Takes about 2000 steps to walk a mile. I see this guy walking, he’s got the cane, the limp. I pull over. I was prepared for him to be homeless – which he informed me right off – but I wasn’t prepared for his answer when I asked where he was going.
“I’m trying to find a place to take a dump.”
Every Little Thing
Having known some down, I’ve grown some empathy for down. Near bottom, when you have no resources, every little thing is a big thing. “I’m about to go in my pants,” he says.
I offer to take him somewhere. We find a convenience store that made up for its lack of curb appeal by its investment in burglar bars.
The clerk gestures towards a roll of toilet paper above a soft drink cooler. He canes away, towards the outbuilding.
When he returns I ask him where he’s been staying. He’s been at a men’s homeless shelter, but he does not want to go back.
“It’s terrible! They’re crazy! It’s like One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. Can you look on your phone to see if there’s another shelter?”
Off we go, looking for Option B, to one by Memorial Hospital.
His Name Is Sonny
He’s got four names, plus a Jr., plus his nickname. That says something, about his family, the heritage, Sonny is a real somebody, from somewhere… like Gueydan, then later, Jennings. He rattles off some Cajun French to authenticate himself.
“Well, you still got all your hair,” I tell him.
Situations like this, I don’t ask, just wait, see what they’re comfortable talking about. He wants to talk about something he’s proud of, playing a harmonica.
“Were you good?”
“Man… I could play a harmonica!”
“What about Bob Dylan? Was he any good, or was he mostly a songwriter?”
“Aw no, Dylan could play. That was my man!”
Something gets said that reminds me of Kris Kristofferson, which reminds him of the Me and Bobby McGee song, which Kristofferson wrote.
“I played at Janis Joplin’s house in Port Arthur,” he says.
“You played the harmonica at Janis Joplin’s house?”
“Yeah! The house was gone, but that was where her house used to be. They had a sign up, Janis Joplin’s House. Somebody stole the sign. Can you believe somebody would steal a sign?”
No Option B
We reach the shelter, which is no longer a shelter. There’s a man on a forklift, moving pallets of roof shingles. He tells me that there’s a sign on the door with a phone number. I call.
The news isn’t good. There’s only one shelter for men in the whole town: the one he doesn’t want to go to. I hated to break the news.
He has a resignation that I associate with people who expect life to be hard, and for himself to be frequently disappointed. I take it as a form of far along maturity.
Off we go, in the direction he doesn’t really want to go.
We joke about how many names he has. I tell him my father’s family was so poor they couldn’t afford to give him a middle name, while here Sonny is, with four names, plus a Junior, plus a nickname.
He’s got a good memory, for long ago. We talk about a childhood program we both watched when we were kids, Polycarp and His Pals, channel 3 out of Lafayette. But if I ask him a question about something recent, like where he was for Hurricane Laura, he has trouble. “I hit my head so many times,” he says.
Then he remembers his motorcycle buddy. “He’s got a tattoo shop.” I pull over and look it up on my phone. I head south. This cheers him up. He’s not going to the crazy place again. “They steal everything!” He points at a tall building in downtown Lake Charles. “That used to be the jail,” he says.
“You ever there?”
“Top floor. Marijuana,” he says. “Now it’s legal. Medical.”
I’m not sure why I pulled over in the first place. Maybe it’s because he was trying. Gimping along, he wasn’t going fast, but at least he was going. If he was stationary, looking pitiful, I’d have kept on driving. Maybe that’s hard hearted, or maybe that’s my country raising, God helps those who help themselves…
I’m like a lot of you, not particularly wired for do-gooding on a regular basis. Some people, God bless ‘em, have the calling, like hospice workers. This world, the homeless, maybe it’s a cousin of hospice. Not so much the death, but the endless, random ways that people end up this way.
I’ve been second guessing the goodbye scene when I dropped him off at the tattoo shop. My father, the preacher, I know exactly what he’d have done… sitting in the parking lot, he’d have asked permission to say a little prayer… I can almost hear his voice, doing what a twenty-dollar bill can’t do, last…
Instead, we just parted, like in real life. My role was to play my role. God works around my limits.
And no, I never fished for “his story.” The least I could do was offer him a little bit of normal, two strangers small talking, and that was plenty okay.
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
This edition of Uncle P’s Bedtime Stories is dedicated to those who fall through cracks. If God knows when a sparrow falls, surely he knows when we fall.
To order copies of either of Uncle P’s Bedtime Stories books email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.