August 10, 2008

Kimball

I was cleaning the windows at an office complex the other day. It was a Saturday, so the place was inactive. As I was working my way around the building I came to the parking lot side. The lot was completely empty except for one man who was sitting on a curb 25 yards from where I was working. Since we were completely alone, I soon noticed him continuously watching me without any self consciousness. He had a pack or something beside him, and a glass bottle, probably beer. Given the distance and his crouched position I couldn’t make much about him out, but he had a bandana covering his head and the rest of his attire appeared informal, maybe even shabby. For the next 30 or 40 minutes I didn’t pay close attention to him but was always aware that he was there and staring, similar to the feeling you have when riding an elevator alone with a stranger. I started to think about the harmless but socially inept attention he was paying me and for a moment became a bit bothered and even allowed that small, embarrassing tough guy in me to jump into the cognitive fray. In the midst of this inner “Yo, yous gotta problem, buddy” dialogue, I jerked myself back to the civilized world with the thought “What’s wrong with you? This guy is probably homeless, lonely, and sad and is simply enjoying the welcome diversion of watching a guy clean windows.” It’s actually very common for people to pause and watch the fluid carving of the squeegee. Feeling ashamed for being so ungenerous, I paused my book on cd about the history of the Carlisle Indian School and early American football, and said “how’s it going” to this man who looked like he might be Indian himself. Actually he could as easily be Hispanic or a sun-tanned Caucasian; one of those rare nondescript types you just can’t tell about. He returned my greeting with a “hey can I ask you something?,” and walked over toward me. As he neared I saw he was short, had dirty clothes, smelled of alcohol and was still of indistinguishable ethnicity. He politely offered his hand, which I took. But I did so with the latex gloves I was wearing providing a thin but impregnable barrier. I know it sounds like hyperbole, but I swear i could feel the sticky dirtiness of his hand even through the glove. I simultaneously felt relieved and guiltily snobby about avoiding skin to skin contact. “Sure. What do you want to know.” “I’ve been watching you for a while and wonder if you have to use a special soap to wash these windows cause they have tint on ‘em or something?” I explained that the soap has almost nothing to do with it, but there are a few tricks that make all the difference, and invited him to come closer and let me teach him. He declined and said something else and during the next few sentences we exchanged he volunteered that he was homeless and was embarrassed about it. He seemed to care what I thought about him, and thought it best to immediately disclose that he was aware of how he looked and what a non-homeless person must think when they see him. He didn’t say all of this explicitly, but whatever wasn’t explicit was clearly implied. In my opinion, this social concern significantly separates one type of vagrant from the other type who has let hopelessness, the bludgeon of time, or mental fog chase away any care for your opinion. The one immediately acknowledges their pathetic smell/look/occupation, and establishes that they were once a productive, happy person like you, until such and such tragedy occurred, while the other cares as little for your opinion as you do for theirs. I’m not sure which is healthier. Then there is the third type that combines self and social awareness with insanity. I knew a homeless man in Provo named Dennis who’s tale of his decline was so outlandish (He used to be on some type of board with Robert Redford and some other key lady up at Sundance and he was still owed 20 million dollars that the key lady was illegally withholding but his lawyers were suing over it and he just needed to hold on until then and is that an economics textbook in the backseat because I’ve always loved macroeconomics although I find the micro stuff tiresome and you can pull over here at this bush because this is where I sleep.) that it couldn’t have been anywhere near true, but it was also full of such intricate detail that didn’t change from telling to telling. It was the type of realistically mundane detail only a talented novelist could manufacture and only a highly intelligent person could remember, weave together, and field random questions about while maintaining the structural integrity of the story.

