Encounters with Drifters and Prisoners: Thoughts on Manhood

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.

About atomsofthought
Photographer. Traveler. Writer. Reader.

14 Responses to Encounters with Drifters and Prisoners: Thoughts on Manhood

  1. You know I have to ask…..may I repost a link to this? I think this is a great segue from the Schwarzenegger post to talking about the Essays on Childhood project with the “male voice” theme.

    Beautifully written, as always!

  2. Mommoli says:

    I read a few of your posts and I was especially moved by this one. It made me reflect on my hurried and superficial interaction with the world. Maybe reading more of your posts will help me slow down and breathe.
    I also loved your photos in the Boston to Seattle story.
    Thank you

    • Thank you, Mommoli! It means a lot to know that my writing had a positive effect. I have to remind myself daily to slow down and breathe, and to focus on deeper things. I don’t always succed at this 🙂

  3. changingmoods says:

    Very deep and thought-provoking piece. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Pingback: Encounters with Drifters and Prisoners: Thoughts on Manhood | Esse Diem

  5. skippingstones says:

    I got to spend some time with my parents Fri night and we were talking about putting emotion into the writing. This as a direct result of my discussion with you. (By the way, my Mom is now an atomsofthought fan. She says you’re an old soul.) During this talk, my Dad said that the best writing puts you in the story – you are immersed.

    This is, for me, one of your best pieces. I was there on that bench. I could see the man. He was a line drawing at first and then the color filled in and he spoke to me. I felt his dejection and my own compassion. Later my ears were filled with the muffled cacophony of noise on a bus. I could see another man’s face and I couldn’t hear his words. I could feel his frustration and anger. I was in the story. I was immersed. Thanks for that.

    • Hey Michelle! I’m glad you got to spend some time with your parents. I have been told I have old soul before, so I’ll trust your mom’s judgement 🙂 I take it as a compliment. Thank you for reading and commenting, and for letting me know that this post achieved what I hoped it would. I felt good about it and it’s nice to have confirmation that it worked.

  6. pattisj says:

    You have a lot of information to peruse on your blog. I look forward to visiting, and traveling the world via your lens.

  7. findmepeace says:

    Interesting way to look at it. I like how real it feels when I read your writing. Subscribing 🙂

  8. Pingback: You like me! You really like me! | Let me ask you this…

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