I’ve seen Mason sitting with his shopping cart behind a barbershop near my apartment for the past few weeks. He’s a tall thin man, decently dressed and clean. His cheeks are wrinkled and a little hollow, his eyes are silvery blue. He tells me right away that he’s sixty-five, and I believe him. He’s very articulate though, his mind is sharp. He doesn’t whine about his condition. He is matter-of-fact.
It is raining this morning when I see him under the eaves of the barber shop, taking long pulls on his cigarette. We chat briefly, and like so many others, as soon as he understands that I mean to stay and listen he gives me his whole life story. We walk to a fast-food restaurant to get out of the cold and wet as we talk.
Mason is the firstborn son. His father was named Mason, and his father’s father. “Masons, real masons, build things, not like those freemasons. I built things when I was young. I was in construction. Drywall was my specialty. It was my family tradition to name your firstborn Mason and teach him to build.” He was born on a farm in Kansas in 1947. His mother committed suicide when he was 9, his father abandoned them a couple years before that. He was raised by his grandparents.
Mason had one sister, but she committed suicide too because she blamed herself for their mother’s depression and death. He has two younger brothers that he hasn’t seen or heard from since they were crawling around in diapers.
Mason tells me that he is only a few months away from receiving social security now. He could have collected at 62, but by moving to the streets and waiting three years he will get more money when he’s finally approved. This combined with his VA check should be enough for him to rent an apartment and get off the street again. So he hopes, anyway.
He’s very meticulous in the way he prepares his coffee. Strips the lid from the creamer, pours it in sideways, adds the sugar. He stacks the creamer cups on the tray, rolls the packs of sugar like mini cigarettes and sticks them in the topmost cup. By the time we finish talking there are three little creamer towers standing symmetrically across the tray.
He asks me how old I am. I tell him 26. “Oh to be 26 again.” He says, lightheartedly. I doubt it’s nostalgia though. When he was 25 he came home from Vietnam to find that his wife had died from a heroin overdose. No one told him until he walked in the door. Her children, his stepchildren, still blame him for her death, even though he was out of the country. “I used to be a heroin addict too. And a alcoholic. Not anymore though. Not after that. I haven’t touched the stuff since she died.” Now he’s 40 years sober. At 26 he would have dealt with withdrawal, shakes, creeps, hallucinations, and guilt besides whatever he saw in Vietnam. What would it mean for him to be 26 again?
Mason and I talk for several hours. I find out that he was a web designer and computer programmer. He had to sell his computer a few years back for cash. He is a member of the generation that played with home computers in their infant form and learned by tinkering them as they grew. He told me about systems he developed for companies all over southern California. Websites, inventory software, logistics solutions that he designed himself. I remember a programmer friend of mine once describing his job as the need to categorize and organize everything around him regardless of its significance. So the creamer towers make sense.
The rain lets up, so I offer to take him to the 99cent store to replace the reading glasses and books that someone stole from his cart a few days ago. Mason loves books, pens and notebook just like me. As a fellow writer it seems like the least I can do to help. I leave him at the restaurant and go up to my apartment to put my bag away. I call my wife to help me find a shelter for him tonight. I couldn’t stand the thought of this frail old man shivering in the rain all night. The search is fruitless. All the local cold-weather shelters have been closed since last week. When I get back to the restaurant Mason is gone.
I go to the store without him and buy some of the necessities he mentioned as missing. Socks, soup cans, water, a notebook with nice pens, a little umbrella. I leave them wrapped in plastic on his cart behind the barber shop. The bags look so trivial when I see it bundled up on top of his wet clothes and blankets. I look around for him again without any luck.
I go up to my apartment and stare out at the falling rain. I think about coming home to find my wife dead. What would that be like? It would probably drive me to drink instead of away from it. What if the rest of Mason’s life is so terrible it actually made 26 something worth pining for? I think about never seeing my family again. I think about the fact that my first name is the same as my father’s and my grandfather’s and that my wife and I are expecting our firstborn son. Mason never remarried. He has no children of his own. He will never pass on his name.
I think about sleeping in the rain, and it makes me cry.
I can’t remember the last time I cried about anything. I’ve talked to hundreds of homeless people. Only a small fraction of their stories make it to this blog. I’ve never been affected like this. Maybe it was the rain. Maybe it was the fact that this guy literally sleeps a stone’s throw from my apartment. Maybe I’ve been out of the loop for so long that I am not as jaded or calloused as I was during previous posts. Mason shouldn’t have to live on the street until his social security comes through.
I hate homelessness.