Friday, September 5, 2014

The Denizens

Wednesday night when I got home from buying groceries, it was about 8:30 and had just gotten dark. There was quite a bit of foot traffic on the street, and as I was making my second trip to haul bags from the rear of the van to the porch, a blind guy was walking past. He was on the street instead of the sidewalk (which is probably a good idea given how much the trees have grown over the sidewalks this summer) and called to me, asking if I could help him find Chick-fil-A.

I said, "Yes. You're almost there. See -- ehh, feel this curb on your right? It's about to end, and you just turn right there into the alley--"

"Just walk with me, can you? I'm blind."

Um. Okay. Sure.

James had come out to get some bags and I thought he saw me walk around the corner, but apparently he hadn't.

The guy both apologized for bugging me but kept up a very petulant manner, telling me that he was trying to find the School for the Blind and saying that since Chick-fil-A is "a Christian institution," he was hoping someone there could help him.

He tried to veer toward the restaurant through the Taco Cabana parking lot, but there are both curbs and a waist-high rail you have to climb over (or under, but he was more than 6 feet tall) to take that "short cut."

I told him it would be better to walk further down the alley before turning, and he complained, "How much further is it?"

"It's no further. It's just easier."

Meanwhile, I noticed that Carol, who had darted out the door when I'd left to go to the grocery store, was following me, meowing maybe angrily or worriedly about both how far I was walking away from the house and how far she was having to venture from the house.

"My cat's following us. Can you hear her?" I laughed.

"Are there people standing around outside?"

"Yes. The whole restaurant is outside. They don't have an indoor dining area."

"Are there any employees outside?"

I looked. There weren't. There are typically employees outside during the lunch rush, taking orders before the cars get to the official order speaker. I guess it goes faster that way, because it gives the kitchen more time to prepare the food, although it seems like it would have made more sense just to put the order speakers another 25-30 feet closer to the front of the building.

"But there are people out there?"


Finally we were close enough that I said, "You can just turn left here and walk up that ramp, and you'll be there." I was mildly concerned that he was going to insist I go further, but he didn't. He walked away without saying anything else.

On the way back to the house, I looked for Carol but she had disappeared. I remembered that James had had an encounter several months ago with a man who said he was looking for the School for the Blind. The man told James he could custom-build shoes and asked James' shoe size, promising to craft him a pair of super comfy shoes to bring him later. James ended up driving him somewhere, and don't worry: that's not something I, as a woman, would likely do, especially when it's dark outside and I've already been fantasizing about visiting the little girl's room for like 20 minutes.

Anyway, I was thinking about the encounters we've had here with locals, both transient and more permanent. When you read heart-warming stories about people's interactions with the homeless or orphans or the emotionally needy, they usually have a story arc or some point. Our experience with the interesting assortment of characters with whom we've come into contact here tend to be fleeting. There are only three or four people we see on a regular basis.

The first is "Grandpa," who lives in the crawl space of an attorney's office a couple of blocks away. The first time I noticed him, I was waiting inside Taco Cabana for a 12-pack of their breakfast tacos (because I had a coupon, of course). He came into the restaurant, got a complimentary cup of water, and sat in the main dining room to watch television. He looked "normal," like my dad, except appeared a little scattered and the bottom of the leg of his pants looked like he might have stepped in a creek at some point. His face was also a little scabbed up.

I watched him drink the water, then go back and get more water, some lemon slices, some lime slices, and sugar, then go back to the table to make lemonade. At that point, I started praying he'd stay long enough for me to get my food. When I did, I went over to him and offered him one of each of the 4 varieties of breakfast tacos, which he gladly accepted.

Speaking of Taco Cabana, I have to give them a shout-out because I see homeless and transient people in there all of the time. The McDonald's across the street has signs posted on their windows about how dine-in visits are to be limited to half an hour, a policy I am certain is designed to keep these same people from camping out in the climate control. However, Taco Cabana doesn't seem bothered by them. I've seen people wander in with cups from other restaurants and fill them up at the soda fountain, in full view of the employees, and no one gives them a hard time. Right on, Taco Cabana!

Since first seeing him, we've taken Grandpa food at "his" house (on the weekends, he hangs out more on the porch), kept food on hand to give him when he makes his morning walk-by, and have seen him several places in the neighborhood. He tends to get up and walk from the attorney's office toward campus every morning, and I don't know what he does all day, but he has an apparent schedule.

There are times that he's very "present" and will engage in light conversation, and there are times when he seems very out of it... and those times, he usually looks rougher, too, like he was in some kind of altercation or fall.

Also, one time he called to me when I was riding my bike past the office and asked me to come over there. In that moment, I didn't feel moved to detour, so I told him I'd be back in an hour and would check on him then (after I'd had James join me). When I returned, he'd moved along to somewhere else, so I never found out what he wanted.

Another person we see a lot is this guy whose hair is longer than James' and is all matted into one thick, long dreadlock. I'm not sure where he usually crashes, but he seems very strong, fit, and one of those people who has probably actually selected homelessness as a lifestyle. He is always visiting with people, and doesn't usually have the affect of someone with the same mental disconnects that present themselves so often with...

