Alone in the Plenty
By Joe Thorpe
In the summer, you can easily spot a homeless person by what they wear or carry. Why on earth is that man wearing two hoodies and long pants in August? He wears them because he has no storage. No safe place to put them, no safety at all. He wears humility on his skin.
Fall is coming, and the nights are getting cooler. Not freezing to death hypothermia cold, but chilly enough that the lack of appropriate clothing will be uncomfortable. Every day it will become colder. I begin to think of them now. I think of people I have never met or even seen, but I have heard of them. They’re usually men in my area. People without shelter. Last year it was a man who had to hold himself up behind a local town building. I never noticed the small brick building before I read the news. It is no bigger than a one-car garage nestled between a pharmacy and a doctor’s office. In a small patch of woods behind the building, visible from the road but thick enough to disguise a person, the fallen autumn leaves his frozen deathbed.
* * *
Main St. in Hyannis in the mid-90s was a mecca in my mind. That’s where the cool people were. The punk rock kids in their rebellious leather and torn clothes. The hippies who reeked of patchouli and wore worn-out baggy attire. There was this homeless guy, white hair with just enough streaks of his youthful jet-black hair suggestive of a man in his fifties. He was totally blind. In the summer, the sidewalk was packed with tourists come to see where the Kennedys live. Thousands of them came to suck the flesh of homeless crustaceans fried in beer batter. They sop them in clarified butter by their thick swelling overfed American lips. Spend their days lying on overcrowded gravelly beaches next to the yacht club, looking out to nothing, and of course, shop on Main St. This blind old homeless man always had a bag of weed, and he’d share with everyone. My friends and I, only about fourteen or fifteen years old, would surround him on a bench made for tired pedestrian consumers to have a break and enjoy the atmosphere of summer in a tourist town. Well, our blind friend would hold court for us on this bench. He’d tell stories and say crazy things that made no sense. Most importantly, he’d hand his bag of weed to us. Joint after joint passed and smoked. We were the wild things amongst ordinary human beings.
“Roll up another one,” he’d say with absolutely not a care that we were young or that this was a felony. He certainly cared not what any of the mild-mannered families on vacation thought. This public felonious smoke session wasn’t even the best part. This old blind man who’d forgotten anything about where he came from, about any ambition he once had, long ago was any life he lived where he had plans for his future self. This man would pop his glass eye out, throw it into the sea of jean shorted, baseball hatted, T-shirt wearing squares. He would jump up off his squatter’s bench and go chasing the large marble. People would shriek and dodge the pepper-haired, dirty-clothed lunatic as he ran zigzag after his fake eyeball. An item only useful to him as to not appear even scarier than society would already perceive him. Hunched all the way over with both of his hands rummaging the ground over the sandals and sneakers of the startled crowd, he’d momentarily pop up victorious with glass eye in hand, wipe it on his dirty clothes, and follow our cheers back to his seat. The chaos he created was glorious to my rebellious eyes.
*. * *
You’ll see them walking down the street in slow motion. The homeless shuffle, I call it. Their feet travel along under their weary skinny bodies at a pace so impossibly slow that it’s hard to imagine why. It’ll take them forever to get where they’re going. Don’t they have somewhere to be? That’s the thing, they don’t. They’re headed off to nowhere, one-inch step by one-inch step.
I think about these people often as the weather gets cold. Almost every year, within a half-mile from where I live, someone freezes to death. Shunned by everyone for the way society sees them. They die as totally alone in the plenty as any can be surrounded by people in homes, in and out of businesses while the down and out freeze. Ignored to death.
There’s a lesson and a moral to it all––concerned with the principles of right and wrong, the goodness or badness of human character. If you lose sight of aspiration, achievement, commercialism, materialism, and the generally socially acceptable lifestyle of Americans, you don’t deserve to be human anymore. You can die in my backyard, but you can’t live in my house.