Rick wasn’t anybody special. Just another homeless guy. Someone who lived on the street, begging as he went about his business.
He was soft spoken, quiet. He never got rowdy or violent. Rick was well behaved, unlike some of the other poor unfortunates we’d encounter in the street. He never bothered anyone. He was just looking for a handout or a pack of cigarettes — Pall Malls were his favorite brand. With the little money he’d get from passersby he would buy cans of beer, maybe bum a smoke or two off somebody. He was no bother, really; never made a fuss, never complained about life. He just shuffled along, minding his own affairs.
Rick lived under the overpass. It sounds like a joke, but that’s where we’d find him, curled up troll-like in a corner. For the past eight years my wife and I fed him, gave him water, and clothed him as best we could. He’d thank us. “God bless you,” he’d say. He was kind and polite. A perfect gentleman. He never disrespected us. He was grateful for what little he had and what little he received.
He was weather beaten. His face would turn beet red from too much sun. His beard and hair grew scraggly and dark. He couldn’t bathe every day, but he never smelled bad. That was odd, wasn’t it? He was good humored and liked to laugh a lot. He had a contagious chuckle to his tone. His teeth were bad. We noticed he was missing one or two of them whenever he opened his mouth to talk.
He wasn’t tall. Maybe 5 feet 9 inches, more or less. He had blond hair at one time, and the bluest pair of eyes you’d ever seen, like the afternoon sky. His grip was firm, although lately he couldn’t put much force behind his handshake. He’d often joke with us and we’d fire the jokes right back at him. He reminded me of the actor Jeff Bridges, only shorter. Looked just like him, too. He spoke with a Southern drawl. We learned later he was from Charlotte, that he was married at eighteen and had two kids — a boy and a girl — with his young wife.
He left them after a few years. He said he committed some crime or other, spent time in jail, about fourteen or fifteen years. When he got out, he went to live on the streets. And that was that, no further explanations were necessary.
He rarely spoke about his personal life. If you’d ask him, he would tell you. We never asked. We respected his privacy. If he wanted to tell us something, he would. Otherwise, we never encouraged him. His life was his own. Some things should stay buried, unless one felt the need to talk about them.
He wasn’t anybody special. Just another homeless guy.
“I’m an alcoholic,” he would whisper, sounding a bit like Walter Brennan. He had that unmistakable accent, a Western twang of sorts. But he knew he drank too much. “I was a drug addict once,” he explained, when the mood suited him of course, but that he had kicked the habit, or so he told us. But drinking? Nah, he couldn’t give that up. “Ain’t got nothing else to do,” he added. Yeah, we know.
Rick had some friends. They’d help him find shelter, or panhandle beside him by the exit ramp. We would see him hold up a sign that read: “HOMELESS, NEED HELP.” More times than not, Rick would stick out his hand for coins. When he could walk on his own, he’d get around at a pretty fast clip.
One night, Rick got so drunk he passed out beside the overpass. But he didn’t see where he was sleeping. When he turned over, he fell about twenty feet onto the street. He started to holler, screamed bloody murder. His friends, who were scattered across the road in the woods, came out to see what all the noise was about. They found Rick on the ground, writhing in pain from the fall.
“My hip! It’s broken!” he cried. Someone called the police, who took him to the nearest hospital. Boy, he really did a number on himself! He was a total mess. The doctors had to operate right away. They put stitches in his side, set his hip best they could, put his leg in a makeshift cast, and gave him some pain medication. Rick stayed in the hospital for a week, maybe two, I forget how long.
When they checked him out, they told him he needed to see a physical therapist. A lady, I don’t know who, took him to the therapy sessions in her van. She would pick him up at the corner and drive him there. Rick couldn’t do it himself. He was in a wheelchair now. Disabled, incapacitated. He’d broken his hip all right, even showed me the scar. It was a nasty looking thing. Still, he was lucky to be alive, after the fall he’d taken. Yeah, lucky.
He loved that wheelchair. My wife tried to get him into a home, someplace permanent. Any place but the street. We’d bring him food, water, but never money. He’d only buy booze with it, maybe injure himself again. She would continue to buy him his Pall Malls, though, whenever she’d get a chance. He wasn’t able to buy them himself anymore. “The people in the store always chase me out.” No one wanted him around. He was too much trouble. “Can’t deal with that,” they’d say. Even before he had broken his hip, Rick was persona non grata. Afterwards, forget it!