Crazy Guy. This morning, I mentioned that I haven't seen (read: heard) him in several months. James said he has seen him recently, but that he likely moved on a bit and doesn't stay in the alley behind our house anymore. We used to start every morning with a chorus of him hollering swears out back, but that hasn't happened in some time. It's funny, because we'd also see him very frequently on the sidewalk out front or walking past the Taco Cabana, and when he is in his right mind, he's extremely personable. He will ask how you're doing, and always follows it up with a "Jesus loves you." He also seems mildly offended if you acknowledge that too passively. He insists, "He does. He really does. I'm serious. Think about it and believe it."

There is also a very thin older woman (not to be confused with "Grandma," the lady who walks with her walker past our house several times a week; she actually has a residence here in the area, but I love to see someone of her age and perceived impaired ability getting exercise so regularly) who seems to have some connection to our house. The first time she walked by when I was out on the porch, she'd turned to look at the house. I explained that we'd just moved in, and when she realized there was someone outside and talking to her, she mumbled nervously, apologized, and walked away.

One night, well after bedtime, we were awakened by someone on the porch. I couldn't see out very well, but James could and said it was her. I don't know whether she'd knocked on the door or had dropped something or had moved a chair, but she was sitting down until we looked out and started making noise, then she disappeared around the corner.

One morning just as I got out of the shower, there was a light knock on the front door. It took me a few moments to put on my bath robe and make it to the window, but at that point, she was walking away. She very often stops as she's walking by, and looks at the house, and in the windows, as though she knows someone here or is looking for something.

We have been told by people who have been in the area a long time that this house, especially the giant front porch, was used regularly by homeless people in the months that it was vacant. Maybe this was "her" house just like the attorney's office is Grandpa's house.

Besides those "regulars," we occasionally have the chance to talk to people who are wandering by and just seem to need an ear.

Once, I came home from church on Sunday, and James was siting out on the front steps talking to a man who, during the conversation, pulled out a small notebook with schematics for some kind of deep-space propulsion system he'd designed. He said he was trying to make his way to Boston College to meet with a professor there to show him the plans. He explained how it would work, but that totally went over my head.

Another time, before I moved into the Nuthaus, James met a couple expecting a baby. Since I was getting ready to move out of the RV, he had me call them to see about maybe giving them the RV. After I met Kenneth and Vanessa (and her brother, and their dog) and spoke to them, it became clear that owning a $20,000 mobile home would probably have been more overwhelming to them than a blessing. They'd have to qualify for the rental space where I was parked, and he'd just started a job. Then if something happened that they couldn't pay rent, they'd have to move the RV or lose it. Then there's the insurance. We ended up referring them to Mobile Loaves and Fishes, since they know what they're doing, and I think MLF referred them to LifeWorks, which specializes in helping young families.

Then there was the morning when I was getting ready, actually, to go see the attorney whose office is also Grandpa's house when there was a knock at the door. I opened it, and there was a man standing there who said, "I'm sorry. I... this is going to sound weird, but I just feel like I'm supposed to be here. Does that sound weird?" I told him it did sound a little weird, and asked him how I could help him.

"Do you need anything?" I asked.

"I need a lot of things. Need to get off of drugs. Need a job. Any ideas?

I told him about the ReWork Project, and he asked for the contact information. I was going to write it down for him, but he asked if I had an Android charger so he could get his phone back online. It happens that James has an Android, so I got the charger and said I was getting ready to go out for the morning so he could only have about 15 minutes. I plugged his phone in, he put in the ReWork contact info (to date, I don't believe he's contacted them), and promptly fell asleep on the couch.

When it was time for him to go, I was a little nervous about leaving the house with his knowing I was going, but several minutes later when I did start up the road, he was again asleep on a neighboring porch, a house that was vacant at the time.

One night when I was making dinner, James was on the front porch reading, a lady walked by and started talking to him. Here's a thing I love about my husband: He closed his book, stood up from his chair, and went and sat on the steps so she would know she had his full attention.

I asked Daphne to go tell James that it was time to eat, but she didn't want to interrupt the conversation. I went out to get him, and he invited me over to hear the woman's story. She told me that she was really worried because there were a bunch of "bad guys" down at that house, "You know, the purple one? The one that McDonald's owns?" (Nope and nope.) She said that they were talking about getting lighter fluid and setting some guy on fire. She said they wanted to get arrested because one of them wanted to get into the jail because that's where their intended victim was. She said they had also threatened to stab someone else, and that "they have one of those things you do yard work with, you know that you break up the dirt with the blade? A hoe. They're going to do a Southern-style attack."

She was extremely agitated and said, "I just don't want no one to get hurt. Can you call the police for me? I'd do it myself, but they have my phone."

Of course, I wasn't going to call the police on her behalf, but it occurred to me:

"There's a fire station right there. If you're worried about someone committing arson, they'd be interested to know."

James, too, encouraged her to walk over and she got even more agitated and said, "No, but. Thanks. Thanks for... I have to..." and she wondered off. I could see in James' eyes his hurt for her and frustration about not being able to *do* anything... but we can't. Not in a "big picture" way, anyway. I think the best we can do is to try to be good neighbors during the times we have those opportunities.

P.S. This morning, James said it was kind of funny that we know some of the homeless people better than we know our actual next-door-rental-neighbor. It's true. When he got home yesterday, I happened to be outside seeing a friend off, and while I recognized his car as the one that's always parked in the drive, I thought, "Is *that* what that guy looks like?" I think I have been imagining the previous renter, and honestly have no idea when this guy moved in. James and I had noticed that there are fewer arguments than there used to be.

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