Usually I see him on my way home from work. I drive one of the busy East-West streets in our little city on my way home, because the lights always seemed to be synchronized to my advantage. If I time it just right, I can make it through a whole series of lights without ever stopping. I always see him going West at that time of the day. And he doesn’t shuffle, he walks with purpose, as if he has to be somewhere at a certain time, maybe like he is on a schedule.
He always wears the same outfit, a grey hoodie, with the hood pulled up over his head, and sunglasses. Much of his face is hidden. He also sports a blond beard. He wears a watch. I find that curious. From a distance it is hard to say how old he really is, because of the beard and the large sunglasses. But he has a bounce in his step and walks with vigor, which may be why I am so fascinated by him.
I tell you all of this, because a most startling thing happened to me yesterday. Something that has really shaken me to my core. Something I can’t get out of my mind. We were coming out of Denny’s, after a late breakfast, and I saw him. He was going through the trash can, retrieving discarded plastic bottles. He stood up, he had his glasses resting on his head, and I saw his eyes. His eyes I knew. They twinkled, like the sun on a deep glacial lake, but the tiredness of the face confused me, it scared me. I knew this man in the grey hoodie, with the watch and a walk filled with purpose.
Honestly, I think he recognized me before the cog wheels in my brain began whirring into action. Click, click, click and then the realization plunked into place. This was no middle-aged man. I knew him as a child. A troubled child, one filled with such life and spirit, but no guiding hands to direct him. He was a beautiful boy, with the brilliant blue eyes, and the blond wavy hair which became almost opalescent with a golden, sun-bleached sheen by the end of the summer. He is what one sees in their mind’s-eye when thinking of the classic, true Californian boy.
My son attended Middle School with him, and perhaps a year or two of High School until he dropped out. We heard he was living up in a park not far from where we reside. My boys sometimes go over to that park to spend time with their friends, and had mentioned in passing they had seen him. That was about a year ago.
Upon arriving home after this encounter, we found the boys with their friends sitting on the large sectional in the living room. As usual, they were all busy talking and looking at their ever present cell phones. I asked them about this teenager, the one that was in my son’s grade. A most odd thing occurred. The room became silent, the fingers on the cell phone pads typed faster. Their heads dropped even further down. No one said a word. I asked again. My oldest became angry because of my persistence on this topic and said some things that were uncharacteristically cold and callous. I was taken aback and puzzled. It was if I was making him speak of the unspeakable. I gave up and went off to take a nap.
I dreamed of this boy, this teenager, with the blue eyes and the blond beard. I awoke berating myself for not having said more than “Hey, how are you?” In retrospect that was a really stupid, crappy-assed thing to say. But he said “Hey” back and then turned away, grabbed on to his shopping cart, with the hand that had the watch on his wrist, and walked away – with purpose. I would like to tell you I had done something really great, like offered him a meal, or maybe some money, but I didn’t. If I had done something like that would it have been done in order to alleviate my guilt and confusion about his situation? I don’t know. In retrospect I don’t think he wanted me to. I think he had given up on hoping anyone really cared. His parents had failed him, the schools had failed him, and yesterday I had failed him. And in the end, society had cast him aside when he reached that magical number, and he is now on his own, legally. But really, in all actuality, he has probably been on his own for most of his life.
Photos from en.wikipedia.org and pixabay.com