The warning light shined like a beacon in the darkness and couldn't be ignored. I was low on gas. Knowing it was going to be a busy day tomorrow, I pulled into the convenience store near my apartment. Better to get the gas now, I had to be on the road early.
Winter winds blew a hint of moisture through the air. The same bitter chill that froze my breath promised snow or sleet in the next few hours. Going inside to pay, I felt the relative warmth of the store unclogging my sinuses. Handing the clerk a twenty, I absently sniffed the air, noticing a faint stale odor. The clerk cast a worried look over my shoulder. I turned, following his gaze.
In the back corner of the store stood a man... at least it resembled a man. Dressed in tattered rags, I couldn't help but notice two things: he was as far as he could get from the front of the store and still be inside. The second thing was he held a broom close to his chest, almost protectively. I turned back to the clerk, who smiled apologetically.
“I let him sweep out the store sometimes. That way he's out of the cold.” the clerk whispered as he handed me my change. I nodded understandingly.
Knowing the neighborhood like I do, I've seen him around. When I take my dog for a walk, he's on the corner waiting for a bus. At least, that's what he appears to be doing. When I go grocery shopping, he's hanging around the parking lot. He's a kid in his twenties or thirties and truth be told, a lot of people don't give him a second glance. Turning back to the clerk, I leaned over the counter slightly.
“Is he dangerous?” I asked the clerk.
The clerk leaned toward me slightly. “He's not mentally unstable, if that's what you mean. He's just had a run of bad luck. He got kicked out of his apartment a couple of months ago. He's been living outdoors, sleeping out back in that grove of trees.” the clerk said, pointing to where I knew a small thicket was behind the store. My apartment was only three blocks away. When I looked out my back porch, I could sometimes see the main street through those same trees.
I handed the change back. “Two coffees.” was all I said.
I went to the coffee machine and poured the hot drinks, then set them down on a table nearby. Looking directly at the guy in the corner, I crooked a finger, motioning him to sit down. Eyes widened in surprise, he pointed at himself. When I nodded he came over and sat down.
“My name is Ron.” I stated simply as I slid a coffee over to him. “What's your name?”
“James.” his hands held the cup tenderly, warming his fingers on the heat coming from the coffee. James said nothing. I wasn't sure what I was going to say, heck, I wasn't sure what I was doing.
James broke the silence first. “Got any change?” I shook my head. “Spent it on what's in your hand.” James sat back. A sudden mental image came across my mind. James was giving me the same look my son would give me when I'm about to give him a lecture. He was almost resigned to it, I needed to make the first move.
“I'm not going to talk to you about religion.” I started. James seemed to relax slightly as I said this. “Not going to ask you for sex.” More relief crossed his face.
“How old are you?”
“I'm 29, sir.”
Looking out at the parking lot, I noticed tiny pellets of sleet were starting to come down. “Looks like it's going to be a cold one.”
James nodded, hands still clinging to his coffee. I had the chance to really take a look at him while he was staring out the window. He hadn't eaten in a while. I could tell because his cheeks were a bit thin. I didn't think he had a shower in sometime either. James reminded me of some friends who would come back from a weekend hunting trip. Except James didn't have a ten pointed antler to show off.
He had several layers of clothes on including a red snow cap and what appeared to be a bent piece of cardboard sticking out of his tattered army surplus jacket. James looked ragged, especially with the growth of whiskers on him.
James noticed I was staring at him. “So why did you ask me over here?”
The truth was, I didn't know the answer to that myself. “Let me see if I got the facts.” I began. “You've been kicked out of your apartment and you don't have a job or family.”
James nodded. “You've been living day to day and you don't see a way out of your situation.”
“Well, I got plans see...” James began.
“But nothing solid, right?” I interrupted.
“Well it's like this...” James tried again, but I held up my hand. “Your past isn't that important. Your plans I don't need to know right now. Are you a vet?”
“Did a tour a few years back.”
I nodded. “Get to veterans services. They have programs that will help you.”
“But that waiting list is too long.” James complained.
“And how long will they be if you don't go?”
James shot me a snarling grimace, but kept quiet for a moment before coming up with an excuse. “They need to see an address in order to process me anyway.”
“So it's not your fault, right?”
“Yeah, that's right.” James agreed.
“Wrong answer, kid.”
James looked at me with a mix of frustration and impatience. “But it's not like that. My girl didn't have to kick me outdoors.”
“I'll bet she had a reason.” Silence from James. “It was probably something you did or didn't do.” More silence. James looked like he was about to get up and leave, but he knew how cold it was outside. All my instincts said to back off. “Whatever the reason, you're here now. Wanna know how to get back?” James looked up. Maybe he was feigning interest. Maybe not.
