How to get out of a comfort zone, part two

So if there’s anywhere that you can get a drink 24/7, it’s the airport.  And that is where I am, presently sipping on a Stone IPA, and it is just right. Not too grape-fruity, which many IPA’s are. Not that I need a drink 24/7, I just find it interesting that it is so readily available in this setting.

I’m sure all the varying  time zones have something to do with this, as well as arriving anal-retentive early and having hours before one’s flight. Not that this is us, mind you. Still, I am thinking the  phrase, “It’s 5 o’clock somewhere ” had to have originated in an airport.

And now to take up where I left off, with my buddy Loren. I neglected to add previously that when his mom was hospitalized, she never left. Loren wasn’t sure exactly how she died, since it seems there were many complications. And I wasn’t going to press.  I was already invading his space, after all. I could already feel my composure slipping when we touched upon this subject.

“My mom died too, 4 years ago. I miss her, just like you probably miss your mom,” I said. He got quiet, and looked away. “Yeah. You know, she tried to do her best. You know something really bad? I had a baby brother, he was a mongoloid, or something, some long name that I forget. Well, my father, he took him after he was like 2 years old, and took him to a home. And my father left him there, and then left us too.”

I stared at him. “Do you mean your brother was put into an institution?” He shook his head. “Naw, not really. People adopted him. But my mom tried to get him back. We never saw him again.” I expressed my sympathy, which he brushed off. ” He stopped talking and looked at me. ” You don’t want to hear all this, do you? I’m tired a talking about myself. ”

I hurried to reassure him. “Please. I really do want to hear. Tell me more.”  And so he started talking again, and I studied him behind my sunglasses. He was neat and clean, comparatively speaking. And he was considerate. He said, “you don’t smoke, do you?” I said no, but I knew his question meant that he did. I told him to go ahead. He said, “But if I do, the wind will blow it right in your face the way you are sitting.” I smiled.  “Loren, I used to tend bar back in the day. Do you know how much second hand smoke I inhaled back then? It’s fine.” He lit a cigarette, but kept it tucked down in the gate so it wouldn’t drift up in my face anyway.

I never asked him about jobs, or his work history. He told me of his own accord, and his voice was tinged with shame.

“I used to do janitor work a while back. Then I got fired because I had to miss work to take care of my mom. Then, I helped a guy deliver newspapers for a long time. He quit doing it so I kinda had to, too. And now, for a while I been having these leg pains. To where they buckle from under me, and I get dizzy, and I just about pass out. Nobody is gonna hire somebody who is always about to pass out.”

Not surprisingly, doctors are not a favored group either. When I asked if he had been seen, he said: “Ah, hell. They did a bunch of tests on me and it didn’t show nothin’. Even a neurologist saw me. He said I had some kinda seizure disorder, but he wasn’t sure. They wanted me to take this one medicine, but I said no. If they can’t tell me what’s wrong with me, why should I take it? And I was afraid of side effects.”

I told him he had a valid point, and I wouldn’t take it either if it couldn’t be explained.  I asked him if he remembered the name, thinking it might be a schizophrenic drug. The homeless are well known for going on and off meds, exacerbating problems. He said he couldn’t remember. We talked about whether he might qualify for disability benefits, and he said some other worker had broached it with him. This process also involves a doctor’s diagnosis, and Loren said since they couldn’t find anything wrong with him, that was that. I am fairly sure there is a lot more to this that he either doesn’t understand or isn’t willing to offer up, so I say nothing and just listen. Who am I to say anything, anyway?

Interspersed in between all these admissions, I asked him about the books laying next to him. He said, “Yeah, that makes the day go faster. But I can’t read very good. In fact, I just learned to read in 2008.” I said, “Wow! That’s great. Did you have somebody help you, or did you teach yourself?”  “Well, kinda both. A lady at St. Vincent’s helped me, and I kinda picked it up little bits here and there. Like I said, I’m slow and some words I don’t get. I did real bad in school, ya see. But mostly I can figure it out. I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t have my books.” I asked him how he obtained them, and it seems “book people” visit the streets once a month, usually a man and a woman. And they just hand out paperbacks to anyone who wants them. Loren thought they were from a church.

I asked him if the nearby churches helped him, and he said yes. “I take a shower and stuff once a week at St. Vincent’s, and church people run that, I think. They have food, too. Sometimes, I sleep there. I been through some bad stuff in my life, but I do believe in God. When I get to feeling bad, I give it to God. And that helps me.”  I said I was glad for him, and asked him about living in the shelter. He made a tsk tsk sound, shook his head, and said, “Man, I’ll tell you what. I just can’t do it, because they don’t have the same rules for everyone. You know, they let these tattoo-ed guys who are drunk or high stay there, and that’s against the rules, but some of ’em, just look the other way. And me, I don’t do that stuff. I don’t drink or do drugs, and I don’t do tattoos. See?” He held his arms up to me as proof, and not a needle track or trace of ink could be found. I nodded approvingly. He went on: “And one time a lady who was drunk, she started yelling at me, and I’m the one who got kicked out. Can you believe that? So I just don’t stay there no more.”

