I found myself homeless in Orlando Florida in the late 70’s. It’s not important why at this point in my story. I was 17 and came across a homeless man one night while looking for a place to sleep. He was in his late twenties, early thirties, I’m guessing though. It was late at night and being new to the homeless circuit, I was looking for a place where the police wouldn’t bother me. All the “good spots” appeared to be taken.
I wandered the streets, passing homeless that had been out there for quite a while, if their casual attitudes were any indication. They stood around the back allies like they were just partying with their friends in their own back yards and I just happened to walk right in uninvited.
I tried striking up conversations with a couple of these groups but none were even remotely friendly. I was still obviously homestyle fresh and too young to be taken seriously so I just kept walking, continuing my search for a safe haven for the night.
It was unusual to not have some sort of a breeze in Orlando but that night was as oppressive as my mood as I walked through the city.
I reached the edge of the city proper where the neighborhood started to decline. Row houses lined the streets that reminded me of old WWII photos I’ve seen of bombed out France or maybe closer to a post-apocalyptic movie. Much to my surprise, many of the condemned buildings were occupied.
It was a hot day earlier and now it had turned muggy. With no air conditioning, everyone was outside trying to keep cool. Even though it had to be near midnight, you would have thought it was noon. Kids of all ages scurrying about like rats over the debris looking for anything of interest to pass the time. Until that moment, I thought this kind of poor was only in third world countries. I was starting to realize how much I stood out here. I was also wondering how long it would take before they couldn’t tell any more. That worried me more than where I was at the moment.
I reached a break in the houses where several had been demolished into piles of rubble with one lone three-story brick building still standing in between, sort of. It was far enough away from the scrum up the block that had threatened to rob then “fuck the white boy” earlier so I was thinking this could be my refuge for the evening, if I could find a hole to hide that wasn’t already occupied.
I began looking around to see if anyone would see me enter. Even though I had nothing but a few clothes in my backpack and eight or nine dollars in my pocket, I felt I was the rich guy in the neighborhood. As I turned into the doorway, I was startled by a man sitting there who was talking to himself. I thought he was talking to me at first but he never quite made eye contact and was answering questions I hadn’t asked.
Immediately I saw the homeless apparently have their own social lines as well. A separate society that runs on a different set of rules and yet, their morals appeared to be very similar in many ways to that of the “Daylight folks”.
A man with a jacket was better than the guy without one. If you had a blanket too, you were better than the guy who only had a jacket. If you had a tent, well now you have a place to keep your jacket and blanket and that made you much better off than any of the other three. Problem was, by the time you reach that stage of privilege, those other three guys would probably steal everything while you slept and the process starts all over again. Not much different at all I’d say.
This man looked like he knew his way around a tin can but was apart from his peers. I assumed he didn’t make the cut with the groups in the city proper because his mental stability was lower. He was a social outcast in a sea of social outcasts. I found that a little amusing and very sad at the same time.
He had a canvas jacket on with military patches all over it like so many Vets wore in the day. I smiled and nodded as I walked up and he nodded back. That was the first friendly sign I’d seen all night so I paused and asked him about his jacket. He was a Vietnam veteran down on his luck. After a few minutes of friendly banter and learning of my new and unexpected lifestyle change, he invited me to share his doorway with him. Neither of us had anywhere to be obviously and since I was very tired from walking and this man looked like he had a story I wanted to hear, I sat down. We introduced ourselves and I asked him what branch of service he was in. He gave me his company yell and a Semper Fi or something and gave me some background on what his role in the military was.
He was a Sargent in the Marines. He told me it sounded cooler than it really was. He said he oversaw the training of a bunch of idiot kids. He said it lovingly though. I could tell he was proud of them but he was also being cautious about letting on too much.
After we exchange a little history, I turned the conversation to family and his demeanor changed. He started to quietly mumble to himself again. He was having a conversation with a couple people in his head again. I tried to jump in a few times but he was too busy with everyone else. It was obvious his family was a sensitive subject. I could relate to that and I needed to hear more, but how?
He was proud to tell me about his time in the military like they were family but not too proud to talk about his actual family. Why? I had some ideas but I needed to bring him back into reality with me so we could discuss why the subject of family made him talk to himself.
I took a guess and decided to go another route to get him back with me. “Why are you out here man. What did you do to deserve this life of luxury?”
He was staring straight ahead, still quietly talking to himself so I didn’t think he was going to respond but after a few seconds, he turned to me, looked me right in the eye, like he was only going to say this once and said, “I like it out here. I’m free, man. Simple as that.”
He grabbed his backpack and pulled a rolled-up piece of cardboard from it. He carefully laid it out on the ground under him and curled up on it. It was bed time I guess. At the least, it appeared he didn’t want talk to his therapist anymore.