Back to Kimball. That was his name. He walked stiffly, the way I walk the day after snowboarding or biking for the first time in years. Every part of him looked so very sore. It made me wince in tingling pain to even look at him. He also carried his right arm gingerly. He hurt it in some sort of work accident and since then it had dislocated 4 times. He had a black eye and a fat lip, whose puffiness was either due to tobacco chew forcing it to protrude out, or something violent. It turned out to be the latter, although the former might also have been true. His “friend” had beaten him up for some apparently minor disagreement. The way in which he related the story was particularly heart wrenching for two reasons. First, his lack of any machismo about having been in a fight was stark. In fact, there was no “fight,” just him being pummeled by another person. Secondly, the story lacked any specialness in his mind. He didn’t tell it as if it was rare or unlucky or noteworthy to be physically harmed. That’s not to say he was stoical, just that he was resigned to that being an inevitable part of his life. The sad, un-extraordinary manner in which he recounted his physical beating spoke poignantly about how long and brutally life had beaten him down.

When he was asking me about the method I was using to clean the windows, for a second I got a excited and thought “you know, maybe I could hire him.” “Nope.” Then, “maybe I could teach him some basics and he could try to do this on his own someday and work his way out of this sad life he has.” No again. Even if he suddenly had the ambition to reverse 20 years of giving into addictive and easy impulses and aspired to even the simplest residential business and was willing to do the hard physical work, he would still have the insurmountable problem of procuring a vehicle and basic equipment. Then he’d have a very hard time appearing clean and trustworthy enough to get into people’s homes. Then there was the fact that he was in pretty rough physical shape and his gimpy arm didn’t look anywhere near fit enough for the work. I was flooded with the hopelessness of his situation. He was 40 with the health of a 65 year old, with little education, even less discipline, and no car, clothes, shelter, or job history. What could he ever do to pull himself up? How could he escape his misery? It seemed to me like there was truly almost no way out. What a depressing thought.

Still, I invited him to come to the windows and have a quick lesson, if only for something to do. He did. While he was watching me do my thing, I asked him quite a few questions about himself and how he had gotten to this point. I’m always interested in how people end up where they do. What made this guy, with his dirty t-shirt and 2 pm beer end up in such a tragically different place from the tool walking out of the building with a blue tooth phone attached to his ear? A few pivotal mistakes? Luck? Here’s what I gathered. He has family in the area. They sometimes help him out. He has an 18 yr old daughter and a 5 yr old daughter by different mothers. Those are the only ones he “knows about,” said twice in an attempt at humor. He is hearing impaired. He has a huge, sore bump on his thigh that can be seen through his pants. He panhandles for money, making as little as nothing and as much as $100 in a few hours. Has a regular outdoor place he sleeps at. He surprisingly finds the winters easier than the summers, in large part due to the summer bugs (Albuquerque is the most bug-free place I personally have ever been to). Graduated high school and went to a year at UNM, where he says he played football. Spends money in the following order: 1. food, 2. hygiene, 3. booze. Only drinks every other day, which his associates consider a remarkable thing. When asked what started his downward spiral, he says it was when he caught his fiancĂ© in college cheating on him. He just fell apart and hasn’t ever recovered.

