He had one of those ‘normal’ names. Mono– or duo-syllabic, from the Western tradition: Christian, Jewish, something. Paul. Eric. You know. The kind I can never remember… and also the kind that humanizes a downtrodden face. All names do that, but it’s the ones we grew up with that double up in our mind, sandwiching in between the déjà vu of older memory.
I knew a lot of Erics as a child, grew up around Michaels and Matthews and Carlos’s, but never one with a face this scruffy, shaggy, stubbly, brow-beaten, aged, hollow, and slight. None of the Erics I sat next to in school dragged around a garbage bag large and lugubrious enough for me to fit inside of—or at least, not yet.
This Eric did, though, and I was sorry to have forgotten his name, because he remembered mine. I’ll have to build up the nerve to ask him again– again– someday. His voice was raspier than a Leonard Cohen buzzsaw, and his name, ordinary as it was, served as a reminder that he was as we are, regular folks trying to make something of ourselves, for a month or for an hour.
“Hey. I went to Georgetown today,” he said. It sounded incongruous, such an innocuous statement declared so hoarsely, from such a scarred, battered, nigh war-torn visage. His was the face you’d have from leaning into a hard wind for six decades. But beneath that gravel-shredding guttural croak: hear the friendliness in his tone!
“That’s cool,” I said.
“I’m going to apply for a job down there. I got a paper application.”
“That’s right!” I replied, my memory jogging to life. “You got all kinds a stuff going on. Last time we talked I remember you were takin’ class somewhere.”
“Yeah I am.”
“Sweet. What classes are you takin’ again?”
“Accounting, I’m doing accounting, gardening—”
“Gardening that’s right—”
“And woodworking. I don’t wanna spend the rest of my life wearing a coat downtown, collecting cans.”
“Gets kinda old after a while.”
“Yeah. Plus you only make $67 a day. I’m gonna do building maintenance. Sweeping the floors, fixing up the bathrooms, changing light bulbs and stuff.”
“I like that kind a work,” I said, without irony. “Working with your hands. Feels good, like you’re really doing something.”
“Yeah. It’ll be good,” he said. “I was a janitor before.”
“Oh you’ll get it then, you got prior experience.”
“Hope so. Anyways. I’ll let you drive. I thought I would tell you that though. I’m going up to Wenatchee next week.”
“What’s in Wenatchee?”
“It’s my hometown.”
“Oh cool. How’s the weather up there these days?”
He wasn’t a homeless person. He was a homeless person with an interest in gardening, who’d been a janitor, was enrolled in classes… who spent nights planning, musing on the future.
Who thought about his hometown.
How many others coming upon his streetraggled form tonight will know of his secrets? What will they miss? Or will they have their kind eyes on, the eyes to see all this man is, was, and might ever be?
“Go get ’em,” I said, as he left.