“I was trying to get to sleep, up front in the driver’s seat, but there was this really hyper guy moving around in the back of the van, keeping everyone awake. A. said that some ice water would calm him down, so he told me to go out and get some. It was about twelve o’clock and I didn’t want to go out there, I wanted to get some sleep. It’s A.’s van though – he’s the boss – so I walked around until I found a place to get water. I got back to the van and the water really calmed him down, he went right to sleep as soon as I got back. I don’t know why.”
“Uh, Robert . . .”
I try to figure out what to say, “Oh, never mind.”
I’ve met A. once before. I run into Robert and him in the street and greet them. I ask Robert how he’s doing. “I’m getting by,” he tells me.
I say hello to A. and ask him how he is. He says he’s doing well. He sizes me up, and asks, “Do you do black?”
I flinch, “What?” I’m not really sure what he’s asking me, but I get the general idea. “No!”
“What do you do then? Meth? Coke? Crack?”
“No. Why are you asking me this?”
Robert is visibly uncomfortable, “He doesn’t do that kind of thing. He has this big computer that he does all kinds of artwork on.”
It’s my turn to be uncomfortable. Don’t tell him that.
A. goes on, “Do you smoke pot? Do you drink?”
“I drink occasionally,” I admit. I’m not sure why I’m still talking to this guy.
“What do you drink? Vodka? Gin? Whiskey? Forties? . . .”
I shrug my shoulders, dumbfounded. “What are you asking? What’s this about?”
I pry myself away from the inquisition and wave back in their general direction. Robert looks down at the ground. A. waves good-bye and calls me Andy.
A couple of weeks later, Robert tells me that A. has been put in jail. He had some outstanding warrants. The police had come knocking on the van door while he was gone. So he tied up a few loose ends and turned himself in.
Robert visits me a few days later. He’s really excited, his new caseworker has promised him a slot at The Crisis Center in two weeks. They’ll take care of him for awhile, get him a free apartment for a year, and help him find a job. “You won’t be seeing me around much after the third!”
I tell him how great that sounds, repressing my doubts. I give him some money for lunch and he heads out.
I run into him again later, he’s looking sheepish.
“I just stopped by your place but you weren’t home. I went over to the jail to visit A. and tell him about the Crisis Center. He was really depressed. He didn’t have any money for razors, so I gave him my last ten dollars. And now I don’t have anything to eat with.”
To be fair to A., if he’s sometimes taken advantage of Robert – made him feel guilty and talked him out of money – he’s probably given back to Robert (and to others) as much as he’s taken in by giving him a place to sleep. He seems to treat Robert with more dignity and compassion than some of Robert’s other younger homeless friends, who sometimes give Robert a hard time about his appearance.
My sympathy for him only extends so far though. Robert is an uneducated, handicapped, worn out man who needs more help than what’s offered to him; and I get the sense that A. could get back on his feet relatively easily if he tried.