The first time I saw him he was stumbling out from behind a bush near the Starbucks on University Avenue telling anyone who would listen that it was his birthday and he was 60.
He was a skinny guy, toothless except for one in the middle on the bottom, with a crooked smile above a thin, grayish-brown beard. His once-white T-shirt had coffee stains down the front and was torn around the collar. He carried an old navy-blue backpack with a mostly invisible slogan that proclaimed “Jesus Saves.”
In reply to his birthday announcement, my daughter and I wished him a happy birthday as we continued on our way across the street to our gated condo complex.
“I wonder if it’s really his birthday or if it’s a scam to get a handout,” I pondered aloud. My daughter suggested we buy him a birthday meal at Subway. “Maybe next time, but I’m in a hurry now to get Pookie to doggie day-care before I go to work.
The next time I saw him, he was searching through a trash bin hunting for discarded food and things to re-use. As I walked by, keeping Pookie on a short leash, he looked up at me, smiled his single-tooth smile and again told me it was his birthday and he was 60.
“You told me that last time…was it then or is it now?” I asked. Fidgeting with the black stocking cap on his head, his glassy, faded-blue eyes looked up at me. “I can’t hear you so good — what did you say?”
“Oh, I said Happy Birthday AGAIN.”
“Can you spare $5 so I can get something to eat…haven’t had anything yet today except for coffee at the church. The pancakes were all gone.”
“I don’t have any money with me, but I’ll come back with some food.” Fidgeting with his hat again, he said he couldn’t hear me and again asked for $5. Pookie, inpatient to get home and eat her breakfast, kept pulling me down the path toward our apartment.
I returned a little while later with a peanut butter sandwich and a banana. Since I’m vegetarian and he’s essentially toothless, this seemed like a good meal of carbs, protein, and potassium, and easy on the gums. He thanked me, put out his hand and told me his name was Joseph. Hesitating slightly before taking his hand (fearing a possible infection), I got over it, took his hand in mine, and told him my name was Anne.
Weeks went by without seeing Joseph until just past Easter. I saw him sitting on a crate behind the Verizon store wearing a headband with dirty white-and-pink rabbit ears — the kind worn by revelers at Mo’s on Easter. He was rocking back and forth as if in a trance.
“Hey, Joseph, how are you and what’s with the rabbit ears?” Not hearing me, he continued to rock. I waved my hand in front of his face.
“Oh, hi, I didn’t see you,” he said.
“So, where did you get the ears?” I asked. He looked up as he took a drink from his plastic cup. “I like your ears” I said. Understanding began to dawn on him as he reached up and touched the ears.
“Oh, yeah, happy Easter,” he said. “Don’t suppose you could give me $5 for a burrito?”
“How about we go to Lalo’s Mexican restaurant right here and have lunch?” I suggested. “Just a minute,” he said as he took off the Easter ears and stuffed them in his backpack along with his cigarettes and plastic cup. We walked the few doors down to Lalo’s and each ordered a bean-and-cheese burrito with water. Once served, we sat at one of two small tables on the adjoining sidewalk. Before beginning to eat, he cut his burrito in half with a plastic knife, wrapped it in the burrito wrapper, and put it in the upper zippered part of his backpack. Next he unfolded a brown paper napkin and placed it on his lap. He waited for me to take the first bite before he lifted the half burrito to his mouth with clean hands except for dirt under his chewed-down fingernails.
Between small bites, Joseph began a monologue about his life. He started by telling me he is “slightly retarded” (his words), blind in one eye, and deaf in one ear. His father built a shed out back for him to live in when growing up since he was “retarded.” His mother and father died close to ten years ago. He has a brother, Ted, who lives in Washington state and his other brother, Bill, lives in the Clairemont.
“Bill used to let me stay in the house until his granddaughter moved in and he threw me out. He used to help me but not anymore. Why won’t Bill help me…I have been going to AA for a year.” I congratulated him on his claimed sobriety, doubting its veracity, and replied that I had no idea why Bill no longer helps him, but I actually did.
When we finished our burritos, Joseph told me to call his brother Bill and ask him to meet him at the Jack-in-the Box on University — where they had met up a few times before. Since I had neither paper nor pen to write down the number, Joseph repeated the phone number slowly and loudly three times — likely mimicking the way he was taught the number. I pictured the numbers in my mind so I’d be more likely to remember them when I got home. It worked. I dialed the number and the phone kept ringing until a recording started. “You have reached Bill and Karla — we aren’t home now. Please leave your name and number and we’ll call you right back.” Well, I doubted that they would call me right back, but nevertheless, I left a message with my name and number and explained that I was a friend of Bill’s brother, Joseph, and asked Bill to please meet Joseph the following Tuesday at noon at the Jack-in-the-box on University.