The first day I met Pops, my two girls, ages 13 and 7, and I were walking from our hotel in the city to a restaurant nearby. He was at the corner of Robinson and Main St with his paper cup, the kind you'd get a Coke in from a fountain dispenser at the Zoo or hotdog stand something. The kind of cup that fountain soda is dispensed into- sturdy and kind of waxy. We dug in my purse for some change and left him with approximately a dollar worth of pennies, nickels, and dimes. I only had 20s for bills and didn't want to part with those. I felt awkward though. He most likely could see the green bills that were shoved in my purse haphazardly, and notice that I wasn’t reaching for those.
He was standing right next to us, and I could smell the smoke on him. I wasn't sure if it was stale cigarette smoke I smelled or if it was from a cigar. He was about six inches shorter than me with dark, chocolate colored skin, a knee brace on his thin right leg, a worn looking wood cane in his right hand, and he wore a baseball cap. I don't recall if there was a team logo on it, but it was well worn and a mixture of blue and white.
I dropped the change in his cup and we crossed Robinson before the thought occurred that we were going to eat- perhaps he'd like join us. I asked the girls, who immediately agree, and I quickly scurried back across Robinson.
"We're on our way to have breakfast," I explained. "Would you like to join us?"
"Oh," he said hesitantly. The image came to mind of how it would look to the staff at a fine dining establishment if I showed up, a white middle aged woman with two young girls who were clean and well dressed, with Pops, a beggar who may or may not be homeless but was certainly recognizable to everyone in the downtown area as a regular on the street corners.
"I got a sandwich in here for my lunch," he said as he motioned to the plastic bag he carried in the same hand as his cane. I nodded, not certain if I should say more and point out that he could have his sandwich later.
I told him I'd see him later and hurried to catch up with the girls who were still waiting for me across the street. I told them he declined, and we continued to the restaurant on the corner.
I was thinking about him though, the entire time we were there. As I added cream to my chai tea for richness, I wondered when was the last time he had the luxury of adding cream in his coffee. Would he think that a luxury? Was he really doing all right and just scamming by begging, when in reality he had everything he needed? On the other hand, did he sleep outside at night? My imagination went wild pondering homelessness in our 'rich' country and how the people who pass them by on a daily basis, myself included, don't seem to notice. Or we notice and give a few bucks. Does that assuage our guilt? Have we then done all we could do? I can't take care of every person I see on streets corners can I? Who is responsible for these people and this situation and what can be done about it?
The second day we came across Pops is actually the day I learned his name and introduced the girls and myself. He smiled and told me that Kamala was an interesting name.
"It's Indian," I answered, "it means lotus blossom or the opening heart."
"What tribe are you from?" was his reply with a smile on his face. After telling him I wasn't part of a tribe, he asked me what color his eyes were. I told him they we dark, but I was having a hard time seeing them. They were bright and clear and seemed to be reflecting the light of everything around us.
"Blue," he said, "they're blue. I'm fritz-creole. My daddy was from Louisiana. My great-great-great grandmother was Caucasian. I have apache blood and I'm also African American." I laughed and told him that was an interesting mixture, that he IS the great American melting pot. He chuckled and said he was a mutt.
I invited him to come with us for ice cream, but he again declined, saying that he was working on getting a sandwich.
As I opened my purse today, I noticed the sparse amount of change in his cup and gave him some bills to get his lunch. I felt easier about giving- more than I had yesterday. There was a familiarity that I felt now that I hadn't before, yet what did I really know? The personal interaction we'd shared wasn't of much depth, at least anything tangible. I didn't know much more about him now than I had the day before. The familiarity might have just been from seeing him, interacting with him, previously- about asking him to join us yesterday, which in itself open the door to knowing more about one another on a deeper level.
I had a desire to know more about him and his life, how he lived, what was wrong with the world and our society (according to my standards) that resulted in some people being left behind. I mean, what about the American dream? What about 'Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness'? Is that story just a myth? Does the fairy tale only come true for some people? What does it take to have the 'American Dream'? To keep it? What is it like from the perspective of the haves vs. the have nots and vice versa? Is the American dream still what it used to be? The manifest destiny has been to conquer, expand, and have more-- to have a house and a yard, a pet, a family, the ability to buy a car or two...the ability to buy. That's what it is. The American dream is all about ones ability to buy desirable things. Isn't that what the emphasis of life is? The newest technology or you're left behind, gadgets and gizmos for the house and yard- the list never ends. Does the American dream have more to do with 'stuff' than it does with personal contact or how we treat people? In what ways are we, as consumers, directed to act toward one another? Competitors or allies?
After asking what was wrong with his knee, why he wore that brace, he told me he needs a surgery. He's putting it off though, he explained, on account that he just wasn't ready to do it yet. He assured me he could, at any time, go into any of the local hospitals and they'd take care of him. I'm not so sure I believed that, but I didn't press him any further on what exactly his ailment was. Again, my mind crept into the territory of cynicism. Was he wearing a brace to elicit sympathy from passersby? Was it part of the beggars ‘costume’ if you will, appearing woefully in need? I'd never know.
Next, he asked me how old I thought he was. Dang. There's nothing I'm worse at than guessing a persons age. You know what I mean, right? The fear. Not wanting to guess too high and insult someone, nor too low and appear foolish. Two ages came to mind as I gazed at his moderately wrinkled face and the whitening bits of his short curly-haired beard, 56 and 63. I erred on the low side. Of course, he accused me of calling him an old man to give me a hard time first and then shared that he is 73. Truly surprised, I told him he looks much too spry to be that old. As he laughed again, I took in the merriment and ease he seemed to have about life. Once more, I wondered about his life and the source of what sustains his joy.
He told us to have a good time and thanked me for the money. Told me he was truly blessed to run into us again. I know we were just as fortunate.
The more I thought about him over the course of that day and evening, the more I wanted to know. He must have stories of his life that are fascinating, whatever his living situation. Even if there wasn't anything I can do to change the situation of his life or the hundreds thousands of others like him in the U.S., I could listen to stories of his life.
Third consecutive day and just my little one and I were walking downtown. When he saw us, he broke into a grin, his dark skin a stark contrast to his white smile, which had a few spaces in it. As we approached, I could hear him softly saying, "I know you. I know you."
"Hey there, Pops," I said, "how're you doing today?"
"Oh, I'm ok. Strugglin, though. I had lunch earlier, but I'm looking for something later on this evening."
As I opened my purse, I mentioned how a man like him must have quite a few stories about life to share.
"Oh, I got one or two," with a smile.
"Could we get a cup of coffee? I'd sure love to hear one."
"Aw, baby girl, I tell you what. Next time I see y'all we'll sit down and I'll tell a story. Right now I've got to keep moving, but next time I promise you," and he gave me his hand to shake on it.
The image of baby kitties came to mind. I grew up on a farm and there were often litters of kittens in at least one corner of the hay loft. We weren't able to get too close to them right off. They took some time to warm up to us, hissin' and spittin' if we moved faster than they were comfortable with us. Perhaps this is what a relationship with Pops would be like. I can see finding out about him taking a while- probably with less hissin’ though.