I walk passed him every morning. He sits on the same downtown Salt Lake City corner. I think he might be schizophrenic. I'm not a doctor. I don't know. But something is clearly causing him to behave in odd ways. Sometimes he yells. Usually he's not yelling at anyone in particular. Most of the time the yelling doesn't seem to relate to anything happening around him. His yelling portrays him as astigmatic and disconnected.
His clothes look homemade. Like they used to be a part of something else. Like they weren't intended to be clothes until he got a hold of them. Curtains? Discarded fabric? A blanket? He's been wearing them for a while. I know this, because I pass him every morning.
He's homeless. And he's loud about it. If you make eye contact with him he tries to pull you in to whatever hallucination he's having. So I don't make eye contact with him. Not anymore. I used to. But it was too uncomfortable. Barely more uncomfortable than not making eye contact with him as he tries to talk to me when I pass by. Every morning.
A friend of mine gave him some new clothes for Christmas. This was a charitable gesture. He seemed grateful when he received them. We never saw him wear the clothes. I've wondered what ever happened to the gift.
The man has a name. Surely he does. But I don't know it. I only know the nickname a few of my friends made for him. It's not a mean nickname. We just needed a way to describe him and when one of my friends asked him his name a few months ago he wouldn't disclose it. So we came up with one.
Today I walked by this man, just like I do every day. I looked forward, avoiding eye contact and feeling a little guilty about it. Just like I do every day. He was talking long before I was close enough to hear him. He was talking to no one in particular. Half yelling, but relatively calm compared to the last time I saw him.
He called out to me when I got close enough. I looked down at my phone and pretended to be distracted by something on it. The phone was dead. My gesture was a lie. But he didn't know that. He couldn't see the screen because he was sitting on the ground, wet from a rainstorm that was experiencing a short respite.
It took about three steps to get passed him enough so that he was no longer in my periphery. Three steps to freedom. The same three steps I take every day when I succeed at avoiding eye contact and connection.
It was a split second after my foot hit the ground on the third step that I heard it. He said something. It didn't sound disconnected from reality. It didn't sound nonsensical. It sounded real. And it stripped my mind of any other thought and sound.
"Sir, I don't know you. But you really don't know me either."
I was standing for a few seconds before I realized I had stopped walking.
He didn't know me. But I didn't really know him either.
I wasn't sure what he meant, exactly. And I didn't know why the words affected me. But they did. I suppose it's ironic that words from a man trapped in insanity zapped me into reality.
I turned and looked at him. I broke the rule. I made eye contact. I looked down at him. Sitting on the ground. He looked up at me. And he wasn't talking anymore. We made eye contact.
I pass this man every day. I have for months. And somewhere along the way I forgot that he was a person with a life. A history. A background. A family. Someone somewhere at some time cared about his well-being. Maybe someone still does. Maybe a lot of someones do.
Maybe he's had a mom and a dad. Brothers and sisters. Friends. Grandparents. Kids. Nieces and nephews. Maybe he still has these people. Maybe they are wondering where he is. Maybe they don't care where he is. Maybe they're content with where he is.
He has emotions and feelings. Memories. Heartaches. I have those things, too. But mine aren't the same as his.
I don't really know him, but I can take a pretty good guess at the amount of breaks I've probably received that he never did. I can imagine that he might not have had a Bob and Cathie, like I did. I can probably accurately guess that he's suffered from some illnesses that he never wanted and that I've never had to know.
All of this rushed through me, shamefully, like it hadn't rushed through me before. And I looked at him. I looked down at him. I opened my mouth to say something, but closed it when I realized I didn't know what to say. He didn't fill the silence with his own words. And I was surprised that he didn't. He just kept staring up at me from the wet ground.
I crouched down, because it felt weird that we weren't on the same level. I opened my mouth again and this time some words came out.
"We don't really know each other. That's kind of strange considering that we see each other every day, isn't it?"
His eyes dove into me, like he was attempting to understand what I was trying to say. Then he responded, "You could just say hi. It helps me. Ok?"
I felt my eyes well up with tears. But I didn't want him to see it. I felt selfish and privileged that I might have been implicitly looking for a way to make his misfortune a profound and life-changing moment for myself. I didn't want my emotion to look like pity to him, either. It seemed insensitive to let him know in any way that what he had just said sounded so heartbreaking to me.
So I smiled at him. "I would really like to say hi to you." It was the only thing that I could think to say at the time. I still don't know how I should have responded.
"Ok. See you tomorrow then." He said it as he rolled onto his side, pulled a blanket over his face, and dropped into a nap.
Our interaction was over. For the day, anyway. I stood back up.
A few steps later he was out of my periphery.
~It Just Gets Stranger