I posted the following story to Facebook nearly three weeks ago. I had no idea the story would be so widely received. Hundreds of people commented and shared, thousands read it. Its reception has been diverse, from people I know personally to strangers across the world; from people who have experienced homelessness to those who are very wealthy. They represent many races and religions, varied political beliefs and values, and cover the spectrum of educational-levels and vocations.
Just as I was surprised to see the response to my recent Facebook post, since the inception of this blog site I have been surprised at its diverse readership. Most days, its international audience surpasses its domestic one.
So, to readers across the globe, I introduce you to one person who is common to all mankind …
The Man In The Park
Two weeks ago, I took pictures of a scarf project in LeClaire Park in Davenport, Iowa. I thought them pretty, billowing in the breeze.
But it puzzled me, too. Would the needy and homeless ever end up with them, or would mischievous kids take them just because they could? What good would a scarf do, anyway, in sub-zero temps? I decided it was a gesture, at the very least, a way of saying, “We see you, we care.”
Today, I did the same river walk, and because my dog doesn’t know a stranger, we talked to lots of people along the way. Our last visit was in LeClaire Park, where only a handful of scarves remain. There was a man there, seated on a bench, his back hunched, looking down. Nessa pulled me over to him, and he looked up to pet her.
I wish I had his photo, but even if I’d taken one, I wouldn’t post it; it would be exploitative, somehow. He told me his name, but I shouldn’t reveal that either. I do want to tell his story.
The man was soft-spoken, talkative (lonely, he explained), homeless, sad because his mother died last week. She called him her “fallen angel”, and he regretted how much he’d disappointed her. While he talked, he was attentive to the waterfowl, mesmerized by the undulation of geese passing by on the river’s current. He alerted me to not miss them, and motioned with his hand the rise and fall of their drifting. Then he looked west, and said, softly, “I’m watching for the guys that beat me up last night. They go to the skatepark over there.”
“What?” I startled, and then finally made sense of the asymmetry of his face, the swollen bulge under his right eye, the blackened bridge of his nose. The black was dried blood. He reenacted how one of the teens had used a skateboard as a weapon to his face.
“They broke my ribs.” He lifted his shirt and the evidence was there, too: the significant protrusion of a rib or two from his otherwise normal right, front rib-cage. They had kicked him.
It was an old injury he showed me next: a taut, reddened skin graft that covered most of his left lower leg. “From a burn,” he said. “My shoe melted when it happened.”
“How were you burned?” I asked, prepared for it having been an awful accident, but not for what he said next.
“A guy threw gasoline on me, and threw a match,” he answered, factually. “For fun, I guess.”
I asked if he had a way to protect himself, and he said, “I did, but the police took it.”
“A gun?” I guessed, and he said yes, he was a veteran, he could have one, but it was confiscated. He turned to show me his bag on the bench to his left, where the gun had been, its zipper open today. On top was one of the yellow scarves from the photos I took two weeks ago.
“I took one, I know they’re for other people. Have you taken one? You should have one, you can take this.” I declined, and assured him he should have the scarf, he should take all the scarves left if he needed them to keep warm.
He then showed me the open beer nestled between him and his bag, and explained his view that, as an alcoholic, he was undeserving of the scarves. He felt guilty for having taken one. He went on to say he was to blame for his life having gone all wrong.
“Do you know Job?” he asked.
“In the Bible?”
He nodded, and it was the first time I heard emotion in his voice. Compassionately, he said, “Poor guy, he was a good person, he had everything taken from him, and he didn’t do nothin’ wrong. Job is me.” He changed his mind, “No, he’s not me, I’m to blame. I’m not a good person.”
I couldn’t hold it in any longer, “Oh no. No. Harming yourself is sad, that’s not the same as ‘bad’. You don’t deserve this. You don’t deserve to be assaulted, to be hurt. Bad, is what those kids did to you. That’s bad, not you and the alcoholism.” But while I could say that, I felt so. damn. helpless. “What can I do for you?”
“Nothing,” he said, firmly, seemingly resigned to helplessness.
He shared his bench, situated between two tall trees where bald eagles perched to eat their catches. We talked about his years in the Army, his divorce seventeen years ago, his former brothers-in-law, three of whom are Rock Island police officers. “I couldn’t be a cop,” he said, “I could never arrest anyone.”
He mentioned his age. I was shocked that he is younger than me, I would have guessed him twenty years older. Toothless, beaten, weathered. He referred to himself as an “old man”. “I was just sitting here last night, minding my own business, drinking a beer like this, and they beat me up, an old man. They’re beating up all the old homeless guys. The police can’t catch ’em.”
He told me he sought help at the bus station last night, and because they know him, they kicked him out, blood or no blood. “Call 911,” a worker had directed. He didn’t say it resentfully, or to implore my sympathy or help. He wanted nothing at all, he was only explaining why he had glanced west, why he looked as he did.
“Then did you call 911?” I asked, and he shook his head. “Should we call them now? I’ll stay with you when they come.”
He declined. Reporting gets back to the guys who did it, they will come back for revenge, he will be worse off if he does that.
And so …
When I got home, I pulled up the two-week-old photos of the scarves. I had wondered about them, but I know now where one ended up: in the bag of a man with no place to call home, who spends all day, every day outdoors. It can’t do much on the most frigid days to keep him warm, but he wanted that scarf. It meant something to him.
I am haunted by all that has happened to the man, but not by the man himself. He was without guile, without pretension. He was “all facts”, and “all soul”. Which I guess makes sense when you’ve lost everything else.
I still beg to differ with his self-assessment that he is “no Job”. I think he is.