And then You Recognize that Homeless Person

Jogging around a neighborhood park, I realized the homeless woman sleeping under a tree is someone I’ve known most of my life. 

We were 15 once, and proud. She liked girls and I liked outcasts. Her Army buzzcut was black, blue, and brave, her sarcasm like a flamethrower. Pointed at you or not, it was dangerous to be near. She had an enviable wit I tried to emulate, and she could be as prickly and poker-faced as she was fast and funny. Being able to speak to her in ways others couldn’t was great.

All these years later and approaching the tree on my first lap, I saw only a female shape sleeping atop assorted backpacks and grocery bags. That particular bit of shade was usually occupied by sweethearts, fútbol hombres, or shadowboxing stroller-pushers, but I didn’t think much about it other than to mentally note the woman’s (relative) luck for claiming it first.

Staring straight ahead while I run helps me convey ultimate Kenyan focus, allowing me to mask the fact that I hate running and am actually dying inside. But the second time I passed the tree, I broke my gaze and glanced over. This woman was wearing Capri-style leggings, sunglasses, and a driver’s cap over her face. What I could see of it was weary.

Not wanting to bother her with my eyeballing, on lap three I kept my eyes forward, people slightly out of focus, my breathing centered. Privileged a-holes who gawk at others’ misfortune or shame the homeless should be made to wear armbands.

My fourth time around I did the same, though I did wonder about that driver’s cap. I’ve seen lots of homeless people retain a sense of style as far as their irrepressibility can hold out, but there was just something about way this one was cocked…

Back in junior high and high school, my friends and I had gone nuts with our hair –mohawks, blue dye, you name it. We wore boots and jeans adorned with ink-marker hieroglyphics; self- inflicted wardrobe malfunctions were resolved with safety pins. Our t-shirts were screened with every alarmist urgency imaginable. We were vain and creative and believed in this defiant new identity with all our hearts.

We were the weirdos who’d militarized our family dysfunctions and propped each other up in response. Great lyrics did the rest. We got our asses kicked for it, too, by the jocks and longhairs who refused to share the era. But my non-girlfriend girl friend had stood right alongside us. She wasn’t just a hundred watt wise-ass in funeral attire. Nailing a moving target with an empty beer bottle was easy for her.

It wasn’t until we were in our 20s that our legions splintered, but even then, life hardly separated us. When we got even older –some outgrowing the cheap thrills and chips on our shoulders more successfully than others– the shards of trauma we’d brought to the parade began to take over. From socioeconomics to stupidity, the who, when, and why of what creates a fuck-up eventually became a part of our lives. For some it was laughable. Until it wasn’t.

Decades later, starting my run, there was no reason for any of this to be on my mind. Not being a quitter on my fifth lap was all I could think about, and I’d finally made it.

On my sixth and last pass, though, the driver’s cap clicked. BAM!

And I ran faster.

The hat was perched just as we’d known her to wear them, pushed forward like she was in line at the track, studying a racing form with a fist full of twenties. This was my old friend from back in the day. It made sense on some level, as subsequent encounters had gone from happy, to hopeful, to awkward, to cheerless. But this recognition kicked hard and humbled me nonetheless. Who was I to be so comparatively lucky in life –I who am so often ungrateful for what I have?

We’d grown apart, of course, as young friends do. She’d been in and out of relationships, jobs, and focus. She’d outlived her parents, gone up-and-down with addiction, been diagnosed as bi-polar, and more. She no longer had a platform from which to launch her own advocacy, or the material consistency that helps people give a shit. Others had tried and failed to help; some simply threw up their hands.

Naturally, I don’t know her whole story. I only have updates, stretched out over decades. Accounts of her decreasing stability, worsening health, and propensity for shooting herself in the foot have always come from friends and family members with whom I’ve stayed in touch. I remember being told much later that, during those early years of middle class rebellion, she’d struggled with agonies no young woman should have had to face.

She’d been repeatedly rejected by someone who I suspect was the love of her life. The relationship was volatile and in no short supply of regretful incidents and bad habits. But regardless of fault, any angry end to joy, trust, comfort, and forgiveness can keep wounds open until we die.

And such things add up, in her case billboarding themselves across her face with the aid of nicotine and drugs.

I kept up my pace, feeling about two inches tall. What, I wondered, was I supposed to do with this realization? If nothing, then, why? What’s the point?

Should I retrieve the $100 I knew was in my wallet back in the car? The other times we’d encountered one another –once in an ER, once in a store, another time in line for a movie– we’d been simply old friends, still supportive despite the awkwardness of the intervening years. I may have walked away hurting for her, but I’d done so without having rubbed it in her face. Jesus no was I gonna give her pity money.

But neither did I have the guts to turn around and let her know I wasn’t far away, that she still had a friend. Does she? I didn’t know how to process what I was feeling, so I allowed myself to use the day’s busy schedule as an excuse.

Why, I wondered, must excuses and gratitude too frequently be knocked into the side of my head for me to recognize them?

When I run, I’m often angry at God while simultaneously begging for help to finish. Running is simple: it shuts me up. And it’s about as close as this blasphemer’s gonna get to prayer. But it doesn’t mean I’m always open to whatever the world or God or Allah or the Overlook Hotel is trying to tell me.

So what’s the takeaway here, be nice to homeless people ’cause you might know them? No.

It’s this: don’t make weak-ass excuses like I did. Don’t make excuses for failing to let the friends, fellow travelers, firsts, and fuck-ups in your personal history know they touched you, that they meant something to you, changed you, saved you, or inspired you. Yes, go back.

Yeah-yeah, make all the safe-word noise you want about “boundaries,” but damnit, go back. People just want to be heard, so hear them. Listening is giving.

Refuse to hide in the machine.