He wears so many layers of pants, I’m not even sure they’re all pants. There may be parts of a sleeping bag; there is certainly duct tape. They meld together to form a single garment, like a street life space suit. I don’t believe he changes, but adds when necessary, or maybe just whenever a new acquisition comes his way. Winter or summer, he wears his pants in an extraordinary flash of tattered rags as voluminous as a man embarking on an arctic trek. He does not lurk or scurry, but sits and stands with a relaxed yet erect posture. I find myself wondering if his is a military background.
His layers of pants impress me more as regalia, than the filthy rags they must really be. Even in repose, he moves with a grace and pride that does not speak of the untouchable status of the homeless; the shrinking and defeated moves a broken person makes once they have learned to be unwanted; the lack of eye contact and retreat seen in the unwashed and the unseen. He moves in a powerful and natural way, like a healthy and untroubled horse. His tatters swirl and shake with his movements, like a horse’s long tail follows and catches the end lash of their intent, their direction.
No, he does mean to be seen, his pants say so.
He is dirty, it’s true. Or at least his pants must be. I have been told that in warm weather, he smells. I don’t imagine he’s welcome indoors many places, for very long. His dark hair and beard are wayward and unkempt. He looks like a wild man. Maybe in another time, another place, he would be one; a mountain man. But we are in a city, and it’s 2014.
On the rare occasion I have encountered him I have learned that he is handsome, and has a brilliant and easy smile, though I doubt many people see this past the rags. His dark eyes are warm and lively, and crackle with intelligence. He seems to radiate a force that I cannot put my finger on, but that never escapes me. An energy or ability that bears noting, one I don’t feel wise ignoring. It is not a menacing or dark thing, rather a soft and knowing thing that just waits, neither approaching nor retreating. But it is…powerful.
I have never heard a single bad thing about him. I haven’t seen anything repelling. There’s just those pants, and the life he lives in public, for whatever reason.
The day I stopped, it was with intent. It was cold. It’s pretty much never been that cold here, for that many days. My pipes were frozen, and I did what I do when I am not sure yet what to do. I went for coffee. Sitting in my warm truck waiting for my breve at the drive thru, I saw him sitting on a wall at the mall, surrounded by his tatters. I don’t know what I was thinking, or if I was thinking, other than, “Damn. It’s cold.” I do remember thinking, it’s too cold to be outside, sitting. The girls at the coffee stand saw me looking and said, almost apologetically, that he’s the only guy like him that’s allowed to hang around there, that he never bothers anyone, and that he buys his coffee with real money. As if I might not believe them. They also said he’s good looking, or maybe he would be, if only.
I circled the mall, knowing my shop would open late for doing so, and wondered what I had to offer him. I had no thought of fixing him, or even really talking to him for any length of time. I somehow doubted he was hungry, and when I got close, I realized he didn’t look cold either. It was just so frigid out, and it was Christmas time, and I was tired of the shoppers spending their money in the mall, talk, talk, talking about what they were buying and for who. Even though I need and appreciate customers, the shopping season is surreal for me, and I tire of it quickly.
I pulled up behind him in the lot; he had his back to me. I called out Hello and he stood up promptly and faced me, but in that same relaxed way I’d noticed that he had. Dignified. Poised. And he greeted me. He didn’t seem surprised to see me there at all, yet we’d had but rare encounters and I’d never approached him.
I didn’t ask him if he was hungry. I asked him if he smoked cigarettes. Is that bad? Some people might think so. I don’t and didn’t care. I had the feeling it was the only thing he felt he needed. Or wanted. Maybe it at least would spare him recycling other peoples butts for a few days.
He answered, “Yes, I smoke cigarettes.” And it then went like this:
I said “Do you HAVE any cigarettes?”
“Yes, I have some cigarettes.”
“Do you NEED some cigarettes?”
“Yes, I need some cigarettes.”
And I said “Well, here, I have some for you, if you can smoke this kind” and handed over my blue pack of Pall Malls. I had the feeling he was ready to hand over his last cigarette to yours truly before that, and that he had no thought of what he might ask me for. He was very gracious, and thanked me. It was nice. No bowing and scraping, no overwrought fake gratitude, no calculating what else I might cough up for him. Just a heartfelt thank you, and a smile.
I asked him then, if he had any money. He told me that yes, he had some money. Maybe he thought I needed some.
“Do you have enough money for whatever you need for today?”
“Yes, I have enough money today.”
I figured he knew what he had and what he needed. I wasn’t trying to change his life, or him. Just make contact, on a cold as hell day.
You never know who someone is on a cold as hell day, especially a ghost in rags at the side of the road.
He blessed me when I said goodbye. Not in that way that makes my skin crawl sometimes, when it’s thrown out there with no thought, because it sounds right, but in a way that made me feel warm inside. It made me feel warm all day, and I addressed the things I faced that day with confidence and a sense of ease and wonder.
I have only seen him once since that day. He was near the coffee stand, catching the heat of the sun. He had a little coffee with him. I’d been crying, trying to screw up the courage to call someone and say “I can’t pay you yet”, again, and I was so discouraged, depressed, I hadn’t slept. The people in front of the line ordered about a hundred smoothies, sending me into my own little private coffee hell, and for the hundredth time I wondered why these people don’t just go to McDonalds instead of clogging up the damn coffee line. Don’t they know how lame that is? I’m sure I thought I was dying of caffeine withdrawal and impatience.
I did not want to interact with people. I was trapped in the agony, and the blow to my pride, of having to make that phone call when I got where I was going. And then I saw him. My head was on the steering wheel, kind of sideways, trying to not make faces about the long wait caused by smoothies. He saw me, and would have known my truck, I am sure. He seems the observant type. And somehow, there was a silent exchange. The kind you can pretend didn’t happen, and that some don’t even know happened. But I knew. He knew. He knew where I was at. He stayed as he was, the ghost in rags, and I left it that way, incapable just then of more. On my way out I couldn’t help but grin, at his intelligence, his subtlety, and I lifted my littlest finger in the small secret wave that said “I see you” and I laughed. The dreaded phone call changed shape and size and I felt a little bit down the rabbit hole, but the day got easier somehow.
Perhaps we’ll meet again.
One of my people asked me recently if I’d given “Pants” my card, “or something.” I had no idea what she was talking about, or who “Pants” was. She explained. He had visited the shop. I don’t know how he could possibly know who or where I am, and maybe he doesn’t. In fact, he had not mentioned me at all, but she imagined I had made contact. I’m not sure what that says about me.
Maybe it’s random. But people who observe, always seem to know stuff. Who’s who, where they are. Stuff most of us don’t.
You never know who someone is on a cold as hell day, especially the ones in rags. Some of them are lost. Some of them are dangerous. But I do not fear this one. I think he knows better than I do why I stopped that day. I saw him.
Some of those lost ones are sent to help. Or teach something. Some are there to protect. I have a feeling he is one of these.
Or maybe it’s not for me at all….and it’s for him that I appeared. I did notice the pants first, but I saw. Him. No one wants to disappear.