By Jim Sizemore
For several years, I’ve observed a homeless man in my neighborhood walking back and forth in front of my house each day, morning and afternoon. I live in the city, next door to a bar, and the sidewalk we share is just two red brick steps down from my front door. The homeless man has a flushed complexion and I suppose he could be a heavy drinker. But on the other hand, I’ve never seen him go into the bar next door, or into any of the many other bars along my street, which is a main drag with plenty of such places to quench a thirst.
The homeless man comes from somewhere west of my house—I have no idea from how far away—and he always walks to a shopping center, which is little more than a half-mile east. On the way back from the shopping center, he always carries two small paper bags, one with a cola beverage of some sort in a plastic bottle—I can see the screw-off cap peeking out from the bag. Since there are no bars in or near the shopping center, I have good reason to assume that the drink is non-alcoholic. The other bag, I surmise, holds his lunch, and perhaps even his dinner.
There have been long periods when I’ve seen the homeless man walking and holding his pants up with his left hand, appearing to have lost his belt. That condition usually goes on for a while—weeks, even months—and then he somehow comes into possession of another belt—or finds his old belt—because he no longer has to hold up his trousers. With both of his hands free again, he walks pretty much like you or me. That is, he walks like you or me except in the shopping center parking lot, where he avoids the sidewalk and claims the middle of a car lane. While strolling in the car lane, he does not look left or right, or behind him, or give way to the cars, so those of us who drive have to be careful to avoid hitting him.
One day about two years ago, the homeless man appeared on crutches, one leg in a cast that began below his knee and extended to, but did not cover, his toes. I don’t remember which leg it was, but what I do remember is that this was around the time that he and I began to make eye contact. After seeing each other up close a few times, we began to smile and nod at each other. That kept up a while, and before long we’d smile and nod and say “good morning” or “good afternoon,” just like regular people. But I noticed that when I carried my grocery bags to my car and we happened to pass each other in the car lane, we did not make eye contact or speak. I’m pretty sure that must have been his choice. If it had been up to me, we would have continued to smile and nod and speak. This is a very friendly neighborhood, and anyway, that’s just how I am.
For as long as the homeless man was on crutches, throughout the winter, he struggled to manage his little paper bags in all kinds of weather. After many months, he was finally off the crutches and walking with just the aid of a cane. This was in the spring, and around that time he also appeared to lose another belt, and throughout the summer I watched him wrestle with his cane and his bags in one hand, the other hand grasping the top of his pants. I don’t know what happened, or when it happened, but at some point I began to realize that things between us had changed dramatically. Now, no matter what the situation or location—or the weather, or the time of year—the homeless man and I no longer made eye contact or spoke.
So what happens on the day after Thanksgiving, comes as a big surprise. For the first time in months, I’ve decided to clean the very dirty plexiglass on my front storm door. This is a big deal because I hate to do windows of any kind. In fact, none of the glass in my house, except the front storm door, has been cleaned since I moved in some eleven years ago. So there I am standing on my little brick stoop, busy spraying and wiping down the storm door, and the homeless man comes by. He has long-since healed from his leg injury. And it seems to me that he makes a point to not look at me. But I won’t let this opportunity go by, and say, “Good morning, sir. How are you doing?” Without a beat, and without smiling or looking up, he replies, “Who can say?” and he continues on his way.