The next time you walk down 20th Street, heading south, cross over to the left sidewalk. Between G and F Street, a homeless man sits, holding a 7-Eleven cup to collect change, with a cardboard sign declaring himself to be a Gulf War veteran, asking for assistance, and entreating God to bless any kind stranger who helps him. His coat is shabby and ratty, his beard is scraggly, his hat is a dirty orange and his shoes are falling apart at the soles, laces and uppers. Most days, his cup fills ever so gradually, until, by sunset, the man can go to McDonald’s, order from the Dollar Menu, and stomach as much food as he can until the next evening. If there is any money left over, he goes to the nearest liquor store and buys whatever is cheapest. Occasionally, the church on the corner of 20th and G offers him meals, but they never let him have too many before they stop feeding him and say that if he would come to Sunday service and be saved, he can have bread from Heaven. As a strict non-conformist, he never accepts the invitation.
The man, whose name is Marcus, lives in Rawlins Park, a block away. Like many a homeless men, he sleeps on a bench covered in newspaper, keeps a trash bag that holds all his belongings, and is continually stung by the assumption that he spends all the money he can on alcohol. Not because it isn’t true. It is. He is offended because people think it without knowing who he is, how his life has transpired, and why he drinks. In his mind, he has earned the right to get drunk when, where and however he wants, without judgment.
His sign says that he was a Gulf war vet, but most passersby don’t believe it. Those that ask him get conflicting answers. Sometimes, he claims that he killed a dozen men, won the Bronze Star, and was awarded the Purple Heart after he was shot in the arm. Then he rolls up his sleeve and reveals a scar, red and raised. What happened to the medals? He sold them long ago to buy food. Other times, he admits to making the story up. In reality, he had been drafted late into service, but the Army pulled out before he had a chance to ship over. The scar is from a childhood accident. But to those that he tells the story of the medals to, he says, conspiratorially, that he lies to those who don’t believe him. They don’t deserve the truth.
He is not altogether sane. But his madness is not what drove him to the streets, and his situation is not what caused his madness. He became homeless because of obsession, fear, pain, grief and loneliness. These are very normal emotions, right? Then how did it happen? Let me explain.
Marcus grew up poor, in Atlanta, with no parents. Before he even knew she was pregnant, his father had vanished. He was a one night stand that his mother thought was going to stay. He didn’t and she, at just twenty, was unwilling to become a single mother, so she handed over the child to her grandmother, who lived off Social Security. A great deal of his childhood memories are muddled and distorted beyond any recognition, and his adult life is almost as nebulous, but there is one story that remains seared in his memory and which can be definitively collaborated.
At the age of thirteen, Marcus was in the eighth grade at his local public school. It was a spectacularly bad school in a poor part of town, but even there, Marcus stood out for his poverty and his oddness. He had a reputation as a highly defensive person who lashed out with little provocation. In spite of this, it was here where Marcus first fell in love. The lucky lady in question wasn’t actually aware of Marcus’s affections immediately. As I said, he was odd. For weeks, he simply stared at her during class, mortified that someone could be so pretty. The thought of telling her how he felt never even entered his head. Whenever he spoke with her, he felt wonderful, but also awful. It was obvious he was too boring, too annoying, too pathetic to captivate someone like her. No, he could never tell her how he felt. But that really isn’t insanity. Is it even odd? It’s middle school.
Unfortunately, it did not remain a harmless crush in middle school. He was obsessed with her. Everything she did fascinated him. It carried on throughout the year, and extended into high school and beyond. Their paths diverged more and more as they got older, when she went to Savannah State and he remained in the inner city, never keeping a job, but still he remained in love with her. He realized how insane it was to continue to love her, but he couldn’t help himself. He had a fantasy where they ended up together. He dreamed about her and got upset because he knew it was impossible but hoped anyway. Finally, after she graduated from college, she married a doctor and he buried his feelings deep inside, thanking God that he had no friends to remind him of her. The feelings aren’t gone. They remain, a constant source of embarrassment, shame and pain to him, but he is sick and tired of obsessing. He never fell out of love, he’s just run out of hope and determination.
This all occurred before his twenty-fifth birthday. After that, his story becomes hazy. He may have served in the Army, but reliable documentation of his service is hard to come by. In any case, it doesn’t matter. Our story is confined to that stretch between F and G Street on 20th, where Marcus settled every day. It’s a good spot for a homeless man to beg, near government buildings, George Washington University and that Church. A Starbucks is only a block away, so there is always foot traffic. While he doesn’t eat a normal or healthy diet by any standard, Marcus never fears starvation.
