I guess you could say this was a serendipitous morning. My encounter with a homeless fellow this morning was something unexpected, but illustrative. My son Evan Paul Cudworth is running the Rite Aid Cleveland Marathon this weekend to raise money for a homeless benefit group called Back On My Feet. Here’s a link to his fundraising page. Evan worked with this organization when he was living in New York City. Please support his run to benefit this worthwhile organization. And read more about the story of Back On My Feet.
A chance meeting
There are many mornings when I choose to get out of my home office to work on client content. There are actually six or seven Starbucks near my home. Each has its particular benefits. I’m not the type to get all possessive of a certain table, or become too much a creature of habit. Part of the benefit of getting out of the home office is the feeling of fresh circumstances.
This morning it was pouring rain, and after dropping my fiance at the train station I pulled up to the Starbucks in town. It was raining so hard that I sat in the car for a while listening to an interview on Sirius radio. The Opie radio show was conducting a fascinating interview with newsman Tom Brokaw, one of those moments when it pays to sit and listen. I laughed when he said that conservatives think him a bleeding heart liberal and liberals consider him a Rightie Wing Nut. Categories don’t work for everyone.
Out on the streets
Then the rain let up a touch and I jogged across State Street to Starbucks in downtown Geneva and ordered my low-fat turkey sandwich with green shaken iced tea. Then I sat down to write.
In the door came a man in a wheelchair. The shoulders of his gray sweatshirt were stained dark from the rain. The front of his shirt was discolored from years of use and the camouflage sleeves of his undershirt gave the impression that he was a veteran hard on his luck and living hard on the streets.
He gave me a smile as he made his way through the restaurant. “Hey,” I said. “How goes it in the chair today?”
His tanned face opened into a smile. “Not bad,” he said.
His name is Jim.
Jim wheeled around to buy himself a coffee. Someone had treated him to a cup. Then he parked his chair in the open space of the cafe. I studied the condition of Jim’s wheelchair. All my years of caring for my late father in a wheelchair had taught me a few things about how and where wheelchairs eventually give out. The arm rests, for example, always take a beating. I noticed that the arms of Jim’s chair were cracked and rough.The chair looked a little wobbly too. It’s always the little irritations that make life in a wheelchair most miserable.
So I asked him, “Could use a new chair?”
He blinked and wheeled closer. “I’ve got one you can have if you like. It was my late father’s chair, and it’s still almost new.”
We agreed to meet outside the Starbucks in 15 minutes. I drove home and brought the newer chair back in my car. When I arrived the rain was coming down hard again. Streams were pouring down the gutters. My new acquaintance was tucked into the alcove of a storefront, sitting out of the rain.
I left the new wheelchair in the back of my car and came over to talk with him until the skies let up.
Lack of feeling
“How’d you lose the leg?” I asked.
“Diabetes,” he responded. “They want to take the other one too. But I told them they can’t have it.” His other foot is turning orange. “I have neuropathy,” he chuckled, stomping his leg to demonstrate the lack of feeling in his foot. “I have a little nephew that likes to jump up and down on my foot because it doesn’t hurt me. He thinks it’s funny.”
We waited out the worst of the rain. I asked him where he lives, and whether he had tried getting a spot in the homeless shelter in a nearby town. “They’re always full,” he told me. “I been up there four times and there’s no room.”
On the road
“How do you get all the way there?” I asked.
He made a wheeling motion, and laughed. “Just me.” The homeless shelter is 2.5 miles away. I know the distance because the road that leads to the church where the homeless shelter is covered by a Strava segment. I’ve ridden it many times. In fact, I used to live on that street in a little brick bungalow. I’ve run thousands of miles up and down that street. I cannot imagine pushing a wheelchair that distance even once. Not with one leg and a diabetes-damaged foot.
“Do you collect disability?” I asked.
“$700 a month,” he told me. “It’s not enough to live on. I got a choice. I can either live outside and eat, or I can live inside and starve. So I live outside.”
“Where you do you keep your stuff?” I asked.
“In the woods by the train station,” he told me. “I yank a small tree down with a rope, and hang my stuff on the tree. Then when I head out I let the tree snap back up.” He gestured to the sky.
“Does anyone try to steal your stuff?” he asked. “Oh nawww,” he smiled. “But coyotes do. I have to whack them with a stick to keep them away,” he said, making a poking motion with his arm.
