Some years ago I was directing a short narrative film called As They Rise, which stars the great Ryan Cooper. He played a recently homeless man undergoing a shift in his way of thinking. At one point during the shoot we were working underneath the viaduct (the now-extinct section where the elevated portion lowered down to the ground), getting some MOS footage of Ryan walking around in various dilapidated environments.
It was a surprise when, amidst shooting, a real homeless person came over to have a few words with him. The man, a grungy sort in his fifties, had been observing and quickly intuited what we were trying to replicate. He went over to Ryan and spoke in low but earnest tones. I’ve never forgotten what he said, which was, “you’re not doing it right. You have to put your head in the space of, you have nothing to look forward to. You have absolutely nothing to look forward to, to bring you up. There is no hope, no possibility, nothing. There is just this, right here.”
Now, Ryan is a very focused, dedicated actor who puts a lot of consideration into how he performs the text– just the type of actor I like working with. I would expect an amateur to miscalculate the actuality of homelessness. But for someone of Ryan’s professional caliber to still not quite have it down was a wake-up call. None of us can completely imagine the sensation that man was describing about himself– the feeling of treading water, quite possibly forever.
Ryan took the instruction well, and the man’s words led to an improvement in the performance. I remember turning to Brian Bell, our AD, and quipping, “this guy gives better direction than I do!”
Half a decade later I was driving the 44 when I saw Avery catnapping on the bus stop bench at inbound Phinney. Avery is not the homeless man in the above narrative, but he is of the same condition. I knew him before he was homeless. He once worked at the Greenwood library, then at Dexter Horton, then at Real Change, until all was reduced to the disappointed present, a spot on a bench, then a bus, then the backside of a building, ever moving, never welcome.
But I knew that face before the layers of comfort faded. He used to ride my 5, proactively greeting the passengers along with me, and volunteering to help with heavy bags. He was so helpful I had to ask him to tone it down a little. The guy was too good at doing too much of my job!
I’ve never asked what caused his downfall. My friend Stephanie and I were recently discussing a woman we saw slumped over on the sidewalk one midnight in Jackson Park. “What are you thinking,” I asked her, after we’d driven past in silence.
She said, “I was thinking, it must be very cold for her. And that maybe she’s hunched over like that because she’s been sitting there for sixteen hours and she can’t help but start falling asleep. Then I thought, maybe she’s hunched over because she’s incredibly high on some kind of drug and she can’t even feel the cold.”
“True. That’s possible.”
“But then I thought, why does it matter which one it is? Why should that change how I feel about her? Isn’t it still bad that she’s out there?”
Better put than I could have done. I let Avery keep his reasons to himself. We all make poor decisions, or find ourselves victims of other poor decisions. I simply called out his name that day, letting out a big wave, hand straight up in victory mode. He recognized me instantly and put himself together, different parts of his body coming to life, getting out his cramped, slouching intermittent slumber.
“Avery! I didn’t mean to wake you up or nothin’,”
“Oh hey, no! I will not hold you up, but I had to say, it is good to see you!”
“Aw man Avery, it’s good to see you!”
“All love, brother.”
“How you been?”
“Always good, man, always good!” He replied. “And you?”
“Beautiful as always!”
“That’s right!” he exclaimed, to me, to himself.
“Thanks for sayin’ hey, man. Hope I see you around!”
“I’ll be out here!”
“You and me both, man! I’ll be lookin’ for you!”
My heart surged as I drove away. I felt so proud to know this man’s name. He may be of the same condition as the man who approached our film set, but he is not of the same cloth. Avery still has hope. He has something motivating him, something forged deep within, and it bubbles to the surface when I catch his eye. Every time I find him I ask after his welfare, and even if things are clearly terrible, he’ll shrug it off, calling it a phase, reminding himself he has control over the situation.
One day I’ll see you with clean clothes and a haircut, my friend, and you’ll tell me about some new job you like. And we’ll laugh about how it was before, laugh about the times we’ve made, laugh like we did before the future came to be, talking on the 5 and saying hi to everyone. You’re out there somewhere, right this minute. I believe in you.