn to ride at first. Now losing the double-seater has forced him to try it again.
Jeff said he likes taking Daniel around because the boy’s mother is disabled and can’t get out with him much. But he said that’s not the only reason he does it.
“He helps me more than I help him,” he said.