When the rain lets up we started our trek to the home of his aunt and uncle who live three blocks away. “They’re set in their ways,” he informed me. “But they let me use their garage and stuff. We can take the new chair there,” he said.
As we worked our way through town he took pains to cut the tangents the way world-class runners do when trying to cut time on a course. So rather than following the sidewalks, we jaywalked from parking lot to parking lot, cutting across parking spaces in many places. “There’s a lot of crazy drivers out here,” he tells me. “I almost get hit four times a day. They don’t care.”
The curbs present a problem. The inclines of parking lots too. He gets stuck several times, then pauses to sit in the rain in the middle of a parking area for a moment. He looks up at me with crystal blue eyes, a little bloodshot at the corners. “I get tired,” he laughs. The things most of us take for granted present constant obstacles for Jim.
That’s his name: Jim. Jim smokes. He also coughs a little. Then he gathers his strength again and we wheel on toward the home of his relatives.
Friends and family
It turns out Jim and I attended the same high school. He remembers my younger brother, the basketball player. Then he recalls in interesting detail the death of three guys that he’d known from his 1978 class. “They were driving 130 miles per hour on Crane Road,” he mused. “They hit a tree and the car was full of open liquor and all that. One guy told the cops not to look inside.”
The story seems random at first. But it seems also a comment on the passage of time and how many people seem to fly off the handle on hard streets, wasted by tragedies of their own making. Jim does not seem to see his life as a tragedy. In fact, he declines my offer to get him some financial help.
Then we talk about his family out in California. “It’s warmer out there,” I offer. “You wouldn’t have to freeze so much.”He smiles. “We don’t get along that well,” he admits. “And I don’t have the money to get out there.” But that makes me want to help him all that much more. If he got on a train, or a bus, or a plane. And someone was willing to take him in…who knows?
But we’ll see. Such is life. We are both freed and bound by our relationships. The first step in all this was getting Jim the newer chair. At least his life is incrementally easier.
There was still one part of Jim’s story of homelessness that was hard for me to reconcile. “How do you make it through the winter nights?” I ask.
“I freeze,” he admits, clutching his own shoulders. “But I have this sleeping bag that’s good down to -81 below. So I wrap myself up in that.”
Down by the tracks. In the woods. All winter long. Homeless yet determined to live by a certain ethic. “I like to make it on my own,” he responds when I asked if I could do some fundraising for him.
Stories and contradictions
There are all sorts of contradictions in the life stories of the homeless people that I’ve met over the years. Their tales often don’t make sense in conventional terms. There is often no A + B = C logic to the sequences leading to their homelessness. With men like Jim, there are clearly profound health issues at work. But for so many homeless people, life is a tarsnake of confusing circumstances. Sometimes there is a form of mental illness involved. Other times all it takes is a major medical problem that can wipe out a family’s savings and net worth. Even the popular singer Jewel lived in her car for a while. Homelessness is seldom the product of just one thing.
But when you see young people working the hard streets in downtown Chicago or New York or any big city in the world, it can make you cynical. They post or hold up signs scrawled in dried-out Sharpies. These give the elevator pitch of their homelessness. “Need money to take get to Iowa,” they might say. Or, “Homeless and need food. Please give.”
There was a most lovable homeless character in the Amy Schumer movie Trainwreck. Comedian Dave Attell plays the homeless guy who makes comments about Amy’s existence. One morning as she passes by attired in an obviously hot outfit, he calls out: “What’s the matter, did church let out early?”
The homeless I’ve encountered are not without humor. They’re people like you and me. Yet they are different, by circumstance.
Too real for reality
Some of the elevator pitches of the homeless seem too clearly conceived to be true. And indeed, if you dig deep enough, some are carefully constructed lies. But they are all clearly designed to sell survival. We can choose to be suspicious of these stories and methods, yet they are not so different from the most sophisticated advertising campaigns on earth, or the pitch of politicians to earn your votes. It always a message with a slogan a bit of closure. We’re all selling something. Acquisitiveness and survival. One and the same.
Here’s how you can genuinely help the homeless…
As noted: I guess you could say this was a serendipitous morning. My encounter with Jim this morning was something unexpected, but illustrative. My son Evan Paul Cudworth is running the Rite Aid Cleveland Marathon this weekend to raise money for a homeless benefit group called Back On My Feet. Here’s a link to his fundraising page. Please give to this worthwhile organization. And read the story of Back On My Feet.
This is a cause all of us who run, ride and swim should support.
GIVE FULLY. SEEK JUSTICE. LOVE LIFE.