It was on sale you see. A quart of Gatorade for ninety-nine cents. And it was my meal for the day.
August, 1991. Eugene, OR.
I’m tired, and I’m thirsty. The drink is so good I don’t notice him until he speaks.
“Hey, could you spare a million bucks?”
Haven’t heard that one before. It makes me laugh, given the irony of the situation.
“You don’t know how funny that is,” I say. “Sorry, though, this is it,” holding up the bottle.
“Well, how about some conversation then? Keep me company for a while?”
This is rich. Really. I look around. It’s getting dark, and a homeless guy has asked me to ‘talk’ for a while. So, not knowing his motives, I agree. After all, I think I can take him if it really comes down to it, and it’s not like I have anywhere better to be.
We go to an alley not two blocks from there. It’s between a building and an aqueduct, so it isn’t like there’s no visibility.
“You want some beer?” He says, offering his 40.
“No thanks, I don’t drink. Plus I’m not 21.”
This looks like it makes him nervous at first, but the expression goes away. “Oh. If the cops come by, be sure to tell them you aren’t drinking.”
“I will. Neither of us need to go to jail.”
“You play football?”
He reaches into his pack and pulls out an ancient hand-held LED football game. I smile.
“Oh, that kind. Yeah, when I was younger. I haven’t seen one of those in years though.”
“Good. Maybe I’ll win.” He laughs.
He doesn’t though. I kill him 3 to 1. He puts the game away.
“You’re pretty good.” Looks at me thoughtfully. “Want to arm wrestle?”
Another curve. What makes someone want to arm wrestle a guy they’ve never met? Of all the things that cross my mind, the one that doesn’t is “he wants to see if he could take you”. So we arm wrestle.
He gives up when he’s three quarters of the way down.
“Damn. You’re a strong guy. Good arm.”
“I do a lot of pushups. So what’s your story?”
“What’s there to tell?”
“How did you get here?”
“Here, you mean…”
“Why are you living like this?”
He looks at me for a minute. “Cocaine. I had a good job once. A family. And I sold it all. I sold everything I had for that shit. Don’t ever do it.”
“Don’t worry. I won’t.”
“Do you believe in God?”
Do I? Yes. Do I want to tell this guy? I don’t know. But I tell him anyway. “Yeah. I guess you could say that.”
“Me too. But I think I’m a sinner.”
This is suddenly the kind of situation my dad would love. But this isn’t about him. It’s about me and… “What’s your name, anyway?”
“Why do you think you’re a sinner, Paul?”
“Well, you know, sometimes I get… sticky fingers.”
Like I haven’t? Even when I could afford things I’ve taken them. Nothing big, but still. “I think God will understand. You have to survive right? Which brings me to another question. Why don’t you just get a job?” That was rude, I’m sure. But it’s something I’ve always wondered.
“What do you mean job?”
“You know, go to work like everyone else?”
“I have a job.”
“What job? What do you do?”
“I pick up cans. I recycle things. I ask people for money. The other day I found a knife in a dumpster and sold it to a guy. I got ten bucks for that knife.”
“You call that a job?”
“Yeah. It beats the hell out of anything else. I make enough to eat off.”
It seems like a good time to ask him another thing I’ve been wondering. “Why do you drink so much when it was drugs that ruined your life in the first place?”
And as though there were no other answer, he says “I have to. I sleep on the ground. I need that alcohol to even get to sleep. I’ve tried, believe me…” And he lets is go.
I let it go too. Because it makes sense. “So you like what you do?”
“If there was a way to change it, I might. But how exactly am I supposed to do that? I screwed up, and I may be paying for it, but things could be worse.”
“At least I can talk to people. I have friends. Take that tramp over there.” He points across the street. A bag-lady is pushing her cart along. “I could be like that.”
And it hits me. They have a structure to their society too. He looks at this woman, who in my eyes is just another homeless person, in a way most people would look at him. I wonder who the woman uses.
A man walks into the alley. Paul looks up at him and smiles.
“Hey, man. How’s it going?” The guy smiles at him, and then doesn’t smile at me.
“Who’s that?” He says to Paul.
I’m not insulted. I’m the intruder here, not him. “I’m Jon.”
He sits on the other side of Paul.
“It’s okay, man. He’s cool,” to the new guy. “This is Doug,” to me.
“What’s he doin’ here?” Doug asks.
“We’re having a conversation. He’s a strong guy. You should arm wrestle him.”
I have to draw the line somewhere. “No, that’s okay. Once is enough.”
I guess Doug figures he can talk to me now. So he does. “Why are you here?”
I look at him. “Why not?”
“Well, you look like you could be out at some frat party or somethin’, drinkin’ Heineken with your buddies.”
“I guess I’d rather be here.”
For a long time he just looks back at me. Then nods. “You’re okay.”
Interesting. I sit, listening to them talk, and really wonder why I’m here. I’m lucky enough to have friends to stay with, or I might be with them for more than just an hour. Then I realize there are people I need to see, so I will have a place to stay.
“I have to go. But maybe I’ll see you again.”
Doug looks at me, like seeing me for the first time. “Yeah. Right. You mean to tell me that if you saw me in the store, you wouldn’t look the other way because of what your friends might think?”
I almost get angry. “No. I don’t do that. I’d say hello. And my friends would understand. Otherwise they wouldn’t be my friends.” There isn’t anything else to say, so I don’t. Doug nods again, and looks away.
“Hey, man. If you ever need somewhere to stay, you can come hang out at our camp for as long as you need.” And saying this, Paul holds out his hand.
“Thanks. I really do appreciate that. How do I find it?” I take it, and shake.
“Just follow this stream all the way out of town. We’re at the end.”
“See you around. Paul. Doug.”
Doug looks up. Shakes his head. “You’re weird.”
Months later, I saw them again. Individually.
I was getting something at the supermarket. And it wasn’t Gatorade. I happened to glance at the lane next to me. It took a minute to recognize the man I’d spent an hour with in a dark alley, but I did. He looked up. Met my eyes. I nodded. He looked away.
I let him go. And I wondered if he didn’t remember, or didn’t want to. I’ll never know.
I was walking by campus with my sister. Some guy came stumbling across the street. He was holding his arm, and blood was running down it from two separate gashes. I caught Paul’s attention, and watched the recognition slowly creep into his eyes. He told me about his crazy girlfriend stabbing him with a pair of scissors. He told me about her kicking him out. We watched the cops drive up together. When I started to intercept them, he told me not to. That I’d better leave. I looked at my sister, and her confused, worried expression.
I took her away from there. I often wonder what happened. And what would have if I’d stayed.