To read Part One of this story, go here.
Harold and Joe were gone by the time I got back to the cement square–about 9:00 on Sunday morning. Of the men I had seen the night before, there was only a white man left: the scary one who’d been lying in his sleeping bag, face thin-chiseled and eyes glazed, arms covered in tattoos. “He lives here all the time,” Harold had told me, and the white man had nodded confirmation.
I didn’t really want to talk to him, but there were a few other men standing around; maybe I could talk to them.
I sat on a bench nearby for a long time, glancing over every once in a while, my heart beating fast. Not because I was scared they would hurt me–it was daylight, and a busy street–but because I was scared of cold-contacting strangers and asking personal questions about their lives. At the writers’ conference Friday I pitched my memoir to agents–eight minutes with a stranger to explain my life’s dream–and this was as scary as that.
But, hey, how often do I get to the city, and what other homeless men do I know? I might never have this chance again.
So after a while I got up and went over and introduced myself. The scary white man turned out to be not so scary on closer inspection. His name was James–“but I go by Caspar, you know, like Caspar the ghost.” He gallantly whipped out a fuzzy blue throw, folded it, and laid it on the cement ledge beside him, for me to sit on.
He told me he was from Mississippi (I had known he was from the South by his accent) that he was a veteran, that he didn’t like living this way and planned to get off the streets soon.
I asked him how he ended up here. He said something or other about lack of housing and politics and people who talk a lot but don’t make good on their promises.
“I don’t like to do this,” he said, “but do you have two dollars so I can buy a bus ticket? I need to get to the other side of town.”
I didn’t, but I gave him what I had: a handful of pennies and dimes and quarters.
A bearded black man named Bryan–a big man, his beard threaded with white and a handful of moles scattered across his cheeks–was more honest and more direct. “A lot of men are out here because of their choices, if you know what I’m saying.”
Caspar nodded, seemingly relieved that Bryan had put into words what he hadn’t known how or hadn’t wanted to say. “Thank you for saying that.”
“We get money and then blow it,” Bryan said. “Addictions and stuff, you know. I’m out here, but at least I admit that I’m the one who put me here. I made a lot of bad choices.”
“Even wealthy people in big houses have regrets about things in their past,” I said. “We all fail.”
“Yeah, but at least they live better than I do.”
Caspar wandered off and Bryan sat beside me and told me more about his life: how his wife of twenty-one years left him, how he blamed God for letting it happen, how he wanted to commit suicide but wouldn’t because he wanted to see his mother and sister in heaven when he died.
I told him Jesus could help him and he said Yeah I know but.
After a while, when a few more men headed in to sit on the cement ledge, and a woman stood smoking and trading comments with Bryan, I got up and said good-bye.
As soon as I was back in the plush hotel where the writers’ conference was being held–back to high glass revolving doors, soft sleek couches, a restaurant and bar with shiny wine bottles on display, brown-shirted staff moving efficiently down carpeted hallways–I wished I was back out on the street. I remembered all the things I should have said to Bryan that might have helped and wished I had talked to him longer.
But instead I sat at a table in a vast ball room with a few hundred other aspiring authors and listened to a speech about the business of writing called “How to Go from Fingers to Keyboard to Dollars in your Bank Account.” The speaker was both a lawyer and a book agent. His stomach was well filled out–though not fat–his face commanding and confident, his voice strong.
I doubted he’d ever regretted anything in his life.
“When I first started practicing law,” he said, by way of introduction, “my boss told me, ‘Follow the money.’ It’s the money that’s important.”
And I was angry in that minute, so angry I scribbled dark doodles and words in my notebook and blocked my ears to most of the rest of his speech.
How could he say that, how could he believe that, when less than a football field’s length down the street were men living on the streets? Men with the same blood, same build, same human family? And they weren’t out there for lack of money–they were out there for the human curse: whatever it is that breaks us and binds us and steals our hope and bequeaths despair.
I wanted to slap all the confidence out of this agent’s full face, slap the big plush hotel out of existence, slap every single person out onto the streets, away from achievements and successes and the drive to the top, slap us into saying something that actually mattered.
Mr. Agent, maybe it’s not your fault that men are living on the streets, that teenagers are trying drugs, that women and children in war-torn countries have fled their homes; maybe it’s not your fault that all this is going on while you stand stuffed in front of a roomful of people who are stuffed and tell us how important it is to have more.
I can’t blame someone who’s not involved–and for all I know, you give heaps of money to charity–but while you were busy talking about how to make it big, I was learning something I bet you never guessed you taught:
I won’t buy into your value system. I don’t want to be like you.