It was warm outside but the concrete was cool enough to be uncomfortable. I was a little nervous to go to sleep so I just sat there in silence with my arms folded over my chest for a while, watching him. I was still wondering how I was going to get his story without getting stabbed. As I stared at min laying there, I noticed his clothes were torn and dirty and he faintly smelled of urine but that may have been the stoop we were sitting on. His jeans fit loosely due to what I’m assuming was extreme alcoholism and malnutrition. They were about three inches too long for him and he had walked the cuffs into threads. I noticed he didn’t have any shoes on either, just a pair of wool socks. His toes were sticking out of one of them.
I tapped him on the shoulder,
“What happened to your shoes man?”
“I gave them away.” He said into the hoodie he was using as a pillow.
“Gave them away?” I said. “Why?”
He turned his head and gave me a disgusted look. I was bothering him now.
He rolled over looking at me while he paused for a moment then said,
“If you ain’t got nothing, nobody wants nothin from you.” He rolled back over and curled up a little tighter on the stoop.
He gave them away when he had nothing? There could only be one or two reasons he would do that. It told me something about him and now I had to learn more. I couldn’t push too hard for my own safety so I thought about it for a moment as I tried to get as comfortable as I could on the stoop. The cement was seeping into my bones now. A piece of carboard would be nice I thought, as I looked over at him lying there on his. I’ll remember that trick. Maybe in a few weeks, I’d be so down and out that I’d beat him up for it only to then argue with my imaginary friend over who gets to use it that night. How long does it take to go feral I wondered?
I leaned into my corner of the doorway and settled in for the evening. I sat there quietly thinking of another way to keep the conversation going. I was feeling very alone and needed the company. I was hungry and contemplating where my next meal was coming from. Maybe a job or where I’d lay my head down the next night were all good things to ponder too but I had a new library of the street to pull from and who knew for how long.
I reasoned his actions and statements so far of giving away his shoes, allowing me to share his doorway and the fact he felt that having nothing was better than someone wanting anything from him meant to me that he was a really good person who had been abused so badly that he had given up on trying any more. He set his expectations as low as he could get them so he would never be disappointed again. That was my guess but guessing has only ever been a starting point for me.
After a few moments I said, “Ya that’s probably true man but,
if you ain’t got nuthin to take, you ain’t got nuthin to give neither.” I matched his philosophy and it silently got his attention.
He didn’t respond or move for almost a minute so I thought either I didn’t hit the mark or maybe I did and he was just working out how to kill me before I asked any more questions. It was quite possible he had just nodded off too but suddenly he rolled over and sat up. He looked at me like he was seeing me for the first time. It might just have been he knew I wasn’t going to let him sleep until he talked to me.
“You right kid, You right.” He reached behind him, grabbed a bottle of wine sitting in the corner that was carefully wrapped in a brown paper bag and twisted off the cap. He took a swig, wiped the top with his sleeve then handed it to me.
“Ahh, seems you do have something to give after all man.” I said as I grabbed the bottle. “Friendship. That’s the best gift of all and it’s the only thing I’ll take from you, I promise.” I raised the bottle to him and took a drink from whatever that crap was and thanked him for his generosity.
For a homeless person, I knew offering me his drink was a sign of respect. I couldn’t refuse. I was in no place to be looking down on anyone anyway.
As we shared his wine, I had an opening now and whatever horrible disease I got from drinking after him was well worth the doctor visit later.
I had found a way to connect with him because I listened and showed I cared or maybe it was just because I was persistent. Probably a little of both. We sat most the night while he told me all about his life on the streets in greater detail. He told me where he goes for food. “Some restaurants throw out perfectly good stuff.” He said. “You can find Filet mignon and cheesecake if you know where to look. I know all the good spots.” He said proudly.
He would sometimes venture into a sidebar with himself over how good the cheesecake was or how someone stole his spork so he spit on their sandwich but then he’d suddenly remember he was talking with me and continue on, right where he left off like nothing happened in between.
“It’s a hit or miss thing and you have to be there at the right times.” he continued. “Others start learning about it and it can get crowded in a hurry. They’ll screw it up for everyone. You got to be smart and quick and keep your mouth shut. I’m only telling you because we’re friends now.” He says.
I pictured a dozen homeless people fighting over who gets first turn in the dumpster and couldn’t help but think of those in the back of the line. How far does one have to drop to be the last in the dumpster line? I bet they even fight over that. That then got me thinking of the “Big Wigs” at the front of the line. Who are the top dogs in the homeless circuit and why?
I don’t know about you but that right there is about as interesting as it gets, if you asked me.
“Have you ever been to the shelter?” I asked him.
“No, I don’t like them.” He says. “They feed you good but people steal my shit there.”
“Really” I looked at him like I didn’t believe him.
“What could you possibly own that someone would want to steal?” I asked incredulously.
He looked at me sideways. “What do you think happened to my shoes?” He took a drink and handed me the bottle.
“You said you gave them away?” I reminded him.
“Ya well, in a way, I did. The person that took them must have needed them more than I did, right?”
He grabbed the bottle from me, took a drink, wiped the top with his sleeve again then handed it back.
“You have to be lucky to get a bed in any of the shelters anyway. They’re always full up. They’re more for women with kids. It’s a bad neighborhood too so I don’t go down there much except for holidays. Christmas and Thanksgiving are the best meals of the year.” He stared off into what I imagined was a pleasant vision of a past Christmas at the shelter.
