Standing by the side of the toddler bed, I watched my little girl sleep tight, cuddled between the blankets, the right thumb in her mouth and the left hand stretched away at an acute angle to her body. The LED night bulb on the wall cast a crooked shadow of me across the room, over the window curtain that waved in the gust of cool air from the vent on the floor. I moved away from the path of the light at the thought of my daughter screaming at my monstrous silhouette, went near the bed and examined her skin in whatever light available. It looked silky, smooth, devoid of any blisters.
I wanted to touch and feel her; but moved away, repelled by the thought of awakening the sleeping beauty. The blanket had come off on one side exposing her little toes. I lugged the blanket, left the room and went back to my bed. The feeling of knowing that my little princess was perfectly all right made me contented. As I closed my eyes and tried to sleep, the dream that awakened me and sent me to my daughter’s room started to play again in front of my eyes.
Myriads of blue-clad coolies, drifters in their grimy rags, merchants with heavy sacks on their shoulders and backs, vendors selling food laden with flies, crowded the train station. Like ants emerging out of a disrupted pheromone trail, they clustered the dirt-ridden platform. Everyone was in frenzy. Amidst the engine whistles, loud vendors and screeching metal on metal, the public address system blared something inaudible into the air.
I stirred through the crowd trying not to have any physical contact with anyone. Still, they seemed to press upon me with menace. The sign boards said things in some unknown language. I was confused what I was doing in the strange, unknown town. A shabbily dressed little girl was asking the man next to her for something. The girl’s face was not visible to me. From her gesture – circling her tummy with her left hand and right hand on her mouth with folded fingers – it looked like she was asking for food. When the girl pulled the man’s long gown to gain his attention, he got very agitated and pushed the girl down. The slat that was hung from her neck hit the concrete floor with a loud thud; something was written on it in black paint in some illegible script. The girl got up from the floor and walked toward me, crying. As she came closer, her face became clearer to me and that was when I realised that she was none other than my own three -year-old daughter. Furious, hands trembling, I rushed to lift her, pushing and cursing the crowd. But as I got close to the girl, I was repelled by the strong smell. She was covered with flies feeding on her blisters. I moved back and started to run out of the station and my baby girl followed me crying, “Daddy, daddy, please take me home…”
It all started the night before while I was heading home after work, when I spotted the guy near the train station. He stood tall, his giant body frame against the granite wall of the building. Even though the weather did not warrant it, he had at least three layers of clothing on him that was visible externally. He had his head covered by the hood of his sweatshirt that formed the middle layer of his clothing between the outer jacket and inner sweater. The top of the hood extended out to the front forming a broad shadow across the forehead, partly covering his eyes. There was no astonishment, remonstration, rage or hope on the hobo’s face; he looked as if he had long since forsaken any judgment of human action. Deep furrows formed by long wrinkles extended all the way from the bottom of the eyes to the chin covering most of his unshaven face. These, combined with the mesh like network of wrinkles on the sides of both the eyes, accentuated the graphic nature of the man’s face. The beard mingled with grey, white and black hair grew unevenly like an ill maintained lawn longing for rain.
Speckles of some brownish white food, that looked like popcorn or chicken nugget crumbs, stuck to the hair on the side of his lips. A tattered placard made of corrugated cardboard bearing the words, “HELP PLEASE. GOD BLESS.” dangled from his collar by a piece of a twine. Ink dripped from some of the letters on the top line, through the grooves on the cardboard, all the way to the edge, crossing the letters that came on their way, making the two S letters on the bottom line look like dollar signs. He held a rusted tin can in his left hand that shook feebly. It was unclear if he was trying to shake it to gain the attention of the passerby or if it shook because of his hand tremors.
I studied the hobo for a while and ignored the man as one amongst the countless seen in any downtown. But then, something strange, something that I was not expecting to see, drew my attention to the man. It did not take too long for me to realise that the peculiarity was due to the flowers that protruded from the gap between the board and the man’s torso; a bunch of tidily arranged, cheap but fresh flowers. While I was staring at the lisianthus, Asiatic lilies, green button poms, roses and chrysanthemums, something else strikingly bizarre caught my attention – a card stuck to the bouquet.
