Today, I needed to clear the final recall notice on my faithful Ram pickup. So of course, as is my habit, after dropping the truck off at the dealers I went to talk to the homeless folks. I’ve written about this curious habit of mine in previous posts entitled “Fixing The Brakes“, “Fixing The EGR“, and “The Walking Wounded“.
So I drifted over to a nearby store, and I bought a pack of smokes and a couple of Clif Bars to give away. The first person I ran into was a man named Mack that I wrote about in my most recent post on the subject, “The Walking Wounded”. At that time he was with his girlfriend of eight years, Amy. I walked up and sat down beside him. Like last time, he was drinking beer out of a coke bottle, can’t drink alcohol in public in California. His first words? He asked me if I had a smoke.
I said “Yeah, I got a smoke, in fact I’ve got five smokes for you.”
“Can’t take ’em, that’s too many”, he said. “You have to”, I said … “it’s a requirement.”
He laughed and said “Man, that sounds like when I went in the Army. They asked us what we wanted for a haircut. I said, ‘Take a little off the sides’. They shaved us all bald.”
I asked how he was doing. He said good, but he’d broken up with his girlfriend because she’d gotten back on the dope.
“What kind of dope?”, I asked.
“Meth. God-damned meth.”
“Oh, man”, I said, “that is a hard, hard road.”
“You’re telling me”, he said. “She’d do anything for meth. She’d sell her kid if she had one for one hit of meth.”
“I couldn’t take it”, he said. “I told her if she’d quit the meth I’d do anything I could to support her, anything possible, but” … his voice trailed off …
“What happened after that?”, I asked.
“She stole my damn bicycle and sold it, that’s what happened!”, he said. “That’s how I was getting around!”
We both sat for a bit and looked at the ground.
After a time of silence, I started up again … “So, did you ever get a job?”
He laughed and said, “You wouldn’t believe it. I got a job with the Sheriff’s Office!”
“True”, he said. “I got a job there. Every evening I go over and clean out the dog kennels for the Sheriff’s team of German Shepherds. I have a little smoke before I go into the kennels, and the dogs all love me” …
“I bet they do”, I said. “At that point you’re as mellow as they are”.
We both laughed.
“You still cleaning up the trash the homeless leave around?”, I asked.
“Yep”, he said. “It’s ugly.”
“You just earned another three smokes”, I said. “Can’t take ’em”, he replied. “You got to”, I said … and he said “Yeah, yeah, I know. It’s a requirement.” We both laughed again.
“You still sleeping raw on the street?”
“No”, he said, “I met a man who said I could stay in his garage. It’s a ways out in back of his house, so I don’t bother him. A hundred bucks a month. All he asked was that I keep the homeless from walking across his land … and clean up the trash they leave behind.”
We both cracked up about that.
“Hey”, he said, “I got my driver’s license back too”.
I took a shot in the dark and said “You lose it for DUI?”
“Yeah, they took it seven years ago after my fourth drunk driving bust. But I’ve been good for seven years now. All that time, I haven’t driven if I’ve had even one beer!”
I passed over the obvious contradictions and illegalities in that, and congratulated him on getting his license back. He pointed out his new bike that he’d bought with the money from his job. I congratulated him on that as well, and his place to live, told him to stay strong.
We shook hands, not just some fist bump like folks do these days but a real handshake, and I drifted on down the street. It’s true. You can escape homelessness.
Further along, I came to the place that had had the American flag on the top when I visited last time.
This time it looked like it had seen some weather, and I guess the tarp roof kept blowing off … so he’d put boards on the roof and set up a flagpole.
Nobody was home, but last time he’d said his ex-wife lived across the street. I hadn’t met her, so I went over there. This is her pad.
She was sitting hidden back under the tarp. I could see that she had a lapful of latex gloves in her lap. She was sewing up holes in them. I watched and wondered. I asked about the gloves. She whispered that she needed to keep them repaired … I didn’t enquire further. I asked if she’d like a Clif Bar. I could barely hear her “yes”. I gave her the bar. She smiled, an ineffably sad smile. I went back across the street to the American flag encampment.
This time there was an ancient toothless man sitting smoking a cigarette behind the “building” on the right, the one with the blue tarp over it. I asked him if he wanted the rest of my pack of smokes. His eyes lit up. I gave them to him.
Then, as I walked by the brown tarp house on the other side of the flag, a young man on a bike was outside. A woman’s voice from inside asked if he had any cigarettes. No, he said, not a one. I said “I just gave a half pack to the old man in the other building. Go ask him.” He went off and came back a moment later with two cigarettes. He handed them in to the woman inside. I said “That’s how the world should work.” She said thanks. I never caught a glimpse of her. Strange to be thanked by someone you haven’t ever seen.
I had a couple of cheap “MacDouble” sandwiches on me as well, along the way I’d bought two for $3.49. I took them to another camp across the street. There were two old men in front of one of the tents there. I gave one a sandwich. He nodded his head and mumbled something unintelligible. The other old man said “He don’t talk much.” I gave him the other sandwich. I asked how he was doing. He said he was glad it had stopped raining. Looking at what passed for his house I could see why.
He thanked me and started wolfing down the sandwich. I said my goodbyes and walked back towards the dealers
On the way back, I saw a white man and his black girlfriend walking towards me, obviously homeless. I had nothing in my pockets, so I just knuckled my cap and smiled at them. And the woman gave me a smile, dear friends, a smile that I swear would have melted titanium …
I walked on past them, marveling at the beauty of the sunny day and at my enormous good luck in this curious life.
Cost of the day?
- Smokes $12.60
- Cliff Bars $5.98
- McDoubles $3.49
- Total $21.07
Reminding myself that I am among the most fortunate of men?
I drove to the lumberyard next door, bought a 12′ piece of 6″ x 6″ PT fir (3.5 m x 150 mm x 150 mm pressure treated fir), arm-wrestled it into the truck, lashed it down, and headed home. I’m replacing a rotted out gate post in the deer fence around our yard.
Rain is on the horizon. My daughter, son-in-law, and 19-month-old granddaughter will be home day after tomorrow after three weeks visiting family and friends. Life is good.
My best wishes to everyone, hug those you love, may all your days be full and over,