Or are they?
I've gotten to know a homeless guy recently - his name is Leonard. I made the mistake of stopping to do more than give a bum some loose change. I made the mistake of actually sitting down, talking to him, and giving him my time. Have you ever given a bum your time? It's like spreading barbecue sauce on your arm and letting a pit bull have its way - once I gave Leonard an inch, he never let go.
However, it was a mistake that turned out to be a rather “interesting” surprise.
I first crossed paths with this Native American transient a couple months ago when I first moved here from California and was still finding my bearings. I was walking home and that's when I see the bum.
Oh great, I think to myself. Must walk faster. Don't make eye contact. As I pass the man with the long, dark oily hair, I hear him say in a low, raspy, somewhat gentle voice: “Can I ask you a question?” What do I do? I say “sorry” and speed-walked the hell out of there.
And that should've been the end of my day.
---Lo and behold, something stopped me that brisk Sunday morning, and I slowly turned around. “Can I ask you a question?” He asks.
“You want some money, don’t you?” I say.
The bum smiles and says “Yes.” So I give him a dollar, thinking that would be it.
I couldn't have been more wrong.
I was hesitant at first, but soon enough, I give in:“What’s your name?”
He tells me. “Leonard”
But that wasn’t the end of it. He repeats himself, like a broken record:
“Ask me any question.”
“Uhh, where are you from?”
He tells me: “Montana... Ask me any question.”
And then it dawned on me that Leonard’s mind was less than the pinnacle of mental health. He motions me to sit down. I agreed, we talked, and it wasn’t long before Leonard tells me that he wants to buy me coffee.
Of course in my mind I laughed at the thought of a hobo buying me coffee, let alone wanting to do it with the one dollar I just gave him. So I say, “No! No! I’ll buy you coffee.”I couldn’t have played that hand better.
I got to know Leonard and he got to know me – but mostly I got to know him. Leonard, turns out, is a Gulf War veteran – a sniper. He said he killed ten people, and he would illustrate how he would do it with hand gestures, demonstrating me how he would hold a gun and showing me his hardened hands saying “These hands...These hands...I've done a bad thing.” And again, he kept on telling me in his low voice: “Ask me a question.” And I would ask him, and he would answer. And this would go on endlessly.
I got restless. I didn’t understand what the guy wanted. I gave him my dollar, I bought him a coffee, I asked him his damn questions. And on top of that I was being humiliated by the stares and speculations that swirled all around me at the Starbucks on 23rd and Hoyt. The nerve of this guy! Doesn’t he know how it feels to be stared at, scoffed, while people pretend they don’t see you?
That’s it!, I think to myself. I got to get out of here.
“Ask me a question.”
“I need a change of scenery.” I tell the Indian. “Let’s get outta here. Walk with me Leonard.”
We get back out on the streets and eventually,I force myself out of the scene. “Ok, Leonard. I’m gonna go…” I try to bribe my way out. “Here.” I give him a five dollar bill. “That’s not enough,” he says. And at that point, I was ready to sprint out of there.
“Wait.” And then he grabs me by the arm. Crap.
“Hold me,” he says. “like this.” And he firmly takes my forearm and holds it in place with his hands. It was an Indian handshake.
“You,” he begins “are my friend.” And we just stand there for a moment – this burly Indian hobo and me, the clean-cut Southern California kid.
“You are my brother.”
Leonard was once a sniper in the war.
In the end, I'm sure the six dollars I gave Leonard didn't really mean much to him. He probably spent it on a lager. Maybe a Budweiser. Maybe he really did spend it on food, like an actual Six-Dollar Burger. We'll never know. But six dollars is six dollars – money comes and goes, and it's not really worth much. To Leonard, what's probably worth anything is the six seconds I took to comply to one quintessential request: to “ask him any question.” -v