I probably shouldn’t use his real name because I haven’t asked him for his permission to write this. His name is so whimsical and unusual and perfect, and I really wish I could tell you what it is. But sometimes he goes on the internet in the library, so there’s a chance he’d read this.
I’d noticed him about two years ago. He often sat at the entrance to the hiking trail I frequent, resting with a straight back, holding perfectly still except for the arm that brought his cigarette to his lips. He looked so dignified as he smoked — it’d make a good photograph.
It’s clear that he’s homeless because he spends his days sitting at bus stops and in public parks, but his clothes and blonde hair look clean. He doesn’t panhandle or talk to himself. His belongings are pared down to the bare essentials — no shopping cart full of cans and bottles. Just a backpack with a blanket, a tarp, some hair ties, water, food, tobacco, a can opener and a small knife. Somewhere in that backpack, unless he threw them away, are some sparkly, temporary tattoos which I gave him as a joke one time.
We’ve become friends over the past nine months. Last week when I saw him at the bus stop, he asked about what I learning in graduate school, how my half marathon training is going, and if my spider bite is healing up. He shows me his new, second-hand sneakers and suggested I get a pair like his, which he says are more durable than the ones I wear now (mine have five, small holes in them). I tell him I thought Brooks is a pretty solid brand, but he tells me I’d be better off with a pair like his.
His favorite is the woodfire pizza place because the toppings are unique and seasonal. I like the small, family-owned pizza place because the owner is old and sweet, and I’m kind of afraid he’s going out of business. We agree that the 7/11 pizza is crap. We agree on lots of things.
He’s got a lot of advice for me. I need to see a doctor about my foot pain, I’m too stressed out and need to do yoga to clear my head, I need to eat more vegetables, I should see a therapist for my anxiety, I need to password protect my phone and back up my computer. Most of all, I should never start smoking. When he smokes, he moves downwind of me. One night, we were walking in opposite directions on a dark street and bumped into each other. I should only walk on well-lit streets at night, he told me, and he walked me to me to my car several blocks away.
I don’t give him advice. Though I did hassle him a bit when he lit up a cigarette on a rainy night when he had a bad respiratory infection. But honestly, I don’t have any advice for him. He’s homeless, but he says that’s ok with him. He tells me he has everything he needs. I’m working on taking people at their word, instead of assuming I know what other people really think.
Our lives are different. I have a bank account and an apartment and a clean toilet to shit in, anytime, day or night. Gang members don’t rough me up and steal my cell phone just for the hell of it. I don’t know why this person — who sets an hourly alarm at night to make sure no one has stolen his belongings, who carries a knife for self defense, and who wraps his body in a tarp to keep himself dry during rain storms — cares about the quality of my cushy life.
I don’t take all of his suggestions, but the fact that he tries to help me find balance in my life is so unreasonably awesome. I feel so lucky.
I’m toying with the idea of giving him a gift card or some cash in a Christmas card next month.
But I have a feeling he’d gift it right back to me and tell me to use the money to buy myself some new sneakers.