"I cried because I had no shoes, until I met a man who had no feet." Old Persian Sufi Proverb
I sat down next to him, on the other end of the bench, making sure to keep enough space between us so we didn't touch. Surprisingly, as dirty as he appeared, he didn't smell. To counteract my nerves, I busied myself for a moment by lighting a cigarette before giving him my full attention, and when I finally looked over at him I found him studying me with a curious smile. I felt a sudden flush rise up inside me, feeling uncomfortable under his gaze. His eyes seemed to see right through me, and it was disconcerting to think that maybe he saw more than I wanted him to. I asked him his name.
"You can call me Harry," was his answer.
Well that made me smile, I couldn't help it. Looking pointedly at his hair and beard, I asked, "Is that your real name, or did you just make that up?" He threw back his head and laughed. His laughter had a nice, rich sound to it, and I felt some of the tension I was feeling begin to release. He answered, "Is that important?" I suppose it wasn't, and told him so. Then he asked my name, and after some hesitation, I answered him truthfully. With a twinkle in his eye, he teasingly asked if I'd just made it up. I countered with the same question he'd asked, "Is that important?" He laughed and said, "Oh, I like you. Yes, I like you already."
From where we sat, we had a perfect view of the Superstition Mountains. The sky was clear, with the only exception being the clouds that hung heavily over the mountains, leftovers from the rain we had the night before, giving the mountains a dark, mysterious, brooding look, contrasting beautifully with the brightness from the sun shining on everything surrounding them. It was shaping up to be an unusually cold and rainy winter for the desert, and the forecasters had predicted warmer, sunnier weather for the next couple of days. It looked like they were right...this time. I love the rain, but it felt good to be sitting in the sun's warmth.
I sat looking at the mountains in silence, not knowing what to say or do next. I heard Harry give a little sigh, then he said, "Days go by without any conversation, or company. I miss having conversation sometimes." Then he looked at me, "But more than that, no one ever looks at me, or even sees me. There are times I've wondered if I'm a ghost."
Well that did it, pulled right on my heart strings, and I felt compassion begin to rise within me. I could relate to the feeling of invisibility, if not quite in the same way this man did. However, quick on the tail of that empathetic thought came guilt. Until recently, I had been exactly what he was talking about, one of those people who didn't look at people like him. He may as well have been a ghost to me, now that I thought about it. For the first time, I questioned why that was. What was it about the homeless that had me treating them, or even viewing them the way I did...as less than human...any different from me. I didn't much care for the answer, but once I discovered it's root came from fear, I began making some serious changes.
He continued, "I've seen you around. And the one thing that makes you stand out more than anyone else is you looked at me. Saw me. Do you understand how many people walk by me daily? I'm not kidding when I say that days can go by without anyone making eye contact with me. But you did, and I didn't know how much I needed it until you did. It made me feel real for the first time in a long time."
I didn't know what to say to that, or what to feel about it for that matter, so I asked the first question that popped into my mind, "What about family, or friends? Do you not have any?"
His expression suddenly grew as dark, and brooding as the mountains, and I could tell he struggled with an answer. I apologized to him, not meaning to pry. His face softened then, and he said, "Nah. It's okay, and a fair question I suppose. I lost my family in a fire eight years ago. My son and my wife."
I felt my heart break for him, and I honestly didn't know how to respond. What could I say? But more than that, it was in the way he spoke of his loss. If not for the split second of darkness he let escape onto his expression, he may as well have been talking about someone else. But then, I guess he was. Eight years was a long time ago.
My curiosity, and interest in this man and his life took over, "What about your parents? Are they alive?" I asked bravely.
Before answering, he gave a harsh laugh that sounded more like a bark, "Yes, my parents are alive...and like to pretend they don't know me." I heard a bitterness creep into his voice, "There were times I'd see them drive by me, on the street. I've become too much of an embarrassment for them now." I thought of my little 5 year old daughter at home, and couldn't imagine a day ever coming that I would pretend she wasn't my child, no matter how she lived.
I offered Harry another smoke, and after we both lit our cigarettes, he continued, "I haven't always lived this way. Before the fire, I was a different man. I worked hard, supporting my family. And I tried, I really did try to continue working after I buried my family. But I just couldn't find a reason to do it anymore, for doing anything. The pain of losing them was just too much. My parents...didn't understand." I honestly didn't want to imagine what that must be like, losing a family, but I didn't think my response to losing my daughter would be much different. I found myself already hating his mom and dad, and I didn't even know them, and I told him as much. He looked at me, eyes full of understanding, and some hidden wisdom, and said, "No. They lost a grandson, a daughter in law, who they loved too, and then, from their view at least, that fire also killed the only son they ever had." Well, crap, I thought, my hate for his parents spent before it even got started, he made a good point. I didn't think about what they'd lost. Still, they could have behaved better toward their son...
"I changed. The loss changed me," he said. And as if he were answering my thoughts, "They want me back the way I was then, before the fire, living the dream we were all striving toward. That dream, for me, burnt down in the fire. You see, I worked for my father, helping him build his company. He had a company to run, and an image to keep with it." I remember thinking, with my curiosity waning, maybe I didn't want to know anymore. All this was too painful, and too grey, with no clean black and white lines.