Driven more by curiosity to know what was on the card than feeling of charity, I removed a dollar bill from my wallet and approached the guy. The free side of the bi-fold card wavered in the wind, exposing its inside contents. Shoving the bill into the narrow slit on the tin can, I narrowed my eyelids and focused my attention on the card and read the autographed, hand written note: “Happy Birthday Dad”.
The man glanced and glanced away, as if I was merely another inanimate fixture on the street. He did not seem to be aware of me, any more than his own. There wasn’t any reaction from the lad. His eyes seemed ajar but fixated on some far-flung, secluded object. I wasn’t sure if the guy was visually challenged as there was nothing on his face except the blind malevolence of anguish, of some long-restrained rancour. I had heard about destiny compelling affluent men into the streets.
Could this guy be one of them? The thought made me very apprehensive.
As I stood there contemplating, an agonising, pungent stench started to surpass the whiff of the flowers. When the smell became unbearable, with a heavy heart, I started to walk toward the train station.
I walked along with the frenzied commuters, thinking about the man, bouquet and the card. I wasn’t sure whether to feel empathy for the son for remembering the father’s birthday, sympathise with the son’s helplessness or feel wrathful at the son for letting the father rot on the street.
The next scheduled train hauled into the station platform and vacant seats were filled one by one like a ferocious sea wave filling the empty deserted catamarans on the shore with frothy water. I managed to find a seat by the window. As the train left the Philadelphia Suburban station and made its westward journey, I saw at least one of them in every station – unshaven, blind, shabbily dressed, tall, and short, men, women, long-haired, and bald. Like mushrooms popping up after periods of heavy rain, they were everywhere. I had been commuting in the SEPTA R5 commuter line since my high school days. In all these years, I had never seen so many of these men. How could I have missed them in all these years? Their appearances and the thoughts about the bouquet and card intensified my feeling of melancholy. I had dealt with beggars whenever I went to visit my grandparents during my summer vacations. I had felt pity for them; I had given them food, clothing and even crayons. But nothing ever registered in me so deeply. I couldn’t find any explanation for this sudden empathy. I felt as if I was getting connected to some emotion buried deep in my conscience. Like a clear pool turning murky by a dropping stone, the incident made my mind became heavy with thoughts.
“Is it such an enormous obligation to provide a modest standard of living for your own parents?” I asked my wife, while discussing the incident in the kitchen. I was sitting on the bar stool by the island running my finger over the rim of the glass tumbler. The Swarovski crystals on the chandelier formed a reflection inbetween the garnet and quartz speckles of the granite countertop. My wife seemed more worried about the inconsistency of the whistle generated by the steam from the pressure cooker on the stove than the homeless guy I was referring to.
Raising the dangling weight on the top of the cooker with a spatula to make room for the steam to escape, she said, “They get high on tax payers’ money.”
“What do you mean?”
“Don’t you know that substance abuse is one of the primary reasons for homelessness?”
“Well, you can’t generalise.”
“Honey, we are just normal human beings with a lot of responsibilities. The world needs people like you and me. Let us leave the social issues to Salvation Army or United Way.”
She continued with her talk when, steam under pressure escaped through the tiny orifice on the lid, pushing the weight upward, generating a loud whistle-like noise that filled the entire house. The stainless steel range hood sucked in the steam along with whatever my wife was trying to say. Since I was not very eager to hear her words, I did not ask her to repeat. Once the sound receded, her high, metallic voice became dominant again.
“Sweetie, you are thinking way too much. I think someone might have found flowers lying around and instead of trashing them, they would have stuck them on this poor guy,” she said, rinsing the vegetables in the sink. “Whatever happened to the rational you? I have seen this behaviour with you in the past too. All of a sudden you stop using your analytical brain and weigh situations emotionally.”
Without saying a word, I got up and refilled my glass with iced tea from the canister made of hand-blown borosilicate glass. I felt sorry for bringing up the topic with my wife. That night I went to bed with a heavy heart and a splitting headache.
I lay on the bed for how long I didn’t know, with thoughts that made the headache even worse. When I finally fell asleep, I was awoken by the disturbing dream.