“I know you hate the cold outside. Hate the way people look at you. Can't get a job. Can't get money. Can't get food.”
“Gotta point?” James replied.
“Do you want to get back your life?”
“I ain't going back to her, if that's what you mean.” James retorted. I shook my head. “Not your old life. You're going to build a new life for yourself.”
What the heck was I saying? Part of it sounded like a presentation I would give to a company. What was I doing, giving a consultation to the homeless?
“Okay, first obstacle: you need an address to get stuff sent to.” My mind was racing barely ten steps ahead of my mouth. “There's a church that runs a homeless shelter downtown.”
“Yeah, St. Matthew's. Been there.”
“Go again, but this time speak to the person in charge.” James straightened and gave me his full attention. When I talk to large groups I can tell when I have them by when they do what James just did.
“Tell them you want to do some work, in exchange for allowing you to receive mail there. You're going to give Veterans services the shelter's address for mailing you.”
“This is bull man...” James began but I stopped him.
“Bad things have happened to you, I won't argue with that, but here's where you start making good things happen to you.” James took a sip of coffee and thought about what I just said.
“See if you can get a place to crash while you're there. If I remember right, there's a Methodist house not too far from here. They might not have a place for you to stay, but you can at least shower and get cleaned up.
“While you're waiting for Veteran's services to catch up to you, go down and apply at McDonald's or Arby's, one of the fast food places on the main strip.”
“But what am I going to eat till then?” James sounded like he wanted to put a hole in what I was telling him, but I wasn't going to give him the chance.
“You'll be doing what you're doing now. Eating at the shelter or a food bank. I won't lie, it'll be touch and go the first two weeks. Your first paycheck, you're going to buy a bike or a bus pass.” The promise of money seemed to make James's face light up. “One more thing: No beer.”
James gave me a look like I just waved used toilet paper under his nose.
“That's the problem right there!” I smiled for the first time since I started talking. “I'm going to take a guess, you like beer?”
“Your old girlfriend thought you drank to much and threw you out, am I right?” James nodded again.
“I want a car. The bus is too slow and I don't need to be pedaling all over the place.” James muttered.
“EEEEEENNNGGG! Wrong answer again.” More light was shining on James' situation. “You think you're too good to ride the bus?”
“I didn't say that.” James said softly, but I could tell by the way he lowered his head that was the way he felt. “Besides bikes are expensive.” I nodded my head, but had my answer ready.
“A new bike can cost money. Look for your bike at a pawn shop.”
“You're one of those fellas who have an answer for everything.” James said as he shook his head.
Now I took a sip of coffee. “Not me. Let's just say I know where you're coming from.”
James stared hard at me. I could tell he was trying to make up his mind. “You telling me you were out on the streets one time?”
I shrugged. Let him take that any way he wanted. “I just didn't like feeling sorry for myself. So I forced myself to do what I'm telling you to do.”
James sat and stared at his coffee. He took a sip, but said nothing as he put it back down. “It's not going to happen overnight, but if you want a house, car, clothes, you've got to work for them. I rode the bus for a year after my bike got stolen.” James was looking at me in a whole new way. “What do you think I do for a living?” James shook his head. “It doesn't matter what I'm doing right now. All you need to know is I started as a busboy in a Chinese restaurant.”
“But what if I don't want to do fast food?”
I didn't really have an answer for that question. I took a sip of my coffee and thought about it.
“Then go to one of the construction sites around the edge of town. Ask around and see if you can talk to the site manager. Do what they tell you, or if they know of someone who's hiring, go where they tell you.”
“But that's hard work.” James sounded a little fearful.
“Think of it this way.” I wanted to keep this conversation positive. “You're young. It's not forever. It's for now. There's no such thing as an overnight sensation. Those stories are usually fifteen years in the making. Construction workers make pretty decent money for the work they do. Now if you visit any pawn shop you'll see there are a bunch of tools on the shelves. It's where I get a lot of my tools.”
James appeared to be seriously considering what I said. “But I gotta give up beer?”
“Not forever, just for now. Buy yourself a six pack when you move into your new apartment as a way to celebrate. If you drink too much, you're going to find yourself back where you started.” My coffee was gone and it was time for me to head home. I stood up, James remained seated, but looked up at me.
“Take that any way you want. I don't give hand outs, I give hand ups. Stop feeling sorry for yourself. A lot of things that happen to us are our own fault, good and bad. Work on those faults, don't be afraid to ask for help.”
“People don't help.” James countered.
“People aren't going to want to support you forever. If folks see you're trying to make something of yourself, watch the help pour in.”
I didn't want to hear James' rebuttals or denials, so I turned and headed out the door, not looking back. I never saw James on the street corner again.