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.
To my surprise, Bill showed up. He drove a shiny SUV. He was fit, nice-looking, wearing ironed jeans, polished cowboy boots, and a white button-down oxford shirt. He had a full head of gray hair, white teeth, and a charming smile.
Before addressing Joseph, Bill shook my hand and thanked me for befriending his brother. He was quick to tell me how Joseph’s drinking was the reason for Joseph’s problems. I told Bill that Joseph reported a year of AA and sobriety. Bill looked at me as the clueless do-gooder he probably thought I was.
Deciding to be on Joseph’s side, I asked Bill to give Joseph another chance. Rather than tell me to mind my own business, he said he’d given Joseph many chances in the past and he’d blown every one of them. Still talking in front of Joseph as if he weren’t there, Bill warned me not to loan Joseph money since he never pays back.
A year passed and then another and my relationship with Joseph continued. Often he would wait on his crate in the morning for me to pass by with Pookie on our morning poop walk. When he’d see me, he’d wave and yell, “Hey, woman, here I am.” When he called me “woman,” it seemed that he had forgotten my name.
Without anyone else to talk to, he frequently rambled on for quite a while, telling me stories of people and places that I did not know. He told me about the big Latino guy who “stole” his crate and the rich church lady who forced the minister to bar homeless people from the premises or she’d cease her generous donations. Often he’d tell me how much I meant to him and that he had a gift for me and would try to remember to bring it to me some day.
Not long ago, Bill called to tell me that Joseph had been hit by a car and was in the hospital. He said that Joseph had been “banged up” but should recover soon.
Bill’s account turned out to be an understatement. When I went to the hospital the next day, Joseph was in the trauma unit and was scheduled for surgery due to a broken hip. After picking up a box of chocolates in the gift shop, I made my way up to his room. As soon as I entered, Joseph started talking to me as if I’d been there for hours. He told me all about the car accident.
Just before it happened, he was at McDonald’s and found a new pair of shoes in the bathroom. He was excited because he needed shoes and they fit. Happy to be wearing new shoes, he forgot to pay attention when crossing the street and a car turned into the crosswalk, hitting him in the leg and knocking him down. The next thing he remembered was the ambulance ride to the hospital.
His hospital room had four beds but only two occupants. The other patient was an old man who kept wandering around the room muttering unintelligible sounds. Joseph neither noticed the man nor heard the sounds, making a great roommate arrangement — at least for Joseph.
Soon after I arrived, so did the dinner cart with its tin-covered plates on an orange plastic tray. I lifted the lid on the dinner plate and we saw white meat floating in brown gravy, green beans floating in butter, mashed potatoes floating in more butter, black coffee, and red Jell-O. “Yuck,” Joseph said, “I’m sick of hospital food.” He ignored the dinner tray and polished off the chocolates.
A few days after surgery, the hospital found a home for Joseph in which to recuperate and maybe remain. It was in National City — near a strip mall with a few food chains. A few weeks after his arrival in National City, I was able to visit. Joseph met me at the door holding a new red-and-black cane. Too-long cargo pants replaced his too-short ragged jeans. A white cotton Padres baseball cap replaced his black wool stocking cap. The new shoes from McDonald’s were long gone — maybe left in the hospital or ambulance. Replacing the McDonald’s shoes were brown tennis shoes — not nearly as cool, but at least they fit.
We dined that day at Subway. Joseph had a meatball sandwich and I had a veggie flatbread. Once seated, Joseph began his monologue. When I asked him if he was going to stay at the home in National City, with its three meals a day, clean living room and bedroom, nice roommate, and two TVs, he looked at me with the most lucid look I had ever seen from him.
“Are you kidding? There’s nothing to do here, and the people in the home are sick, on pills, or mental.” Understanding him, perhaps for the first time, I told him that I did indeed understand.
Yesterday I saw him. He had a new box to sit on and a new spot — closer to Subway than Verizon. He waved when he saw Pookie and me. He was rocking back and forth, smoking a cigarette, and drinking from his plastic cup. His cane was leaning against the wall next to his backpack. As I watched him, lost in his own world, it occurred to me that Joseph was home.