Meeting a Homeless Man

More than food, shelter, or clothing, some need to talk

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The city built a small neighborhood park around the corner from me. Half-a-dozen homeless people congregate there. I seem to be one of their kind with my close-cut beard, Goodwill clothing, and droopy shade hat. They’ve been waving and greeting me with “Como esta?”

“Muy bien,” I respond with a wave back. A toothless, older Latina smiles while holding her dog.

Eventually I’ll get to know them each by name. On my first encounter with Marcos, he sized me up as la Migra (or an ICE agent) and quickly walked away. After three encounters, Marcos finally sat down to chat with me. It was Sunday and another beautiful sunny day. My Spanish is more than rusty, but he spoke good English.

He opened up and talked for an hour as if nobody ever cared before. Eager to share his life story with anyone who would listen, he revealed much of his past. More than food, shelter, or clothing, he needed to talk it out, perhaps in a sort of confession.

He was in his early forties, and kept a short brown beard with a little graying. He was my height, about 5’ 8”, but with a potbelly. For a homeless man, he was decently dressed and groomed. He had completed two years at Palomar Community College in general education.

“I was born here in San Marcos. My father abandoned us when I was too young to know him. So my mom raised us kids while she worked two jobs. My dad was a deadbeat. All I know about him was he was dyslexic, as I am.”

“So you didn’t get to see your mom much because she had to work.”

“We were unsupervised scamps whenever our teenage babysitter talked on the phone.”

“So what’d your mother say when she got home and saw the mess you made?”

“She’d yell at the babysitter and us, and then heat up some crap from the restaurant where she worked. We had a small TV, so we ate watching that. Then after hugs, it was bedtime .”

“What about your teens?”

“I got involved with a local gang dealing in Meth, got caught using and selling the stuff.”

“So what happened?“

“I ended up in that Juvenile Hall endless cage, and at eighteen I got the big time Pen.”

“Were you in the military?”

“No, I’m not a veteran, except for gang wars. I killed nobody but came close.”

“You get married?”

“No, but I got three women pregnant with five kids. I don’t see them at all. I send some money to my two oldest boys, now in their 20s, but they never respond.”

“That must be hard on you. Sort of like what your dad did to you.”

“Yeah. I’ve never seen him. For all I know, he’s dead. My mom is living all alone.”

“You see her?”

“Last time I tried calling, she told me to go to hell. I see my brother once in a blue moon.”

“So you have no family to speak of. How about friends?”

“Just a few guys I’ve met hereabouts, and at InterFaith in Escondido. I wouldn’t call ’em friends, though. If push came to shove, they’d sell me down the river or rob me blind.”

“What’s it been like, sleeping in your car? Is that allowed around here?

“No, I have to drive over to Home Depot. The sheriff doesn’t bother us there. If I try it here in the Senior Center parking lot, at about midnight I’d get a loud tapping on my window and a glaring light in my face. They know me by now and just tell me to move on. Pain in the ass.”

“So how do you earn money for food, gas, and clothing?”

“I stand around for a couple of hours at Home Depot, along with a dozen other guys, waiting for odd jobs. They don’t come along often.”

“What’s the pay?”

“About $125 for eight hours, if I’m lucky. No tax, though. Gives me enough to get by on.”

“What kind of work?”

“Oh, cleaning, painting, landscape, unskilled stuff… the hirer supplies the tools and lunch.”

“You didn’t notice me walking by one day when I saw you reading a pocket Bible. You still believe in God after all you’ve been through?”

“Course. That’s why I read the Bible every day. Gives me hope of Paradise. Without that, I may as well commit suicide, like the desperate guys shooting up people at malls and schools. Lots of homeless people live day to day without hope. That must be some kind of hell they live in. I figure, I’m already in Purgatory, where some go after dying. I’m lucky ’cause I’m working off my bad karma right here and now.”

“So, you live out of your car. That must be rough,” I empathized.

“How would you know? You live in a house with all the modern conveniences.”

“I chose to live penniless in my youth, roughing it wherever I could lay my head.”

Sure you did… Why would you do a crazy thing like that?” he asked, with a lingering smirk.

“I did it to follow Scripture to the letter. You’ve read how Jesus tells his disciples to do the same. I’d sleep under bridges and in monasteries, panhandle for money so I could eat, and work odd jobs as I traveled penniless cross-country. All I ever wanted was to feel close to God.”

“I guess I figured you wrong,” he said, pacing back and forth under the shaded gazebo. The sun had turned hot. “Had you pegged for a social worker or worse. So you did what the Mormon kids have to do,” he said. “Not a bad idea. Catholics should do it too. At least these mush brain kids get exposed to the world, learn a different language, and suffer some hard knocks in life.”

He pointed to some teenage boys enjoying each other’s company at another bench, consumed by their skateboards and phones. “Those kids over there, glued to their cell phones, haven’t got a clue what life’s about. Their fathers give them all they want, and they frolic their lives away. They wouldn’t know how to grow a squash, cook a meal, or where milk comes from other than a supermarket. That’s where I was at when I couldn’t support myself and started dealing drugs to make ends meet. Poverty sucks because it gets us into trouble.”

“I try not to make general suppositions like that. One of those kids might become another President Eisenhower or Albert Einstein some day. The smart ones can learn calculus, biology, or architecture ― all kinds of stuff ― on their cell phones. Some will go from rags to riches.

“So if you had a chance to live your life over again, what would you have done?” I asked.

“Wouldn’t have mattered. I didn’t have a dad at home who could steer me right. It takes both a mom and a dad to raise kids who can make a go of it.”

Three boys came toward us, carrying their skateboards. Marcos scrutinized them as they passed. One started showing off, doing skillful jumps and twists on his skateboard.

Marcos yelled, “Hey, kid, you going to get paid for doing that fancy stuff?”

The boy shrugged. “Maybe. Guys win hundreds of thousands at contests.” He then jumped on his skateboard and followed his friends.

“Why do I get the gut feeling this world is on a fast track to hell?” he said.

My cell phone rang, and I shut it off.

“What will you all do when the electric power goes down and phones go dead? Wouldn’t bother me ’cause I don’t have a dumb phone, a TV, or a computer,” he said.

“I’d bet people go crazy and start beating each other up from boredom, then stealing things they don’t need to make life interesting,” I said.

“When all the useful stuff in Walmart or Ralph’s gets stripped bare, and a second Great Depression makes them homeless, better have a loaded gun handy.” Marcos then walked away.

 

Richard M. DellOrfano spent ten years on a cross-country pilgrimage following Christ’s instruction to minister without possessions. He is completing his autobiography: Path Perilous, My Search for God and the Miraculous.

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