My brother Ian always used to talk to homeless people. I think it’s because he felt like he was just a step or two away from being homeless himself, and also because he hurt so badly inside that he could relate to other broken people. When he lived in an awful little place in New York he became friends with a homeless guy who lived in a cardboard box.
One time Ian locked his bike up outside a neighborhood store. When he came back, someone had cracked the lock and stolen his bike. He was only in the store for about five minutes. The bike was his sole means of transportation, and he was barely making rent and couldn’t afford a new bike. He walked back to his apartment. His buddy Al was sitting in his cardboard box smoking a cigarette.
“Why the long face?”
“My bike got ripped off.”
“That black one with the funny seat?”
“Sucks, man. Want a cigarette?”
“Sure.” They sat on the curb and smoked a cigarette, taking turns puffing on it.
The next day Ian got up and went outside. Al was in his box. “Hey, man,” he said. “I got your bike back.” Ian’s bike was leaning next to the box.
Fear of filth
I’ve never chatted up homeless people. I’m afraid of them. I’m afraid they’ll hurt me or ask me for money that I don’t have. I also don’t like them because they’re dirty and they smell bad. They also look terrible, and they’re usually missing teeth, or their teeth are rotten, and a lot of them have weird shit going on in their eyes, not just the crazy look but actual clumps of blood or they’re wall-eyed or even blind in one eye.
Homeless people are great at reading faces, and they steer clear of me. My face says “I’m not giving you one fucking dime.” They never ask me for money or even try to make eye contact. When I’m striding to court in my suit and tie and my warpaint face the homeless people in downtown L.A. get out of my way.
There’s a side entrance to the Stanley Mosk courthouse, just down from the Disney Hall. Most people don’t know about it and use the main entrance on Hill Street, so there’s rarely much of a wait. In the outdoor covered walkway there’s a homeless guy who always sits on a mat with a paper cup and smiles at me. I’ve sometimes smiled back, and once I put a dollar in his cup. It always struck me what a cheerful guy he was.
History is never in the past
My eldest son Hans recently recommended a book to me, “Dispatches” by Michael Herr. It’s a journalist’s “journal” of the Vietnam War. Along with “The Things They Carried,” it’s one of the more real and disturbing accounts of that conflict.
On Monday I was charging to court and as I entered the walkway the homeless guy said, “Stay focused!”
He knew I was concentrating on court, and he was cheering me. I glanced over at him and flashed a grin.
“You got it, young man! You got this!”
In the courtroom there was a lot of waiting. I thought about that homeless guy. When the hearing ended, as I left the building I stopped next to him.
“Hey, man,” I said.
“Hey there, young fellow!”
“How’d you wind up on the streets?”
He took it as if it were the most natural conversation starter in the world. “Drugs. Heroin.”
“You still on it?”
“Oh, no. They got me off when I got out and put me on methadone.”
“Got out of what?”
“Vietnam. I was there four years. We was all on heroin. That’s the only way, you know, we could fight and not be afraid.”
“You did four tours?”
He brightened at the word “tours.”
“Yeah, man, four tours. I liked it there. But we was all on heroin, you know the military wanted us on heroin because we could fight when we was high. We wasn’t scared of nothing.”
“Who were you with?”
“Rangers. 75th Battalion, Charlie Company. We ran convoy protection up the An Che valley. My gunship was called ‘Seven Shades of Soul.'”
I laughed. “Seven Shades of Soul?”
“Yeah, man, ’cause we was all brothers on the gunship. Marvin Gaye, baby, ‘What’s Goin’ On,’ you know?”
“Where did you serve, mostly?”
“Oh, here and there, but mostly Pleiku. That was some bad shit. They had the Vietnam regular army hitting us all up and down An Khe all the time. They wasn’t like the VC, they was regular army, man, they had the weapons and they fought like we did, you know, trained army. They dropped a mortar round in one of our convoy trucks one time, wasn’t nothin’ left but a pair of eyeglasses hanging on the rear-view mirror. Blowed every one of our boys into little tiny pieces.”
“You ever get hurt?”
“Oh, lord, yes. I got some shrapnel in my brain during a firefight. They sent me to Yokota for three months R&R, then they dropped me right back in Pleiku, just like I’d never left. But that was some good times in Yokota. That was a nice place.”
“And now you’re homeless, living on the streets. That’s what it got you?”
“Oh, I don’t regret nothin’. I learned lots of things in Vietnam I couldn’t have never learned in college. I learned about doin’ what you have to do, you know? And I learned you can’t take nothin’ for granted, and I learned after I got out to love god, god is always gonna take care of me, there ain’t no use worrying’ about that. You know and I also learned I better be grateful for every day. You know why?”
“‘Cause man I made it through four tours and one of the brothers he did too but he died a month after getting’ home, workin’ on a construction job diggin’ a ditch and the ditch fell in on him. So he made it through the war but he didn’t make it through the peace, you follow? So I’m grateful every day, just like I’m grateful talkin’ to a nice young fellow like you.”
“What’s your name?”
“Elliott. What’s yours?”
“That’s a good name. That’s a name from the Bible.”
“Can I take a picture of us?”
“That would be fine, indeed it would.”
I squatted down next to the pad he was sitting on and squeezed up against him, shoulder to shoulder. A pair of lawyers walked by, leaving the courthouse. The one nearest me was wearing three thousand dollars of wool and cotton and silk and leather, and another five thousand dollars of metal and gold on his wrist. “Excuse me,” I said.
The guy stopped and looked down. “Yes?”
“Would you take a picture of me and my buddy here?”
“I most certainly would not.” He marched away, disgusted.
“Don’t you care none about that,” said Elliott. “There’s good lawyers and there’s evil ones, too.”
I reversed the camera and took the photo myself. “I’ll see you around, Elliott.”
“Yes, sir, you certainly will,” he said, and as I walked away he added, “Young man, thank you!”
“Sure,” I said.
“You know what I’m thanking you for, young man?”
“The five bucks?”
He laughed. “No, young man. I’m thanking you for stopping to talk. For acknowledging that I exist. God bless you.”
“I’m the one who owes the thanks,” I said, as I thought about the lawyer who had refused to take our picture and scornfully walked away. That lawyer was me.