“How long you been out here?” I asked.
“Man, it feels like I’ve been out here my whole life. He says.
He looked me up and down for a moment. “What’s a white boy like you doing on the street anyway? You don’t look like you belong out here. Run away?”
“Not exactly” I said. I took a drink, wiped the top with my shirt and handed the bottle back.
After a few moments of silence, he spoke up.
“Just stay away from where the bums live”.
“Where’s that exactly?” I asked, probably with more of a questioning tone than I intended.
“Downtown. He says. “The crazies move in there at night. Too many strung out druggies for my taste. You can’t trust’em.”
“Ya, I met a few of them.” I said. He me handed his bottle again but I declined. “I’m good but, Thanks man.”
He was sharing his wine with me but I didn’t want him waking up in the middle of the night and stab me because he thinks I tricked him out of it.
As we talked more, he shared more of his “Before life” as he called it. He was southern born in the Carolinas and was the third generation in his family to fight in a war. As far as he was concerned, they were why he was living on the street. WWII was different he told me. Most wanted to go fight for their country. It was a source of national and family pride. WWII Vets were honored when they came back and they did well assimilating back into society.
Vietnam was a lot different. Many young men signed up to protect their country like their fathers and brothers had before them only to be confronted with a different demeanor back home when it was over. He worked his way to Sargent. Further than any of his family and he was proud of it but he said it meant nothing when he got back home. He was “Good at putting rounds on the enemy” he said but that skill wasn’t needed much in North Carolina. “Doesn’t help I’m black either.” He added.
Many of his friends were coming home ahead of him, telling him it wasn’t safe to wear their uniforms in public. It was safer to stay in civies (Street clothes) they said. He didn’t truly believe it until he got back himself. He was shocked when he got off his plane and walked right into an active protest. He said he went straight home, ashamed to be seen in uniform ever again.
“Why do you still wear the jacket then? I asked.
His brow furrowed as he poked me in the chest with his finger.
“This ain’t no uniform kid. We Vets are treated like damaged goods. “Fuck’em.” My Marine brothers gave this to me and it’s the most valuable thing I own. You show it some respect!”
He paused as if in a memory again, giving a salute to I imagine his fallen comrades’ then took another drink.
Nodding his head towards the city, “These fuckers are lucky I’m not killin every last one of ‘em.”
Okay, now we were venturing into some interesting but dangerous grounds here. It was like seeing a bad accident unfold. You’re horrified but can’t turn away. Of course, I asked him all about it. He was mad at society in general. He fought for their freedom and they were pissing on him as he saw it. He wasn’t wrong but he also wasn’t giving himself any credit for any of it.
Civilians just wanted to forget the horrors they were witnessing on CBS news every night. It appeared to me that there wasn’t much thought being put into the horrors these men had faced. Vets now reminded people of the terrible things our country was doing. Some families were even disowning their own kids for taking part. He was one of those who fell through the cracks.
He didn’t talk to himself before he enlisted but he sure had a lot of friends in his head now.
I did my best to help him. I mentioned that maybe his family’s side of things didn’t reflect what they really thought about him as much as what the neighbors thought of them. They had to survive too and he was away in another country after all, making it that much easier to be out of sight, out of mind. “It’s still not right but can’t you see there’s got to be another side to this story?” I asked. “You should talk with them and tell them how you feel.
It had to be hard for them not to be able to brag about you to their friends.” I said.
“Maybe, just maybe, they knew you were strong enough to handle it where they weren’t.
You know family will stick it to you because they know they can get away with it. They’re family after all. I hear that’s what family’s for.”
Not a simple fix for his problems I know but it might have been enough to get him to try to talk it out with them. He did give me the impression I gave him something to think about.
Unfortunately, I never went back to that doorway and never saw him again. I would have liked to have thought it all worked out for him and his family but I know there’s an equal chance he didn’t survive.
I’ve done things like that my whole life. There’s a lot to be proud of when helping others especially when there’s some risk to yourself. That’s the stuff heroes are made of. While I would like everyone to believe I’m a hero like that, my motivations are more often selfish than hero driven.
It’s not unreasonable to believe I’ve helped a few people just by being there and listening and not looking down on them. I can find the positives in any situation and I’m good at pointing them out. Being helpful lets me in on the way people think so I can maybe learn why things happened to me the way they did. I need to understand it. In the meantime, I believe offering understanding and acceptance to others makes my life worth more. It gives me meaning.
Why people do things fascinates me like little else. There’s a lot of answers to life in there so, I do my best to get past the surface and find the story in each person I meet, homeless, rich, black, white or purple, especially the purple people. I turn no one away. You’ll seldom learn anything very useful if you can’t get past the surface. One person will think you’re an idiot and the next will think you’re a savant. That’s something that doesn’t bother me as much as it does most people. It just depends on your outlook, not theirs so, damn the torpedoes. I’ll only look stupid for a moment. The knowledge I gain will last a lifetime.