After I finished the windows, I told him I needed to quickly walk around the complex to do a quality control check. We had been doing windows 15 feet from my car, which was the point at which I left him to walk around 2 buildings. I had 90% trust in him, but the wallet and keys in my car cast the winning vote for the other 10%, so I inconspicuously kept an eye on him as I rounded the corner, but by that point he had already begun walking back to his curb, 20 feet away. I wondered if he could sense my hesitancy and retreated accordingly, or if he was just perceptive enough to do this with people in general. When I returned a few minutes later I packed up my stuff and, out of his view, and opened my wallet, hoping for a 5 or a 10. No dice. My options were the extreme 20, or 2 one dollar bills. Dang. After 5 seconds of deliberation I decided that my own “relatively” poor state couldn’t justify the 20, but I felt bad only giving him 2 bucks. So I emptied the change mug in my consul. Mostly pennies, but there were a few specks of silver breaking up the bronze. Maybe another couple bucks. Doubting he had a nice, new zip lock to put a fist and a half full of coins in, I did the best I could and dumped them one of the many unused disposable gloves in the car. Then I saw the 5 fruit leather packets I keep for snacking and felt that made the offering a bit more respectable. I later realized I had a fresh, untouched tuna (albacore actually, the aristocracy of the tuna world) and cheese sandwich I could have given him. This sandwich would later end up in the garbage and I felt horrible about the oversight. Kimball was grateful for it all and sheepishly said “hey man, I wasn’t meaning to panhandle you or nothing,” and I believed him. He was just bored and lonely and probably didn’t figure a window cleaner for the biggest tipper anyway. I told him it seemed like there had to be some sort of job core or continuing education program out there that someone at the homeless shelter could set him up with. He was ignorant and non-committal. He went back to the curb and tore open a fruit leather, wolfed it down, and I think he started on another. When I turned around to walk to my car, his horrible existence made me tear up for a few seconds. Then I took my iPod out of my back pocket, got in my car, waved goodbye, turned on the AC, called a friend to hear about his Ironman Triathlon, returned a movie, and went home to a pretty wife, a pretty little boy, and 4 kinds of fresh fruit.

10 comments:

Greg said...

That, my boy, is an essay on real life--well-written, well-told, and well-acted.

Our homeless shelter here just took 17 of their most "frequent fliers" off the streets and put them in apartments, with training in cooking, cleaning a house, using a phone, personal hygiene--basic, basic stuff. They signed them up for every possible social benefit and job training program and are working with them to move them along. All but two have moved up the ladder, and those two needed mental commitment. The resources they freed up now treat 100 "normal" cases.

Being homeless is not a simple problem, but your response was so, so sweet. I'm so glad you shared this with us.

Jo said...

Wow, Chris, that was well-written. Fascinating and heart-breaking. I've had brief contact with a couple of sad cases like that and thought with frustration "why doesn't somebody DO something about this!?" That's a cop-out, but it really seems so hard to know just what to do.

I love your tender heart, and I'll bet just your kind interest gave him a lift that day.

Andrea W. said...

I agree with Mom and Dad, what a well-written poignant post. It is so frustrating to want to help but not know what to do. It sounds like you did well and I'm sure it's meaningful to just be treated with dignity and humanely.

Braden and Meredith said...

Profound post, Chris. Well done bro

Eliza said...

oh that is so sad, wow my heart is just breaking right now. How come I'm such a tard and feel so helpless but other people are just smart and organized and know what to do to change their lives. I am sure he appreciated your kind interest. that was very well written.

Dallin D. Hutchinson said...

Bell, that was a facinating insight from a person in the majority looking at the minority in American (and western) society. This is really interesting to me, especially since I returned back to the US and Australia from Cambodia, Vietnam, and Thailand.

It would be really interesting to me now to contrast a similar but opposite observation from a deprived individual in one of these developing countries where they are living on less than one dollar a day, and they come accross an affluent westerner observing their day-to-day rituals of survival. I can honestly say that I intentionally did this while I was in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, Cambodia. It was an incredibly insightful lesson into self-determination, dedication, and resourcefulness. It was this experience which taught me vividly how the Cambodians survived the reign of the Khmer Rouge, and how the Vietnamese whooped our butts in the "Imperialist American War Against Vietnam" (quoting thier take on the whole thing). Anyways, facinating Bell! Keep up the posting.

Davis said...

Geez. That is so sad. I drive past a homeless shelter on my way to work every day. The time I pass by must be the time at which the men are kicked out for the day, and I am struck by how awful it must be to have nowhere to go and nothing to do and no one to see. Anyway, your post was well-written and heartbreaking.

Jordan said...

christian, i didn't know you were so prone to prose. you should put together a collection of stories you've written and get them published. i'm serious.

The Allred Family said...

Thanks for the reality check. Seriously. I really enjoyed reading that very insightful post.

Jake and Emily Hutchings Family said...

that's a pretty quality story and a whole lot more than i would have done for him. i'm so proud of you!!