Saturday, April 25, 2009

DJ, Calvin, Charles, or Peter

He’s a tallish man, in his mid-to-late thirties. He has a long beard, which is a tell-tale sign of two things among the homeless (at least so far as I have been able to observe): 1) he has been on the street for a while, and 2) he has probably never served in the military. The veteran homeless generally have cleanly shaved faces or stubble.

He has fringes of gray creeping in along the edges of the mustache, but it is hard to see exactly how gray it is. There are a variety of multicolored substances encrusted around his mouth, as well as in the beard down his chest, left over from meals (or other things) long forgotten. Just because this blog is here to promote the stories of the homeless, doesn’t mean that I intend to sanitize their stories for public consumption. This man stank of urine so badly it would make your stomach turn. Even when the wind was blowing in the opposite direction it smelled as though he were drenched in his own refuse; and it was hard to tolerate.

This problem was compounded by the fact that he only spoke in whispers or low, gravelly tones under his breath. Any conversation with this man made you feel like he was letting you in on some profound secret, or trying to conceal his true identity, or that he had a nice-sized rock in his pocket that he would give you if the price was right. In my opinion, it was most likely the latter. You have to stand close to him if you were going to catch anything more than every third word. Uncomfortably close.

I have met this man around the church before. Last time I talked to him he told me that his name was Peter. It was a memorable exchange. It had been raining that day, and as I pulled into the church parking lot I saw that him standing in the park behind the church’s property. I went over and pulled an old umbrella from the back seat and offered it to him. He refused it. “No I’m good.” he said, and we talked for a little bit. He asked me what I was doing in that part of town, and I told him I worked at the church.

“You got a lot a’ pretty girls in there or what?” he asked abruptly.

“I’m sorry?” I replied.

“Why is that place so full all the time? You got some hot girls?”

“That’s not why people come,” I told him. I then tried to get across at least some vague notion of the purpose of a church to someone who had no clue. I am still not sure it made sense to him. That was a few months ago.

Now he was back, leaning against the church fence, staring creepily in at a small child playing on the inside. I walked up beside him with a healthy, “Hey, Peter!” but got no response. I tried again, a little louder, and this time got his attention. “It is Peter, isn’t it?” He shifted his weight, but didn’t reply. “What’s your name man?” I asked, thinking that I maybe had the wrong guy. As soon as he started speaking in that impossible-to-hear-voice I knew that I had the right guy. “Some people call me Charles,” he said.

“Oh, Charles, I’m sorry I thought your name was Pet—

“Or they call me Calvin,” he interrupted. Now I was even more suspicious. He had a new pair of jeans slung over one shoulder, and he kept adjusting them nervously with his left hand. He looked around then leaned in so close to me the rancid breath nearly warmed the skin on my face. “Or DJ,” he said with a glimmer in his eye. Apparently I had either become privy to a personal secret that only few were given access to, or he had just lied to a na├»ve white kid with excessive and disturbing pleasure.

I asked him how he was (now using the most recent edition of his name when addressing him), and learned quite a bit more about his personal life and story. That is, when I was close enough to put the broken pieces of odd words and half-sentences together. I didn’t want to stand too close, because I frankly didn’t trust the man.

He had been to prison; he had a wife, and “something like fifteen kids.” Prison is where, according to his own assessment, he adopted the standoffish and unstable attitude. He quickly rolled up his sleeves to show me the scars on his arms from fighting when he was locked up. I told him that, as we were speaking, the church was handing out hundreds of items at the food bank, but he refused to go. The reason? The people handing out the food were Hispanic, and you couldn’t trust them. “They [Hispanics] make one little phone call and ‘yap yap yap’ to their buddy in Spanish, then this guy comes and whacks you. I don’t trust them. Guys like you and me gotta’ stick together.” Here he rolled up his sleeves again, baring his arm and placing it against mine. “You got blue eyes, and white skin, but we’re brotha’s we gotta’ look out for each other against them.” His arm was dark. Really dark. Especially when placed next to mine. It was darker than most Hispanics I know. Part of it was the fact that he hadn’t bathed in a while. There were even dark lines on his eye-lids where the skin oil and dirt collected while his eyes were open. It looked like mascara.

I talked to him a little more about church, but he was clearly not interested in hearing any more about it or Christ. I eventually shook his hand and told him goodbye. I had to wash my hands four times before they stopped smelling like urine.

It was hard to get a word in edgewise during our whole conversation. As with most homeless, once he got talking, he was hard to silence. Someone to listen to their story will only last a few moments, they want to get across as much of it as possible. The Soloist is in theaters now (it actually premiered on the day I talked with DJ for the second time) I will hopefully have a review of it up in the next few days.