I had a nostalgic moment with a vagrant this weekend.
That’s not particularly surprising or new. As a former cop reporter, I’ve always been fascinated with the homeless, America’s last indigenous population, and their sprawling, coast-to-coast reservation: the city.
There was the homeless woman who developed a crush on Michael when he was living at my house in DC. Every once and again, she’d leave canned beets or a kitchen chair on my porch as a ‘Thinking of You’ gesture to Mikey. The street musicians and mobile soup kitchens who were fodder for endless beat stories. The homeless lady who hawked a loogie on my door when I told her I had no change. Or the homeless man I nearly accidentally crushed when he grabbed some zzzzs under the shade of my Jeep.
The taproot fascination, though, came four years ago, when I was having the Harley repaired.
The shop sat only a mile from my home, and the mechanic said there was no need to wait around; the repair would take two days, at least. So I had to decide: Succumb to my lazy-ass nature and take a taxi home, or hoof it.
I would have likely chosen sloth had I not seen the empty grocery cart in the alley behind the shop (shopping carts are like Winnebagos for city drifters, and twice as abundant as discarded cans, even though they’re worth between $75-$125 apiece).
So I dumped my belongings in the mobile cage: $200 helmet; $300 leather jacket; new iPhone in the seat normally reserved for eggs and infants.
And we began our rickety, one-wheel-askew stroll home.
Had I ducked into a phone booth and changed into a cape and big red S, the change in appearance could not be more immediate and stark. I may have had $1,000 worth of gear in that cart, but suddenly I was a hobo, human flotsam acting as catch basin for trash treasures.
No one looked me in the eye as I walked down Sherman Way. A woman stood in her doorway and waited for me to pass before she walked to her mailbox. A young man and woman, hand in hand, walked on the grass so as to not brush too close. When I passed the local park/playground, a Motel 6 for the indigent, a bedraggled man awoke from his nap, sat up and looked at me. Mistaking me for the penniless, he flopped back to sleep.
As I neared the house, I came upon my elderly next door neighbor, Ted. He asked about the cart, and I shared the adventure.
“You should have called me,” Ted said. “I’d be happy to give you a ride.”
I thanked him for the offer, then realized later that he gave me something more. An epiphany.
I had spent so many years covering the street and its denizens, I thought I had some inkling of their worldview. And congratulated myself so for fragments of altruism. But I was so foolish in my notion that all they needed was money. When really, under the cloaking shield of poverty, they perhaps needed something more basic: acknowledgment. A look in the eye. Even a firm no is, at very least, recognition of you as a human being.
But back to the nostalgic moment.
Whenever I’m feeling invisible (or at least translucent), I like to disappear by car or motorcycle into the Santa Susanna Pass, a wending, scenic and mountainous ribbon of highway engraved into the hillsides of Simi Valley. With the right song and corner, it’s a transcendent escape.
On the drive back, I noticed a man standing roadside at my exit, holding a single-word sign for the motorists as they stutter stepped through the intersection. Emblazoned on the makeshift billboard was this:
No embellishment, no plea, no bullshit sales strategy. Just a fact, out there like a wayward shopping cart.
I rolled down my window and pulled out my wallet. I gave him the contents: $8. I like to think I’d have given him $60 if I had it, though I’m not that confident in what Lincoln called the better angels of our nature.
The man took the bills with two hands, and smiled, and said something as the light turned green. I could not hear what he said.
But Mister, I see you.