In the days that followed, I tried to get to know about the homeless more, read Wikipedia articles and even contacted a few homeless shelters to see if they could help the man in any way.
But most of the time, I got sidetracked into reading about the various statistical data available on homelessness than doing anything really useful. In the evenings, when I was not in a hurry chasing the train, I saw the guy, standing at the same spot as if glued to the concrete. The flowers had turned brown from the heat and the twine and the cardboard showed signs of weathering; but the guy stood at the same spot with the same level of enthusiasm. The card was not there anymore. It might have got blown away by the wind. Or he might be preserving it somewhere.
Did this guy ever leave the place? Did he ever sleep? Did he sleep somewhere and come back and stand at the same place every day? Or was this guy like a bullfrog that never slept? I thought of marking the place where the man stood or attaching some kind of tracking device to monitor his movement. But then, I felt ashamed at the thought; how could I even think about spying on a homeless guy?
Slowly, as the days went by, I started to lose interest in the guy. Like a hangover, the feeling of vulnerability induced by the initial encounter with the man, followed by the dream started to recede slowly. Work, continuing education, YMCA and gardening preoccupied my thoughts more than anything else. My wife was right; homelessness could wait.
Not long after, during a weekend, at a fundraiser event, I came across one of my neighbours, Dennis Walters. One conversation led to another and I learned that Dennis worked as the director of Human Services at Keystone Services for the Blind and Visually Impaired, a non-profit organisation dedicated towards promoting self-esteem, independence and self determination in people who are blind or visually impaired. I was instantly fascinated by the benevolent nature of Dennis’s profession. He tolerantly explained to me the mission of his agency and his day-to-day activities.
As we got more acquainted, I told Dennis about my encounter with the homeless man near the train station. I also told him about the flowers and the card.
“I was wondering if this guy really has a family and is not homeless? What kind of a sick son would do such a thing to his father?” I asked, sounding agitated.
Dennis did not have any reaction to my concerns. With a gentle smile he told me that it was quite possible that the guy had a family and a home somewhere.
“It’s very difficult to say. Mental disorder, domestic violence and drugs are some of the primary reasons for homelessness. These could affect anyone, at any stage in their life. Families usually feel helpless; some of these men are dangerous. Even if you find them shelter, they would run away.”
He talked as if it was quite natural. I was surprised by Dennis’s relaxed consideration towards the matter. Biting a big chunk out of a pizza slice, he continued.
“I don’t know if you knew about this. In the 70s, the US government deinstitutionalised patients from state psychiatric hospitals which were a precipitating factor that seeded the homeless population. But in some cases, it is family rivalry or just negligence that drove otherwise rich men to rags overnight. It is not at all uncommon.”
I inquired if Dennis’s agency could be of any help to the man.
“Unfortunately, our agency does not deal with the homeless. However, I have some contacts and we can do something. I appreciate your concern,” he said. “I keep my schedules open on Wednesday afternoons. If you are available, we can meet and chat with a friend of mine who runs a shelter for the homeless. I am sure he will be able to do something for this man,” said Dennis. I agreed to it. I took his contact details and entered a reminder in my smartphone for Wednesday. “I truly appreciate your empathy. People are so busy these days; they don’t have any time for humanity. God bless you. Talk to you soon,” said Dennis.
While driving home that night, I remembered my parents. They were living happily on their own, when things started to go wrong one after the other. First, my father was let go by his employer. Initially he was worried. But as he was getting used to his new status and accepting it, the next disaster struck him. His 401K and Pension plan started to stumble along with the market. His fund manager became the target of an insider trading investigation and absconded from the country. With most of his retirement savings eroded away, my father did not have any other choice, but to look for work again. Finally, after several months of hunting, he found a job in Nashville, Tennessee. My parents sold the house that was near and dear to their heart and moved to Tennessee. Even though my father seemed to have emotionally recovered from the losses he had suffered, he became very fragile inside. Later that year, during a trip to India to attend a wedding, he suffered a massive heart attack and died. I was unable to attend the funeral because of work commitments.