The story centers on a woman, as many stories do. What is interesting about this particular case is that Marcus had almost never noticed the women that walked by his patch of pavement. To him, they had been simply large wads of cash that were, for the most part, inaccessible to him. To them, he was a drunk and a miscreant who didn’t deserve any sympathy. After that first desperate crush, women ceased to attract him. They were far beyond his understanding. He has friends, other homeless men and women, who sometimes make passionate love in parks under cover of dark and a tarpaulin, but he never had the urge himself. All he cared about was getting enough money to eat and drink. This changed when she first walked by.
He doesn’t know her name. He can only assume that she works at the IMF because she emerges from that building every day and walks down 20th, right by him. He doesn’t know her personality, her likes and dislikes, or her dreams. But she always talks on her phone, hands him a dollar as she passes by and she always retraces her path within twenty minutes, holding a Starbucks coffee. She’s blonde, tall, and from Marcus’s standpoint, sitting on the pavement, intimidating. Her eyes are a steely blue-gray and her voice is usually authoritarian, giving commands into her phone that Marcus is sure are followed.
He loves her, in a strange surreal way. It started simply because she gave him a dollar. It was the way she did it. She didn’t seem to have an ounce of pity for him. It seemed as though she was trying to say to him, “I’m giving you this so you can get up and try, dammit, try.” Nobody had ever given him a dollar in quite the same way. When she came by the next day and repeated the act of charity, he was smitten. And although he knows that he’ll be homeless forever and will never respond to her challenge, he always tries to make himself look more presentable when she comes. He wipes the dirt from his jacket, takes off his cap and tries to smooth his hair with his fingers. When she walks by and hands him the bill, he smiles and thanks her sincerely, and when she returns with her coffee, he nods politely. Most days, she doesn’t notice. She’s too busy barking commands into her phone.
Sometimes though, she speaks tenderly, to her child at home. He likes that she has a child and that she takes the time to call her when she can and tell her stories and listen to the events of her day and tell her that she loves her. He wishes he had parents who did that. Even his grandmother was harsh with him. Her voice is soothing to him, and it proves that she has a softer side and he loves that. It lets him believe that maybe one day she will speak tenderly to him too, like no one ever has.
She isn’t married. After that first day, he checked, but she doesn’t wear any rings so there’s still hope… Every day for a year now, he has watched her, accepted her money and silently worshipped her. Hundreds of other women pass him all day, but she is special, because she always gives, and she’s always there, five days a week. Loving her is a part of his routine, as integral to his daily life as drinking and sleeping. He knows she won’t love him back, just like he knew the girl in middle school never would. But it doesn’t matter, because sometimes it’s nice just to imagine what could be. He doesn’t hope for much.
His friends think he’s crazy. They tell him that never in a million years will she ever think of him with any feeling besides loathing. Most of them are bitter because life crushed them and they can’t get up. They can’t even struggle anymore. The possibility of love for them is too painful a thought. It will never happen, so why torture yourself? Marcus often asks himself this very question. He doesn’t really have an answer. All he can do is wait for her to come and love how she walks and talks and flicks the hair out of her face. He doesn’t hope for much. He knows what the future holds, and strangely enough, he isn’t worried or scared.
One day, he knows, his liver will succumb to the constant drinking and he will fall seriously ill. He won’t be able to leave his bench in Rawlins Park until a kind passerby heeds his groaning and moans and takes him to the hospital. By then, it will be too late. He will fade away, unknown. The nurses won’t love him, and the doctors won’t mourn him. The kind passerby will already be gone, late for work, content with his good deed for the day.
And at 20th and G, the woman will walk down the street, talking on her phone, as always, heading for her coffee at Starbucks. When she reaches the spot where Marcus used to be, her hand will go to her purse and extract a dollar bill. She’ll reach out to give it to him without looking, but when a hand doesn’t take the money, and a voice doesn’t thank her with a humble smile, she’ll realize that no one is there, and, feeling foolish, she’ll put the bill back in her purse. It will take her a few strides to understand that something is wrong, and she’ll turn and look at the spot where the homeless man used to be. For at least a little while, til she reaches Starbucks at least, she’ll wonder where he is, and maybe, just maybe, she might hope that he’s ok. If it happens, Marcus will never know, but he likes to think she will, all the same.
© Copyright 2016 Max McKeon. All rights reserved.