This morning I walked over to Kinkos to send a fax. While waiting for the light to change at Broadway I saw my friend, the card collector, approaching from about a block away. We waved, and he broke into a run to meet me.
He made it across the crosswalk while the light turned yellow.
“How are you doing?” I asked him.
“Oh, I’m getting along okay.”
Since I bought him a cup of coffee awhile back, we’ve developed the routine that whenever I see him I’ll buy him something to eat at Jack in the Box. We stood together on the corner for a moment longer.
“I’m on my way to Kinkos,” I told him. So we walked across the street and he followed me inside.
I secured a computer and made a quick change to my letter before printing it out. He stood in the background.
He focused on the screen and asked, “What are you working on? Is that algebra?”
“Just putting together a fax.”
“Oh.” This is what he says when I don’t really give him enough information.
I spent the couple of bucks I had on me on my business at Kinkos, so I told him that I needed to go to a cash machine.
We walked up Broadway and he told me that the manager at Jack in the Box had been kicking people out lately. I asked him where he’d been eating lately and I’m not sure he made the connection with his description of the Jack in the Box situation and my question, he described the schedules of the different churches that serve meals.
He told me that he’d lived in Seattle for, “about eight years, almost ten years.” He came from Oklahoma at the suggestion of his younger brother who moved to California recently.
I got my cash at Washington Mutual and we turned automatically back up Broadway, the way we came.
“What do you want to have for lunch today? There’s Subway,” I offered.
He digested this idea, considering where we should go, “I’d like to have Kentucky Fried Chicken. It’s been a long time since I’ve had chicken.”
He tried to read my reaction, Kentucky Fried Chicken had never really hit my radar. “Is that alright?”
“Yeah, of course. I haven’t been there in years.” Since we were on the subject of family, I explained that there had been a Kentucky Fried Chicken across the street from where my mom worked when I was a kid. I sometimes had to hang out there in the afternoon and she’d send me out to get something whenever I was bothering her and her coworkers too much.
He responded, “Moms are the best.”
“Do you ever think of going to Oklahoma to see your mom?”
“Yeah. I’d like to go down and holler at her sometime.”
“Holler at her?” I laughed.
“Holler at her and give her a big hug.”
He told me about his dog. “He was about this tall,” he said holding his arm out about four feet from the ground.
“Wow, what kind of dog was he?”
“He was a bulldog. I think his old owner had been really mean to him, because he didn’t really know how to deal with nice people. But he appreciated us. He’d get excited whenever he saw me and would jump into my arms. I’d carry him around.
“One time I gave his leash to my brother and I told him, ‘don’t let him off the leash.’ But my brother was drunk and he let him go. He went crazy and ran straight into the street, right into a car. That was really sad. I miss him.”
We passed the small swarm of people collecting outside Seattle Central. “Oh right, it’s the anniversary of the WTO.”
We walked all the way over to Kentucky Fried Chicken and went inside, he ordered one of the combo meals and I got a soda. He picked a seat and we talked a bit more.
He showed me his latest set of slides. They were photos of kids at a swimming pool. A woman at UW had given them to him, he told me, “She saw me and yelled out, ‘Hey Robert. I have some pictures for you.'”
His name is Robert.
“I still have those cards you gave me. My brother wanted me to give him some, he collects cards too. I finally gave him one of them before he left.”
He told me about the time he’d gone to Houston to visit his aunt. “She can tell you everything about Houston. She knows every back road. She knows a lot about Oklahoma too. She’s married to a tycoon.”
“An oil man?”
“That’s right. He owns a lot of oil and things. I didn’t think he’d like the looks of me, but he was really friendly. ‘Would you like to stay with us for awhile?'”
“A friend of mine is getting a job at The Salvation Army, opening doors for people. It pays $8 an hour. I asked him to let me know how that works out, that’s pretty good money.”
“Sure,” I said, “That’s eight dollars more than you or I make.”
I tried to imagine a job that fit that description and I pictured some kind of a receptionist or a greeter at a meal service. Only now do I realize that he was talking about a bell-ringer job. His conversation style involves a lot of this type of logical leap. Since he’d become homeless he talks less about cards and more about practicalities.
“I’ve been on the list to get an apartment for awhile. Hopefully I’ll get in next week or the week after. How about you? Does the college pay for your apartment?”
“No I pay for that myself.”
He waited expectantly for me to explain.
“I used to work at Amazon.com and I’ve got some money from stocks.”
“Oh, . . . Maybe I should try that. Save up some.”
I didn’t really know how to answer this. “You know, I really just lucked into it. I didn’t know it was going to happen.”
“And now you have enough money for the rest of your life?”
“No, no. Maybe a couple of years. I don’t know, it depends on how the market goes.”
“Oh, . . . and you’re just making the best of those couple of years.”
“You know, aside from living at the mission and not having a job, I’m doing pretty good.”