My mother came back to the US and lived with us for a year, but eventually moved to Florida as the cold weather deteriorated her asthma and joints pain. Since then she had been living mostly by herself in a rented apartment. My mother, who had never worked in her lifetime, had found a full-time job with a local time share company. Last time we spoke, she sounded very excited about her life.
The following week, things took a sudden turn for me as speculation of underperformance in the Asian economy triggered unexpected paranoia in the market forcing one of my premium clients to expedite the acquisition proceedings scheduled for later. The week that started normal, swiftly took a 360 degree turn. Work became hectic. Dennis called me and left a voicemail saying that he had talked to someone who was willing to help. The message ended on a high note, “We will move your man to a shelter soon. Looking forward to meeting you on Wednesday.”
Wednesday, fifteen minutes before noon, my smartphone reminded me of the forthcoming appointment with Dennis. As the department head had given very clear instructions that nothing in the world was more important than gratifying the client, I dismissed the vibrating reminder. I could not even find the time to call Dennis to let him know of my inability to meet him as planned.
Two weeks of nerve-racking meetings, analysis sessions and all night overseas conferences, finally, paid dividends. A merger deal was reached and the final contract was signed. After celebrating our achievement with the team at the local watering hole when I reached the train station, I noticed some commotion outside. An ambulance, a fire engine and at least a couple of police cruisers blocked the side entrance of the station, spilling blue and red light on the streets. The yellow tape marked DO NOT CROSS in black was stuck all over. It looked as if police were following up on some accident that might have happened not long ago. The corner was dimly lit and the ambulance was blocking the view. Without worrying about it much, I continued into the station.
At home, getting ready to sleep, I pushed aside a pillow and reposing my spine against the backrest of the bed, turned on the television. With the remote control, I surfed for a news channel. The 11’o clock evening news was airing on NBC 10 and the weatherman was all too animated about the day’s gorgeous conditions. From the way they were recycling the weather and sports news, I discerned that there couldn’t be anything worth watching. Tired and intoxicated, few minutes into the news I went into deep slumber caring less about what was on the TV. The anchorwoman’s voice swiftly turned solemn as she started reporting the demise of a homeless, schizophrenic man who succumbed to injuries following a tragic accident. She continued, “The homeless man who was hit by an out of control SUV in front of the Suburban station during evening rush hour was reported dead at the Drexel University hospital…”
The news continued with footage of paramedics taking the heavy set man on a bloodstained stretcher to the ambulance that was parked nearby; the victim’s head was tilted to the side away from the camera. His face was bruised and swollen; the cardboard placard hung from his neck swayed along with the stretcher. The ambulance left the scene with its light on and blaring siren. The noise from the TV did not awaken me or my wife. After a while, still in sleep, I located the remote, turned off the TV and went back to sleep.
A much-earned, calming weekend was shadowed by a moderately manageable work week for me. I was glad to have my schedule back. The train commute started again. I met the same people again and again whom I would not choose to spend any time with, let alone a fifty minute journey. Whenever I reached the station early, I took the time to walk around. The place looked familiar, vibrant with activity – office goers, newspaper and hot dog vendors, cab drivers cursing each other at the top of their lungs, cops, pimps and drug addicts, everyone existing in harmony. One thing noticeably missing from the canvas was the sedentary homeless man who consumed the corner as if bolted to the underlying concrete. He couldn’t be spotted anywhere. The man, the wilted flowers, the tin can and the card had all disappeared. I wondered where the guy would have gone as I did not think the man had the ability to move around, unless someone from a shelter house or the loving son had taken him away. I wished nothing terrible had happened to the man.
One night, during dinner, I told my wife about the inexplicable disappearance of the homeless man. I wondered if something unscrupulous happened to the poor guy. My wife gently put her hands on my shoulder and said, “I think you are right. He might have a family and they might have taken him home.” “It’s probably just as well. I am sure the guy will get good care now. You don’t have to worry anymore,” she comforted me. That reminded me to call Dennis, apologise to him and convey the happy news to him. I wished my wife was right. I went to bed feeling uplifted by my wife’s words.
About the Author
Pratheep Nair is a budding writer, very passionate about writing serious fiction.