As if sensing my change in mood, Harry suddenly switched gears, "What about you? What's your story? I'll bet you're spoiled, living a life of ease, protected and fed since the day you were born, and haven't known a day of hardship in your life." That brought my horns out, and I took the bait in defense before I saw the teasing amusement in his eyes. I told him he was an asshole. He laughed out loud, and said, "I've been called worse. Yeah, I like you." Still feeling a bit miffed, it took me a few more minutes to retract my claws.
We spent the next couple of hours covering our views regarding politics, religion, the weather. It surprised me, how much I enjoyed our conversation. Harry was intelligent, articulate, educated, and seemed to keep up with current events. "A newspaper can always be found floating around somewhere," he said at one point. I remember thinking he was living proof that we really can't judge a book by it's cover.
I had always made it a rule, especially after I was in the Army, having talked with so many people from so many different backgrounds, to steer clear of conversations regarding politics and religion. Too many of those conversations ended up going south, with others getting angry with me, and even budding friendships ending, because my view differed from theirs. But this man was easy to talk to, and didn't get his underwear in a bundle if our views differed. He had a way of stimulating conversation, making it interesting, and listening as if he were sincerely interested in what I had to say, even if he didn't agree with it. He simply accepted it, and then shared his own view. Up to that point, I'd not really had any conversation quite as enjoyable as ours. Or maybe, I thought later, he wasn't the only one who missed having good conversation. And maybe...I felt as he did...like I was being seen for the first time in way too long. Whatever it was, our conversation was working a kind of magic in me.
I knew that when the time came, I would not look at any "stranger" the same way ever again. It's like everyone's life just opened up for me. I watched as people walked by, and despite the disapproving looks I received, which had me wondering if, before this day, I looked like that, and gave off the same vibe, I felt myself wondering, 'what's their story?' Maybe they've got the same fear I do. Maybe they're simply afraid. What that fear was exactly, I hadn't discovered yet, but I knew I would, given time. I promised myself I'd look into it.
At one point I got brave, "Are you homeless, Harry?" He answered, "If what you are asking is do I live in a house, then no, I don't live in a house." Which begged the question, "Where do you live then?" He was quiet for a long time before answering, and I felt maybe I'd crossed a line, but he finally said, "Mostly, you'll find me behind the laundry mat in AJ. I wait until the city goes to sleep, however, before I go there." He sighed, and I heard him mumble, "At least you're honest." Then he said louder, "I see the questions you have for me written all over you. You're honest, and that's something I don't get a whole lot of, so I'm going to give you honesty in return. I don't want to live any differently right now. Oh, at first, the first few years in fact, it was grief that drove me to this way of living. I didn't care if I lived or died. But at some point, now...I found a kind of freedom in living this way. You'd be surprised by how all these people walking around with their money, who think they are free, really aren't." That made no sense, and as I went to ask him what he meant, he stopped me by putting up his hand and said, "Wait. Let me ask you a question. Did you lock your car before leaving it to go into the store?" Frowning, I told him I did. He then asked me why, when anyone could easily break into it if they had a mind to. Honestly, I didn't know what he was talking about, nor how it related to freedom, or to how he was living. But I could feel something inside me beginning to react, feeling a little freaked out by his question, and he must have sensed it, because he let the matter drop, not pushing for an answer.
I began feeling hunger pains, and told Harry I had to go eat, but before leaving I asked him if he wanted me to get him anything, or give him some money for some food. I told him I didn't have much on me, but he could have it if he needed it. I'll never forget the look on his face, one of such tenderness it had me feeling embarrassed. He softly said, "Cindy, you've given me more than enough today. You made me forget myself for a time. I'm alright, and don't need your money. I can always find food. I've got certain restaurants I go to at certain times of the day. You'd be surprised how much food people throw out. Wasteful, really." I was horrified by what he'd just said, and despite what he said to the contrary, I didn't believe him when he said he chose to live this way. There was something in his voice that betrayed him. He was talking about it all too lightly. But before I could say anything about it, he said, "I would be grateful if you left me a couple of cigarettes, though. They're harder to come by." I handed him what was left of my pack instead, including my lighter. He hesitated, looking surprised by my gift, and said, "You are a rare breed. Thank you. It's been a joy."
Before turning away, I said the pleasure was mine, really, and thanked him in return. And then I said the words aloud for the very first time, "Bless you, Harry." I left him sitting there, smiling.
I never saw him again. The next time I bought cigarettes, I thought of Harry, and kept a couple of packs handy to give to him whenever I saw him next. A couple of nights later, the cold rains returned, and I found myself thinking of him, out there in it, maybe cold and shivering. I finally couldn't stand it, couldn't go to sleep, so I got up and got an extra blanket out of the closet, and drove to the laundry place where he said he stayed at night. I had a flashlight in my truck, and had to use it while looking for him, calling out his name in the rain. No one was there. I don't know how long I searched, but finally I made my way home, and on the way, I sent out a little prayer for him, a prayer of warmth, and comfort, a light that he could follow to some sort of home.
(...to be continued with some commentary. Next blog up on July 24th.)