A diminutive hobbled creature leaning on his rustic staff can often be observed waiting to cross intersections or attempt mid street jaywalks in our city. His crinkled emotionless expression appears, patiently gazing straight ahead, depicting Grumpy of the Seven Dwarfs, awaiting a large enough break in the traffic to signal opportunity. One of our permanent homeless personalities surveying the corridors, sorting through dumpsters and quietly offering another view of life to on-rushers hurrying to their next “important” appointment.
Driving these same streets for nine plus years I have often observed him entering downtown from across Broadway bridge hobbling slowly from some historic injury complicated by age. He is burdening a weathered backpack and clinging necessarily to a sturdy staff scavenged from some river encampment. Occasionally boarding a bus, he mostly walks, looking like the bell ringer of Notre Dame, quietly moving past upscale diners behind wrought iron fences at downtown restaurants or weaving through sidewalk minglers admiring art on the street. Moving slowly and observantly without a word.
Not long back our friend boarded my bus, fumbled with one freehand to uncrease a dollar bill to pay fare, but to no avail. “May I help,” I asked extending an open palm. He paused, and for the first time, in our sporadic relationship, he handed me the bill. “Some of these bills are so worn that it is difficult to straighten them out. There we go.” I responded as the payment was made.
“Thanks,” muffled his response as he dropped the remaining coins in the machine.
It was a simple connection that seemed to signal the beginning of a new chance for our relationship. Heretofore my greeting and questions had apparently landed on deaf ears, but now, ever so slightly, something new was beginning. I have learned to take these things slowly, not to blurt in as is my usually gregarious manner. I have learned to watch observant for the other’s lead.
Our first meeting some years back was in the dead of winter. Snow packed the sidewalks and ice jammed the curb gutters. It was a miserable day for passengers and drivers alike. Our friend stood in a waiting line to board. I remembered seeing the him the previous day as I passed around him from behind coming from the Colorado National Monument. Today, however, I met him face to face. He looked down, as he shuffled slowly forward. Next up, he fingered coins in his worn jeans and plopped the correct change in the machine. My eyes dropped to his feet and caught notice of his toe-less footwear. He wore socks, but had cut the toes out of castoff old work shoes. He shuffled past. Every time I have encountered him since he has worn similarly constructed shoes. On one occasion he had secured some relatively new work boots that would have warmed his feet all the winter, the next day they were toeless.
His grumpy demeanor seams more a defensive strategy than anything else. He has been disabled and homeless as long as I have known him. Both conditions make him vulnerable to quicker stealthier operators. Homeless persons will not betray their private information to anyone due to the fact that they have been vandalized and abused when they let their guard down. Their major personal protection is what they know that no one else does, therefore they are not forthcoming. When they are asked where they live they may say, “The shelter or the mission.” if they do. Otherwise they may say the river or, I move around, or with friends or nothing. They have learned the hard way how vulnerable one can be if others know their hangouts. He is not perennially angry or grumpy, to the contrary, he is just meeting life as it comes and feels more comfortable behind the defense.
Passengers generally pay him little attention as long as he controls odor and alchohol. Both are a menace to sociability. Once a passenger exited complaining that he left a wet seat. Another with child in tow, asked if he was alright. Teens after school would complain about his ordor or gruff nature. Our buses, however, are for everyone not just the people you like to be around. There are limits, but drivers are not hygene police and so one may find their personal limits broadened when they board.
This week I pulled into the downtown terminal and saw him waiting on one of the metal benches. Surprisingly he was thumbing the pages of a thick paperback novel as he waited. “Got a good book” I began. He held it up so that I could see the cover. “Wow,” I said, “it would take me forever to wade through that, though it looks interesting. You are about half through it.” His next response was so precious I just had to write about it.
He looked up at me making rare eye contact, “Yeah, I get into fantasy.”
I was floored. A fantasy reading, homeless, disabled, hunchbacked, hobbler. I could not believe the response. That he was reading a novel of that size in and of itself was a surprise to me, but that his reading material was more akin to some millennial student blew me away. In an very quick reality check, I had my own fantasies set straight and felt a subtle sense of hope for the world.