One winter, we brought him a sleeping bag. Someone at church had donated it, along with some socks, a pair of long johns, T-shirts, and clean underwear. But that sleeping bag was great! A deluxe model, fit for the great outdoors. The police raided him soon after, in the dead of night. It was freezing cold, 18 degrees Fahrenheit. They hauled him off to jail, where at least he was warm. But they confiscated the sleeping bag, left him with nothing. The clothes and food were gone, too.
Why not? He wasn’t anybody special. Just another homeless guy.
We didn’t see Rick for a while. When we found him again, he didn’t look well at all. His friend, Steve, who had been with him through thick and thin, said his toes were turning purple. And his feet were swollen. They hurt like hell. We talked to Rick for a few minutes, convinced him to get help. We gave Steve some money so he could take his friend by cab to a shelter, or better yet to the hospital.
A few days went by. Nothing, no news… Then we saw him, still in the wheelchair. “How you doing, Rick?” we asked. “I’m fine,” he answered. “They cut off some of my toes.” “Your toes?” “Yeah, they got infected.” Not a good sign, I thought. We didn’t know if he was diabetic or not. He did look thinner. His grip wasn’t so strong. He was ill, going downhill fast. My wife, through our church, got hold of the names of some people who might be of help. Rick had refused to go to therapy, wouldn’t even hear of staying in a shelter. After a week of therapy, he didn’t want to go through it anymore. “It just hurts,” he said. That was the first time I ever heard him complain.
We tried hard to get him to a shelter, or a home for disabled folk. Someplace where they could keep an eye on him, take care of his needs. Give him a bath, a shave, a haircut, and get some decent sleep. He looked more and more like Jeff Bridges in that movie Crazy Heart. But this was for real. No red carpet night for Rick, no Academy Award for Best Performance by a Street Dweller. Rick didn’t need to act the part. He was a street dweller.
And he wasn’t anybody special. Just another homeless guy.
The system failed him. The police, they hassled him constantly, put him behind bars. After they released him, he would disappear for weeks on end. Then suddenly, he’d turn up again on the corner, begging for money or food. He’d wave to us as we drove by, smiling to us with that cheery grin of his — that Jeff Bridges grin — with his hair growing longer and dirtier by the day. Oh, and the wheelchair? It was in worse shape than he was. He used it so much it started to break down. In fact, it got to where he would push the wheelchair instead of the other way around. “Sure could use a new one,” he’d reply whenever we asked him about it. We tried to get him another one, but it was not to be.
One day, we saw Rick walking — hobbling was more like it — but without his trusty conveyance. “What happened to your wheelchair, Rick?” “The police took it.” But he seemed to be no worse off without it. He’d make due no matter what. Now that he was on disability, he seemed chipper than ever. Turned out someone at the hospital, or maybe it was that social worker I’d seen him talking to on occasion, had linked him up with the Social Security Administration. However it came about, Rick was getting a little money. He could buy food and drink. He just couldn’t find a permanent place to stay.
On the first of the month, he and Steve, or whoever he was with, would check into a hotel somewhere on Capital Blvd. They’d spend the weekend there, sleeping on soft beds with covers and sheets, with the air conditioner going full blast, keeping cool for once, instead of sweltering on hot, muggy sidewalks. Or turn the heat up on icy cold nights. This went on for a few years.
It was after one of their hotel stays that Steve told my wife about Rick. We hadn’t seen him in a while. We’d left his food at the usual place, but no sign of Rick. Then, my wife saw Steve on the corner, at the exit ramp where Rick would normally be. “Where’s Rick? How’s he doing?” “I’m sorry to tell you, ma’am, but Rick’s gone. He passed away.”
In shock, my wife pulled the car over and spoke briefly to Steve. Fighting back tears, she heard the story of how Rick had died. It was two weeks ago. He was feeling feverish it seemed, and sweating profusely. Just a month ago Steve had informed her that Rick’s feet were bothering him again. That he couldn’t get them into his shoes they hurt so bad. At the hotel, Steve had turned up the a/c to keep his friend from roasting, and went back to sleep. When Steve woke up the next day, Rick was no more.
He was downcast as he told his story. It made him sad to think about his friend, what he had gone through all those years, eight of them in total. He said that Rick always spoke of us with fondness and gratitude for what we had done for him. He mentioned that Rick had an older brother, who was well-to-do and had served in the army at one time. He was proud of his brother, Steve claimed. Real proud.
Rick was asleep now. We learned that he’s in repose at the Wake County Morgue, waiting for someone to claim his body, along with a permanent resting place.
After all, he was somebody special. And he wasn’t just another homeless guy. Rick was our friend.
Copyright © 2014 by Josmar F. Lopes