I bought lunch for The Card Collector at Kentucky Fried Chicken again the other day.
He told me about the $25 a night hotel he’d stayed in the night before. “It was nice because I could get under the covers and press the buttons on the TV.” He showed me the key that they’d let him keep for the day under the assumption that he’d be able to get together $25 for that night. I took this as a hint and gave him enough money for the night.
He asked me to keep him company for a few minutes, so I sat and stared out the window. He talked about how things had been going, about sleeping outside, how thankful he was for what the lord above had given him, and about the job and apartment a church had promised him weeks ago.
I was feeling a little tired and stiff. When the conversation lulled, I explained that I was a little worn out and that that was why I wasn’t very talkative. As I said that, I realized how stupid it was for me to be talking about my minor discomfort to him – using the same language that he might use when describing the effects of sleeping in a doorway.
Then he told me, “I wish there was something I could say to heal your pain.”
Today I ran into him on Broadway. He asked me what I was up to and I told him that I was going to get lunch at the Green Cat. I invited him and also offered to take him to Kentucky Fried Chicken or Jack in the Box first. But he said that the Green Cat would be fine, “It’s good to try different things.”
We started walking together. He told me that he hadn’t eaten and hadn’t gotten much sleep. As we turned onto Olive he said, “It’s been rough out here.” He brushed away the tears that had been pooling under his huge eyes – poking his finger under his right glasses lens and through the space where his left lens had been. “I’m crying.”
He pointed out where he’d slept the night before. His eyes started watering again when he said there’d been a woman with a baby.
He’d mentioned soup earlier, so I read the choices to him off the menu. He chose chili.
We found a table and he started explaining what had happened the night before. He only had a thin blanket. The police showed up and told him he had to leave, but when he’d started crying they decided to leave him alone. A woman showed up, “a Spanish woman”, he said, “Ramona.” She had a little baby, who started crying. He wrapped his coat around the two of them and she breast-fed. “It was like the baby Jesus.”
He talked about how important it was to keep your feet warm. He’d learned this from a friend who had bundled up one night leaving his feet exposed. His toes turned yellow and puffy, then a couple of days later turned green. He went to the hospital, “Virginia Mason will take care of people who don’t have an income in the emergency room,” and his feet had to be amputated. “He lives in a nursing home now. They take good care of him there.”
When our food arrived, he looked at my plate and said, “That’s catfish?”
“What? No, it’s a sandwich. Just bread with vegetables and cheese melted on it.” I realized he’d misheard when I ordered a “Green Cat Sandwich”.
He’d been to the church and was told that they’d put off the opening of their little winter mission a couple of days. So he wouldn’t have his job or place to stay until Thursday. This had gotten him pretty frustrated. He said that he’d demanded that the church put down in writing a promise that he’d have his apartment on Thursday.
We sat for awhile longer, before collecting his unfinished chili in a to-go cup. When we got up, he was a new man – focused and alert.
We headed for the cash machine. He took us on a detour and pointed out a nice apartment building. He told me, “That’s where Gladys lived.” She knew the birthday of everyone from the church. But since she’d moved to the University District, there was no one to remember his birthday this year. It had just passed without notice.