Kevin Smith claims to be the poorest guy hanging out in the 1200 block of Third Avenue Sunday evening—and he’s probably right—but, with his lit cigarette, he’s also the only one visibly in possession of smokes. A guy who looks like he could afford his own pack walks up and asks Smith for a cigarette in exchange for whatever’s in his pocket. Smith hands over his bag of tobacco and a pack of rolling paper and gets 16 cents in return.
“Of all these people with their fancy cars, you ask me?” Smith laments, gesturing to the well-dressed folks parking and making their way over to the Civic Theater to see The Nutcracker.
“Poorest, but probably one of the coolest,” Smith’s new friend says before lighting his bummed cigarette and walking away.
Smith, who’ll be 50 next June, was born in Boston. When he was 2, his father, a Michigan native, decided he’d had enough of East Coast attitudes and moved his family to Flint—the town that’s the focus of Michael Moore’s 1989 documentary Roger & Me, a film that looked at how the collapse of the auto industry affected the town’s residents. Flint was “a gloomy place,” Smith says. His mother died when he was 13, and by 17, he was ready to get out of town. The military seemed like the way to go.
Spend even a few minutes with Smith and it’s obvious that rules and convention aren’t his thing. A few weeks into boot camp, he knew he’d made the wrong choice. He managed to fail a physical and got out with an honorable discharge. He moved to California in 1979 and for many years made a living working low-skill jobs. He’s a smart guy who can talk as easily about presidential politics as he can about early Roman history, but alcoholism is what got him to where he is now. He has a 40-ouncer tucked between two backpacks, from which he occasionally takes a swig.
A year ago, he decided to quit drinking—“to get off the street, to get healthy,” he says. He entered a recovery program at the San Diego Rescue Mission, gave up alcohol and took a job at the Rescue Mission’s warehouse, but after five months he’d had enough of the program’s religious foundation. “Couldn’t fucking do it,” he said. He regrets leaving the program, although he doesn’t much like the thought of giving it another go. But he’s not happy with where he is.
“I’d rather be dead than accept this as all-good,” he says. “I gotta change this pattern ’cause it’s not doing me well.”