Did you ever have a night where you just felt down? No really good reason, just…down. I was feeling that way tonight, as I headed out to get some creamer from the convenience store, and maybe a Mocha Frappe from the health food store known as Mickey D’s. I’m not telling this story to talk about me, because I know darn near everyone here that reads this has done the same kind of thing. I’m telling you about the people that live among us, that every one ignores, looks away from, you know – the invisible ones.
I saw a man pushing a shopping cart, you know the type I mean. Thin. Clothes too big. A little jumpy. I watched him from the convenience store as he headed into the parking lot of the ‘health food store’. He sat down at an outside table, lit a cigarette butt, and opened a bottle of water. As I pulled in, I looked in his cart, because the line was long. Some plastic bags. A backpack. Sheets of plastic for sleeping under. How dare I feel down. What the hell was wrong with me? So I motioned him over, asked if he’d eaten tonight. “No ma’am, not today at all,” he replied. I asked what he’d like. Two burgers. That’s all he asked for. $ 3.30 of expense. I asked about a drink. He said he had water. I insisted. He’d take a Coke, please (yes, he said please). I thought about my little pity party that I was having less than fifteen minutes before. I thought about this man. I thought about the weird things that happen when you least expect them.
I paid for my order, got a separate bag so he could have his own, and drove back around to the other side. You’ll have to forgive me, because I’m a little weepy after this encounter. When I came back around, he had a bag in his hand. I handed him his food, and he handed me this wet plastic bag. He said “You gave me something; friends give back.” It was a bag of greeting cards with envelopes. “I can’t mail anything, and the envelopes will keep getting wet in this rain and be ruined. I bet you can use them.” I was, well, humbled. So I asked him his name, gave him a pack of cigarettes, and we chatted a bit. He’s a Vietnam vet, a Marine, homeless. He does odd jobs and lives in a wood lot behind the Subway. Gets his health care from the local V.A. – Prozac, Cinaquil (?) and something else. He’s got two sons serving over in the Middle East right now. He was clean, for a homeless guy. I carry a lot of odd things in the car, as I meet folks like this from time to time. I always carry a bug-out bag too. I had a tent that someone else had given me, and I already have two tents. So I gave that to him, and my sleeping mat. I am pretty sure I can get another one before I go camping next time. Some waterproof matches. Some soap. Some disposable razors. Dennis talked to me this entire time, very articulate for a guy who lost his lower plate. He talked about ‘Nam, and his dishonorable discharge, because he learned to like killing while he was there, and that it has taken him a long time to get over that. He has seen a lot of VA doctors. He talked about being a good carpenter before he was attacked during a riot in ’01. His fingers are all broken and smashed; one is half gone. He has a huge dent in his forehead where he was clubbed with a hammer. He talks politics, religion, and finance. I asked if there was anything else he needed. Some peroxide please, for keeping his gums clean. Deodorant. When I gave him the other things, he felt he needed to exchange something else. He had a cigarette package full of utility knife blades. Asked me if I had a utility knife – yep, I do. “Here,” he said. “I only use them when I detail cars, and one blade lasts me a long time. I’ll give you 2/3rds of them, because they won’t rust with you.”
So I have a list of supplies, and a date tomorrow with a homeless man. I asked only that he would allow me to interview him, and photograph him, in exchange. He thought a minute, and said okay. Tune in tomorrow, for Dennis’ story.
Labels. Drop them. Meet a fellow human being with no preconceived ideas. Yes, he could be dangerous, as the mentally ill sometimes are. He could be a lying sack of shit that’s on meth. But for me, he was a mirror. We never know where life will take us. If I am ever he, I hope someone treats me with dignity and trust. I’ll trust the Big Guy upstairs with my safety. He’s not let me down yet.
Look around. There are opportunities to be human everywhere. I don’t believe in heaven, or hell. I believe in this life, in today. It’s all I have.