A couple of years ago, while waiting for the bus, I met a man who changed my life. I didn’t anticipate the impact he’d have on my life when we met for those brief minutes. But here’s what happened.
It was a misty and humid day, still hot after a recent drizzle. The bench at the bus stop was still covered in beads of water. I was too tired to stand and since I didn’t want to get my pants wet, I sat how I normally do when there isn’t a seat available. I squatted low, my buttocks resting on the back of my calves and heels of my shoes.
While sitting thusly, a grungy grey man with wild mattered kinks for hair and a tattered beard walked towards me. Upon closer inspection, I could make out the shredded state of his clothes; the scent of urine permeated from his body. This was a homeless man. I reflexively recoiled as he walked past.
Unexpectedly, the man stopped not more than two feet from me. He turned to me and said, “Mister, have you ever been to Korea?”
I blinked twice; hesitant to answer. From my earlier experiences, engaging with homeless people can lead to drawn out conversations I much rather had avoided. However, his inquiry was quirky and odd; have I ever been to Korea? Is that the type of question one greets strangers with now? Is this a smart way to begin a discussion you’d eventually steer to a request for a hand-out? Was this man mentally deranged? Why would he think I’ve ever been to Korea; I certainly don’t look like the typical Korean.
“Er, I’m sorry,” he said when I failed to respond. “It’s just …The way you’re sitting is how the folks sit over there. I served in the Korean War and saw it often. I saw and did a lot over there.” He paused, his eyes wells of nostalgia. “I met my wife there.”
“Oh, that’s nice,” I offered meekly, forgetting my determination to ignore this vagabond. I almost slapped myself; I knew exactly what was coming next.
This homeless man took my audible response as permission to continue talking. And talk he did. He recounted his time in Korea, focusing less on the killing and more on the culture and people, especially his wife, now dead for five years. His wife’s death was when his troubles snowballed, at least according to him.
Despair and grief consumed him, and he, in turn, consumed fermented spirits to appease his soul. He became a drunkard. Lost his job, his apartment, his possessions; everything but the skin on his back. He’d been without a domicile for over four years — life hit him hard and swift. He roamed the street; scrounged for food in restaurant dumpsters and ate under bridges. He slept wherever his body succumbed to fatigue and malnutrition, but preferred bus and train station benches to the ones at the park.
I listened to his tale without interrupting. I absorbed his life; taking it all in and jotting mental notes. The bus I was waiting on pulled up and, as I stood in preparation of boarding it, the homeless wrapped up his tale by asking if I had a dollar or some change to spare. I did not.
He dropped his head and shuffled along as the bus doors opened as if a magic gate to whisk me away from his decrepit life to my comparatively much better one.
I thought of this sad man and his gripping story on my bus ride home. Once at my apartment, I took to my computer and typed. I wrote this man’s testimony — adding my own embellishments and meat to flesh it out — in a spurt of writing fury that I’d never experience before. Six weeks later, I had written the first draft of my first novel.
Another couple of weeks of edits and re-writes later, I felt it was ready to show to my friend, an editor at a popular magazine. She fell in love with, what she called, an “authentic yawn about love, war and loss.” She introduced me to an agent, who agreed to represent my work. Then the bidding war between publishing houses began. When the dust settled, I signed a five-figure book contract that included a hefty advance.
I was on cloud nine. I had transmuted a stranger’s misfortune into gold. I was some sort of literary Rumpelstiltskin.
Unfortunately, my novel flopped. It sold a few thousand copies, but by publishing standards my debut book was a bust. Stores returned unsold copies left and right, and eventually ate through my large advance like acid. I went from virtual unknown to media darling to literary (and literal) failure in a short span of time.
It was during this period of ego deflation that I returned to the bus stop where I met that loquacious stranger. I sat there, squatting as buses came and went, and waited for the Korean War vet to reemerge.
Resting on my heels in my back pocket was half of what remained of my advance, wrapped tightly in a rubber band. If the homeless man asks me for a dollar, this time I have a few hundred of them for him.
This short story appears in Confessions.