I agreed that didn’t seem fair, and then he said, “Now, that’s enough about me. Are you from San Diego? What are you doing here, just tryin ‘ to kill time?” I replied I was here because of my husband’s work, and no, I wasn’t just trying to kill time. I said, “I noticed you a couple of times, and I wanted to know a little of your story.” He made a kind of noise. “Well, I don’t have many good stories to tell, as you know. Don’t you want to do a little shopping, or something? There’s a mall just 2 blocks from here. Or if you wanted to see a movie, I could tell you where.” I laughed and said no, I had done enough of those things. I said, “Okay. Fair is fair. What would you like to know about me?” He asked where was I from, and did I have kids. I told him about Michigan, and our bracing winters.  Then I said, “Would you like to see pictures of my sons?” He said he would. So out comes my iPhone and I show him my two red headed jewels. He smiles obligingly and comments of my eldest, “Oh, he looks like you. You have the same smile. The same pretty teeth.” I say thank you, and he looks down. “I don’t have good teeth,” he says casually. I tell him I had a dentist who took care of me when I was growing up, and I had braces to make them straight. I change the subject by asking to see pictures of his mother, if he had any.

Loren brightens up a little, showing me his few crinkled photos in his wallet. I ooh and ahh at what a beautiful young woman his mom was, and I am not lying when I say this. She had lush, dark brown hair and eyes…kind eyes. I blink back tears thinking of her life. No partner, one son taken away, one on the street with her, a daughter that didn’t speak to her, and suffering from what sounded like dementia and God knows what else.  There was one thing she could be proud about though, and there are probably many people, maybe even extremely wealthy, who couldn’t say it about their own families. She had a son who had loved her, who tried to do his best to help her.

This is the human element, the commonality, that gets to me the most. The huddled figures under the bridge or the crazies muttering to themselves, they were all children  upon a time. Were or had been someone’s child, as ill-equipped for parenting as they might have been.  I think about their dreams, the dreams every parent has for their child. And I wonder what went wrong, and I wonder if anyone cares what went wrong.

I tell him then that I like to write, and did he mind if I wrote about him, and took his picture too. He took a few seconds and then said, ” That would be fine.” So iPhone again in hand, I take one with his glasses on. He thought that was too dark. I take another without the glasses, and he says, “yeah, use that one.”

Even among the hints of mental illness, (or should I say, including, because who isn’t on the wacky spectrum in some way?) Loren’s politeness, his awareness of me, and his gratefulness when we parted convinces me more than ever that we are more alike than we are different. He is my brother. And in these moments of time, I’m not going to “change” him. I’m not going to lecture (only once do I get preachy, and that’s when I talk about food), or push my beliefs on him, or cluck cluck about how can anyone live like this. It is what it is, or so it goes. Even if it’s just for this morning, I want him to feel that what he has to say is worth listening to.

The sun is beginning to encroach upon us, and Loren says this is when he usually retreats to the park’s cool shade to read his book. I take this as my cue, and I get up creakily because the metal grate I was sitting on was uncomfortable as hell. And,  nearly 2 hours have flown by. I look at the thin piece of cardboard he is sitting on, the only thing separating him from the hard slab of cement. I say to him, “Loren, before I go, I want you to tell me of some things that you really need out here to make living easier. Physical things, like toothpaste, or whatever. And I want to give you some of these.” He hesitates. “Well, I got enough of that kinda stuff, the mission gives that stuff a lot. But, the one thing that I could really use, if you don’t mind, is some neosporin. Because if I get a cut, I don’t like it to get infected.  Oh, and baby wipes.”

He held out his hands and said, “I don’t like it how my nails get dirty, and those wipes help me keep clean in between showers, see. But, that stuff is awful expensive. Are you sure?” I say, yes I am sure, and thinking of that grey concrete, ask him if he could use a pillow. I panic momentarily, wondering if he said yes, where the hell in downtown San Diego would I find a pillow. The streets are lined with boutiques and restaurants, not exactly a magnet for home furnishings. He shook his head. “Naw, it’d just get dirty. Besides, I just use my roll-up pad or some sweatshirts.” I nod, and say, “Okay, I’ll be back in just a bit. You’ll be here, right?” He said again that usually he went to the park about then, but that he would wait till I got back.

I practically sprint the 2 blocks to where I know there is a CVS store, as well as a used book store. I had asked him what kinds of books he liked, and he said westerns. I pick out 2 that seem to have a simpler story, and take off again. I go fast because I am afraid he will leave, and the sweat is pouring down my back. I needn’t have worried; he is still under the tree. I give him the items and I can tell he is embarrassed. “That was a lot of money,” he says. “But you needed them,” I say, “and here.” I tuck another bill into his hand. This is where I allowed myself to get preachy. ” Now, I want you to get something GOOD to eat. Not fast food.” He started to protest, but I say, “C’mon, treat yourself. Please.” It did occur to me to just ask him if I could take him somewhere, but I knew he wanted to get to his park. He said that maybe he’d have a carne asada later, at a burrito stand down the block. They were cheap, about 6 bucks, and that was his favorite place when he had extra money.

I left him by shaking his hand, telling him how much I had enjoyed his company. I wished him luck and he even gave me his phone number. “A worker gave me this phone to me for when I need to make appointments and stuff. But I can text a little. I’m not too good at it though.” I said I didn’t mind, and he thanked me profusely.  “God bless you,” he said at least twice. Yes, that he has, Loren. More than you can know.

And, this has been a very long post, friends…but I couldn’t make it any shorter. And who knows, there may even be a part three in the future. I hope you have enjoyed meeting Loren as much as I did.  Cheers!