DSTL Arts – a nonprofit arts mentorship organization that inspires, teaches, and hires emerging artists from underserved communities.
By Jeremy Arias
It’s usually about 8:30am or 9:00am when I get out of work. There’s something about the difference of the air and smells you get when you walk in and out of a coffee shop. When I get to work, the sun still hasn’t risen and the espresso machines haven’t begun their shift brewing endless cups of coffee, so the smell of coffee is very light and faint, subtle. When I get out of my shift, there’s something about the fresh air liberating my nose from the coffee smell, which I invite with a welcoming breath.
There’s always birds. Pigeons on the pavement eating scraps of food and flocking away the second you come near their personal space. At times I’ll see them sipping water left behind by people washing outside their shops. I’ve seen dogs leashed outside the bakery patiently waiting for their owner to come out. As I pass, the dogs let out a sharp bark telling me I’m too close. I shrug, smile at the dog, and sip my coffee.
As I walked back home just the other day, a voice called down from a bench.
“Good morning,” he said. I turned to my right and saw a homeless man sitting on the bench smiling. His hair was grey, skin wrinkled and burned from sun exposure, and lips spread out in a friendly smile. I felt like I already knew where this was going.
“Good morning,” I returned his gesture and smiled back at him. I was going to continue to walk away, but he leaned in closer as if he wanted to talk, but not yell.
“Do you think you can spare me some change so I can get myself a cup of coffee?” His face was still friendly and had a sincere look. I don’t usually carry change, and I pay for almost everything with my card. I thought I didn’t have anything to give.
“I actually don’t,” I replied getting ready to explain that I don’t carry change.
“That’s fine,” he replied. “Have a wonderful day!” he smiled as I turned to walk away. I smiled back and raised my cup to get another sip of my coffee, when it came to me. I took a few steps back and saw him look up at me as I approached.
“You know what,” I said. “I can give you this instead. I don’t carry change with me and I pay everything with my card. You can have the rest.”
His eyes brightened and hands extended, but stopped midway.
“Are you sure?” he asked. “I don’t want to just take your coffee.”
“Go ahead,” I replied. “It’s my second cup and I’m actually trying to cut down on caffeine a bit.”
He took the cup.
“Well, thank you,” he replied as he took the warm cup off my hands. He smiled and took a sip. “I appreciate it.”
“You’re welcome,” I replied as I smiled and walked away.
As I continued my walk home, I realized I had seen him many times before, not just on my daily commute, but also as I stare out the window of the car and pass the streets watching pedestrians. There’s something about homeless people being ignored in a number of ways. People pass them by on the street, and although they hear their asks for loose change, they keep their faces forward and ears form a path to shoot the sound out the other. They’re invisible.
He had a face that if you saw him in another city, you wouldn’t question where you’d seen him before. You’d simply recognize him and keep going about your day without questioning yourself or looking again at him out of fear that if you did, he’d approach you.
The next few days I walked back home, he would look at me, smile, and say good morning. He wouldn’t ask for any money from me, he’d just greet me as any friend would on a regular day.
“What’s your name, young man?” he asked me politely one morning.
“Jeremy,” I replied. “And yours?”
“I’m Uncle Ron,” he replied ecstatically, as if introducing himself gave him a sense of pleasure. “I see you walk by here every morning and say good morning, but I don’t know your name… now I do. It’s nice to meet you, Jeremy.”
“Likewise, Uncle Ron,” I replied as I nervously shook his hand hiding my fears and memories of the stories my mom told me about how unpredictable homeless people could be.
“How are you doing today?” I asked as I pulled my hand back.
“Oh, I’m just swell,” he muttered. “The other night I was fallin’ asleep, just minding my own business- I stay over there sometimes…” He pointed to an alley across the street from the coffee shop.
“I was falling asleep and some guys came to me and just started beating me up and thrashing me around!”
“What?” I was shocked, but not surprised.
“Yeah, I wasn’t bugging anyone either, just getting ready to fall asleep and their car comes out of nowhere and they get off and start kicking me, look at what they did…”
He bowed his head and pulled some of his hair back to show me some wounds on the top of his head. It was scratched pretty bad, and there was a massive bruise under the scratches.
“I spent three days in the hospital!” he sighed. “Some people just don’t have any respect for other humans.”
He nearly spat out that last part.
“That’s terrible,” I said. “Some people can be pricks.”
“Tell me about it!” he agreed. “I’m almost through with this though.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“I’m only doing this for now, see…” he began to explain, “I used to work at the [county] hospital, and for a few months they weren’t paying me. I have nine checks for seven hundred dollars sitting around there somewhere. My sister lives over in…” He pointed east and snapped his finger trying to recall the name of the city.
“...Norwalk,” he recalled. “Yeah, she lives over in Norwalk and said she could help me get a hold of those checks, but I wanted to see what it was like to be homeless first, you know before I make a lot of money. I don’t want to forget who I was, I want to stay humble.”
“I feel you,” I replied. I wasn’t sure if he was telling the truth because it seemed odd that someone would choose to be homeless before making sixty-three hundred dollars to stay humble. I figured perhaps his sister took the checks and left him on a wild goose chase after these checks, and he ended up homeless as a result, then later on convinced himself it was his choice all along to go homeless. I don’t know, but there was something trustworthy about his story.
My grandma was an alcoholic who during the last few years I’d known her was going through a legal debate over being forced against her will to sign the deed of her house over to my uncle. The story I’ve heard, in summary, was that she was drunk, abused, and forced to sign. To pay for her legal fees and bills, our family redirected the rent money she would collect from her other properties, since her biggest expense was alcohol. During her drunken rants, she would say that her daughter (my mom) would steal the money from her and use it for other things. She had a paranoid mind that would take our aid as a threat against her lifestyle.
Knowing that my grandmother had a twisted world view and saw things different from us, I had a feeling there was something similar to Uncle Ron’s story.
There’s a different connection you get with people when you learn the story behind their face. Often times we’re told a story about people we don’t know, so we picture what these people might look like. Later on when we meet these people others tell us so much about, we match the faces to the stories and completely change the image we’ve amplified in our heads. When you learn the story behind their face, you learn that they too are a person who goes day by day with struggles of their own.
It’s been a couple weeks since I’ve seen Uncle Ron. Perhaps he finally got his checks and settled himself somewhere. Maybe he left to stay somewhere else or got admitted into another hospital. I don’t know what happened, but I hope he’s alright.
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