Conversation with a Dying Homeless Man
His sign said “hungry” and he was eating a little package of peanuts. Short, white and probably fifty years old; he sat alone without talking on the busy Indianapolis Monument Circle at lunch time. I came up, handed him a dollar and he nodded in thanks.
“ What’s your name?”, I asked.
He told me his name. I said that mine was Jacob. He asked if I smoked, I told him no. He was soaking wet. It rained an hour earlier. He pulled a cigarette box out of his pocket and retrieved one that immediately fell apart in his fingertips, the paper ruined from the rain..
“Them’s the breaks, kid.”, he said.
“Where are you from?” I asked.
He hesitated, then replied, “Born and raised in Indiana. Lived in Gary for a while. And Carmel. Been on the street for damn near seven years.”
Talking with a disheveled homeless guy makes you an immediate pariah. People are shooting me weird looks or avoiding eye contact. As if I’m about to pray with him or ask for drugs, or both.
“What can you do?”
“I’m a classically trained chef.”, he said, with emphasis on ‘classically trained.’ He looked at a man passing, attempting to make eye contact but being rejected. He continued, “These restaurants around here” he pointed in a big circle “they don’t know about the things I could cook. I’d blow their fucking minds.”
“Like what?” I was skeptical.
“Foie Gras pate. Ahi Rizzoto. I was damn good. What do you do?”
“I’m a fitness director. I help people feel healthy.”
“You wouldn’t believe it looking at me. I could bench 345 at one time. I still go to Gold’s Gym when I have bus money. I have workout buddies there. They don’t know I’m homeless. One of them stopped talking to me because he found out. But now I’m sicker than shit.”
I didn’t believe him. I saw no signs of a former competitive lifter left in his frail body. His white crew cut hair thinned and trailed toward goblin thin limbs and soft pile torso.
“ That’s impressive. Sick with what?”
“ Colon Cancer. And Cirrhosis. They give me a bed to sleep in during chemo, so I can’t really complain. My next treatment starts tomorrow. They said that if I don’t lose some weight during chemo the Cirrhosis could kill me. I don’t get a transplant unless I live past the chemo.”
“That’s a hell of a predicament”, I said, “after the treatment, you have to be pretty weak. Don’t they provide some kind of housing?”
“Yeah, couple of places actually. But you gotta be 100% clean. And I’m not. So that’s it.”
His arms were covered in lettering and black ink tattoos. The most prominent was on his forearm- two snakes tangled and twisting toward his elbow, with dark scales and flat amatuer design.
“My Dad is a tattoo artist.” I said, pointing at the ones on his arms. “ Are those military?”
“What were you in for?”
He replied, “Don’t you think that’s a little personal?”
` “Yeah. But we don’t have anyone else to talk to. So you may as well tell me your story.”
“No story. A guy killed my mother and I beat him to death. Twenty-one years.”
He looked into me with green eyes, itching to tell me more; to connect with anyone. He turned and picked out another wet cigarette, placed the butt of it in his mouth without lighting it. I can’t remember the last time someone opened up to me like that, especially with something so raw and real. It’s tough to get a stranger off his iphone at the bar long enough to make a friend, and a societal outcast just let me in on one of the darkest moments in his life. I gave him an forcedly empathetic pat on the back. He was squishy wet, and smelled bad.
My ride pulls up.
“ Poor timing. I hope I see you out here next week.” I said. Not really thinking that I’m implicating that he should stay both homeless and drunk.
He nodded and we shook hands. I haven’t seen him since, and I legitimately worry about his week of chemo. I feel like if he had made it I would have seen him around, and it occurs to me that I’m maybe the last person to ever hear his story.