Saturday, August 19, 2006

David the Drifter

One evening about two years ago my wife (then, my fiance) and I were enjoying a movie at my house. Our movie was interrupted by the doorbell, rung by my next door neighbor. He'd just stopped by to let us know that he and his family were going on vacation for the next two weeks and could I pretty please watch the house for him? I agreed and then he added:

"Ummm... I don't know if you noticed, but there's this guy that's sitting at the corner of the intersection. He doesn't look dangerous, but I think he's a homeless guy. Just so you know." and with that he thanked me and left.

I relayed the information to Nikki and then we both peeked out a window to see what we could see. Sure enough, there was a silhoutte of a man sitting under the streetlight near a fire hydrant at the intersection. We watched him for a while as he sat there and did absolutely nothing. Then we finished watching our movie. Shortly there after, Nikki went home.

As soon as she left, I peered out the window again at the homeless guy inhabiting the southeast corner of the intersection near my house. I watched him for a while not sure what to think and wondering what I should do. Finally, a sense of cowardice came over me and I chastised myself for peeking out my window at a homeless guy, as if he's some sort of social unmentionable (which was probably what several others on my street were doing or had already done). Rebuked my my own conscience, I did what seemed the logical thing: I went out and spoke to the guy.

It was really kind of funny... and sad. When I approached him, I said the only thing I could think to say:

"Ya know, I don't really have much I can offer, but if you'd like some ramen noodles or something, I'd be happy to give ya something to eat."

Perhaps you've never done something like this before. Maybe you've done it several times. In either case, I don't blame you if you're chuckling at me. Anyway, he didn't hear a word I'd said because he was dead asleep, though he slept sitting up (which led me to presume he was awake). When he didn't respond and I realized he was unconscious, I took the opportunity to look at him in the glow of the street light. He was an older man with leathery and darkly-tanned skin that looked as though it was going to drip off his bones. He had a sleeping bag and an overstuffed backpack at his side that he reclined against. He looked like, well, a homeless guy.

Anyway, I cleared my throat. He woke up and I repeated my offer. He gruffly replied, "No. I got this from Pizza Hut," as he gestured to a foil-wrapped package. He went on, "but I probably won't eat it cuz I bet it's poisoned. They've done that to me before."

I said, "Oh," and sat down on the grass between him and the fire hydrant. I asked him a couple of questions and he proceeded to regale me with his life's story. Few of the details stick in my memory, but I do remember the general course his life took. He told the story backwards. He talked about the things he'd done in the last few decades, back to the battles he'd been involved in during World War II. But that was nothing compared to what he'd done in the first World War. At this point, I had a sneaking suspicion that life on the streets had taken a toll on his mind. My suspicions were confirmed when he went on to describe things he'd done back in the 1870's. Near the end of our conversation (which had taken some 40 minutes) he had worked back to the life and times of Jesus Christ, describing Jesus' disciples as hypocrites and anti-Christs because they wrote things into the Bible that Jesus never said (he knew because he was one of the disciples himself.) Between you me and the fire hydrant, you might say I gained some insights into the homeless I'd never considered before.

Don't get me wrong, I don't mean to laugh at this situation, funny as some of it turned out to be. In reality, I sat and listened to him talk because I really had no idea what to say. I thought about the fact that at one time in his life, he must have been as sane and normal as anyone else, but life as a drifter had taken it's toll on him. I prayed for him as he told me about the life he'd created in his mind. I wish I could have done something about it, but what?

Anyway, I have omitted one element in this tale thus far: the police officer who wouldn't go away. Early in the homeless man's recounting of his colorful past, a police officer in a patrol car had pulled up to the curb to see if everything was all right. I waved him on but he kept checking back every twenty minutes or so. On his third visit, he finally stopped, got out, and said,

"David, you have to move on. We've had several complaints. People don't want you sleeping here tonight."

David replied, "Well, where am I gonna go?"

The officer said, "Just go down by the Abraham Lincoln cabin along the riverfront. You can sleep there tonight."

David looked at the cop and grumbled, "You know those gangsters are just going to bother me again."

The officer replied, "They're on the north side, David. You're on the south. They won't bother you."

David leaned over and picked up his belongings, insisting all the while that they would. Then he headed west toward the small park that was home to a memorial to Abraham Lincoln, still talking to himself.

As soon as David was out of ear shot, I looked at the cop and asked, "So where did he come from?"

I was told that David migrated from the county to the north - he'd been picked up there for loitering and being a nuisance. He got a night in jail and they sent him on his way, ending up in Dixon eventually. I asked the cop if Dixon offered anything for people in his situation. He shrugged his shoulders and said, "Nope. We have to keep pushing them around town until they decide to leave or get arrested." It seemed like a frustrating thing to have to deal with, and the cop communicated as much in his response to me. I finally bade the officer a good night, crossed the street to my house and went to bed.

I saw David a few more times that week - once on my way to work (I stopped and spoke to him briefly) and then at a convenience store where he seemed to just stand around inside and watch the TV on the wall. Eventually, I heard a report that he'd been arrested for loitering in a business in Dixon and refusing to leave. After that, I neither saw him or heard of him again.

Since then, I've wondered from time to time just how significant homelessness is in Dixon. Honestly, the issue of poverty and homelessness in my community is something that's been in the back of my mind since I met David, though I've no clear idea on what to do about it. However, I do stand ready to support someone who does have a vision of what to do about it, as long as it doesn't amount to staring out our windows at them and calling the police...

- Graffy

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