May 28, 2011 14 Comments
Late one afternoon I was sitting on the curb of Rio Grande Street, near the University of Texas at Austin, waiting for the Number 12 bus to collect me and convey me home. It was spring, and the purple Texas mountain laurels planted throughout UT’s grounds perfumed the air. I had just left a Latin American Lit class and was still drunk on discussions of time, infinity, and identity. A man sat next to me, not a foot away, and asked me for $5. He told me he was homeless, had recently endured some kind of surgery on his right knee, and pointed to the scar to prove it. I gave him the money, though it wasn’t mine to give since my parents, loans, and a small scholarship were paying my way through school. I couldn’t help myself, though. I’ve always found it difficult to say no to people.
Once I had given him the $5, he remained seated beside me on the curb. Everything about him sagged toward the ground. His body spread over the pavement, his eyes drooped, the corners of his mouth pointed downward as if they were attached to the ground by strings. Even his words tumbled downward from his lips when he spoke.
This man told me about an ex-wife and kids whom he never saw and couldn’t support. He exhorted me to appreciate the quality education I was receiving and to use it to do good things. Maybe he was lonely. Maybe he could tell that I was lonely and he derived purpose and satisfaction from keeping me company. Maybe a man like him, alone, homeless, in his fifties, with bad knees and a broken body, regains some of his youth when he is in the company of the young, to whom men like him are often invisible. They amble down alley-ways; they sleep in doorways and beneath bridges. Some of them while away their days in public libraries. Others lie on the green lawns of university campuses and divert foot traffic by their presence. Do we see them? Yes. Do we talk to them? Do we know them? No, and so they are invisible in the way plastic bags and newspapers blowing down the street are invisible. We know they’re there, yet we know nothing of where they come from or where they’re going, of who set them adrift and who forgot about them.
I’ve had so many encounters like this one. Once, a man with long red hair and a thick moustache, carrying a guitar and wearing bell-bottom jeans cornered me at the back of the bus (again, the Number 12) and mumbled something about what Austin used to be like in the 80s. I heard him say something about how back then the police didn’t harass people, and you could sleep where you liked, but in all I understood maybe a quarter of what he said to me over the roar of the bus and the wind howling through the opened windows. I tried my best to listen, but eventually the man grew angry and told me I hadn’t heard a word he had said and that I must not care.
On two occasions I talked to just-released prisoners, once while I waited for a Greyhound in Fresno, California, and once on that same Number 12 bus in Austin that so reliably served up interesting conversations. I remember their joy over finally getting out of prison, their eagerness to get things right this time, to see families in Montana or to pursue a talent for art they had only discovered while they were locked up. What joy could be more real than that of a man who has served his sentence and has just regained his freedom?
If they could have seen their own faces, naked with the wonder and hope of children, they may have recoiled from themselves and the unmanliness they beheld. But they could not see what I saw. They didn’t know that tears glistened in their eyes. They didn’t know that they giggled like little boys who had stumbled upon some squirmy creature for the first time and were taken with the novelty of their discovery. They were lost in themselves, lost in the world that was new to them again, forgetful of the manliness society told them they had to project from a young age. There’s something wonderful about watching a grown man return to himself, seeing him shake off the costume of masculinity and toughness in which he usually clothes himself, and listening to him as he expresses the complex mixture of hope, confusion, and fear that our culture tells us to suppress.