AYER -- "Don't mind me," says the homeless man who will only identify himself as "Stretch."
In September, the 49-year-old New Jersey native found himself in the vortex of a selectmen's debate over whether there is a homeless problem in Ayer.
Stretch reached into his coat, took out a can, and packed a pinch of chewing tobacco between his lower lip and gums. The temperatures that Saturday afternoon were in the mid 20s.
We sat on the shaded bench, located in the brick shelter across Main Street from Ayer Town Hall. Stretch shivered despite the fact that his 6-foot, 5-inch frame was bundled from head-to-toe.
Some call the open-air shelter a bus stop, others refer to it as a sitting shed. Townies recall when that area of the sidewalk had a staircase opening down to an underground tunnel beneath the nearby train tracks, providing pedestrian access between Main and Faulkner Streets.
But to the lifelong New York Mets fan, Stretch has dubbed himself and the building "the man in the dugout."
The second youngest of 11 kids, Stretch grew up in Hyde Park, N.J., before moving to Massachusetts at age 18. "I was going to go to college but I had a job making good money."
After 18 years of marriage, Stretch's marriage ended in divorce in 2003 and the sale of his Westford home after he lost his $60,000 per year special medical supply delivery job. "I've made mistakes," said Stretch, who admitted to drinking in the wake of the divorce.
Stretch cherishes his two children -- a son serving in the Army in Hawaii and a daughter who is a nurse in Worcester.
His children know his plight. "My son and daughter came right down" when Stretch was hospitalized with 43 staples across his forehead following a serious motor-vehicle accident. Though the relationship with his daughter is strained, Stretch's eyes watered when he said, "She still loves me. She tells me all the time."
Stretch lived in a Chelmsford mobile home until he couldn't cover his share of the rent. "I didn't really care about my job anymore," said Stretch. "I wish I would of, but I didn't."
Stretch moved to Ayer and worked several local jobs but none lasted. In April, Stretch was ejected from a downtown tenement when "my landlord decided to kick somebody out who was trying to pay the rent instead of someone who had no chance of paying the rent."
That's when Stretch began living on the streets of Ayer. It's a situation he hopes to turn around before winter sets in.
Stretch said Ayer patrolmen check on his welfare as he sits in the dugout. "The cops in town here are very, very good about that."
A patrol car and an ambulance race by. "I know all the sirens," said Stretch. "Sit here long enough and I know all the sirens. I know Lunenburg, I know Devens..."
"There are alot of people who are homeless and who want to stay that way because they don't want any help," said Stretch. "I, on the other hand, don't want to be this way."
"I don't like my situation, but I deal with it. I have no money coming in," said Stretch. "I'm trying to do the best I can to survive."
He's shies away from staying with friends. "You wear out your welcome. It's the best way to lose a friend."
Stretch said he'd learned the selectmen launched into a discussion at a September meeting about the "gentleman sleeping on a bench" and fears that his presence may dissuade business owners from opening shops downtown.
There was also talk that some homeless block storefronts. "They're not," said Stretch. "I walk up and down the street all day and at night and I don't see anybody doing it."
A selectman also reported that the homeless peer through the windows and watch patrons eat at a downtown restaurant.
"Granted, there is a person sitting at 31 Main now, but I don't see anybody doing anything," said Stretch. "I know pretty much all the businesses up and down this street and most of them have no problem with me."
"They should be glad that I'm sitting out here because I'm watching their businesses," said Stretch. "If someone is messing with it, I would pick up my cellphone and call the cops and then wait for the cops to show up."
Ayer Police Chief William Murray advised selectmen that Ayer has always had a homeless population and that, by and large, the homeless "are not doing anything wrong. They're not asking for help and we're not forcing that help on them." Murray advised that anti-loitering laws are generally struck down as unconstitutional.
"If the homeless were causing a problem around town, then I can see them taking action," agreed Stretch. "But most of the people that I know don't cause any problems for anybody. We just go about our business. We survive in the best way we can. And if they don't like it, tough."
"I'm a God-fearing person," said Stretch. "If I didn't have God by my side, I don't think I'd still be alive."
Stretch spoke highly of Reverend Steven Wells of the Apple Valley Baptist Church on Newton Street for driving forward a mission of care for the town's hungry. Stretch states he frequently partakes of the church's "God's Kitchen" hot meals served on Mondays and Fridays from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m.
Despite becoming the subject of selectmen scrutiny, Stretch finds Ayer to be a friendly town.
A passerby noticed Stretch's Giants cap and returned to give him a Giants stadium blanket. "He said his wife didn't like it. It keeps me warm."
A woman from the courthouse gave Stretch the heavy winter jacket he wears. "I used to do community service there. They gave me everything," said Stretch. "I said 'Guys, you have to stop because I don't have any place to put it.'" Stretch said Rev. Wells has advised him "if somebody offers you something, take it."
Another Ayer friend lets him shower and launder his clothes. "There's a lot of good people in this town. Whenever I'm down in the dumps and I have nothing to go with, somebody shows up and they either hand me money or food and I appreciate all of what they do for me."
"I never thought it would be me, but I'm not ashamed of it. I take it for what it is," said Stretch of his current state. "I think God's on my side and he'll take care of me and I don't have any problems with that. I'm hoping things change. But until they do, I've got to deal with what I have to deal with."
"If anybody's got a problem with me sitting here on this bench, all I have to say to them is call me up and give me a place to stay," said Stretch. "I'll be more than happy to move on, but considering this is all I've got, this is all I've got."