|I laid in my hotel bed for a couple hours, trying to sleep, to no avail. The sound of the show still ringing loud in my head made it impossible to sleep. I glanced over at the clock: 2:39. This was going nowhere. I searched my head for a recollection of what could possibly be open 24 hours to kill some more time, and remembered there was a Dunkin Donuts a few blocks up. Sure, why not. A nighttime stroll through the city, followed by a donut and something warm to drink sounded good to me, so I got dressed again and strolled on over.
The temperature had plummeted to almost freezing on this mid-October night. By the time I got to the place, I was definitely ready for a hot drink. The place was empty, aside from a girl working the counter. I ordered myself a donut and a coffee, grabbed the remains of an old newspaper somebody had left on one of the tables, and sat down and relaxed.
It wasn’t too much later that an old man walked in. Wearing what looked like three very worn jackets and sporting a long scraggly grey beard, the man was clearly one of the city’s homeless. He quietly made his way to the back of the dining area and started to lie down in one of the booths, when the girl behind the counter shouted at him.
“Excuse me, you can’t sleep here,” she said, as he ignored her.
“Hey! I’m serious, I’ve told you people before that you can’t sleep here. If you don’t get out now, I’m going to call the cops.” The word ‘cops’ got his attention, and he got back up and made his way back out towards the door. Was she seriously about to throw him back outside when it couldn’t have been more than 30 degrees out? I was kind of in shock seeing this.
“Wait, hold on,” I spoke up. “It’s three in the morning, nobody is here, I don’t see what he’s hurting.”
“The dining area is for paying customers only,” she said. The man had lingered at the door for a moment, before she turned back to him and pointed. “Go on, get out of here!”
“Are you serious? So you’re going to throw him back out into the cold?” I shouted.
“Listen, I don’t make the rules, I just work here. These people come around here all the time, and every time they do, my manager yells at me for it.”
I shook my head. “Well, that’s just stupid.”
“Those are the rules, and it’s not really my problem anyways.” She was impossible. Meanwhile, I glanced over at the door, he was already outside and standing on the corner of the street, getting ready to cross. All of a sudden, as if on sheer impulse, I ran out the door.
“Hey, you, hold on, stop!” I shouted as I ran over to him. He turned around, and I dug around in my pockets, pulling out a five dollar bill, and handed it to him. “Dude, here. Buy yourself a coffee or something. Stick around inside for a bit where it’s warm.” His face immediately lit up, and he started thanking me profusely as he followed me back to the building.
“Hey, I said he can’t be-“ the girl at the counter started as we re-entered, but I interrupted her immediately – “Relax, he’s got money. He’s a customer, now just serve him.” She rolled her eyes at me and proceeded to take his order, as I walked back to my table and sat back down, sipping my coffee and reading my paper.
A few moments later, I heard a voice over me say “Mind if I sit here?” I looked up and it was the old man, coffee and sandwich in hand. “Sure,” I said as I moved the paper out of the way, and he sat down across from me at the table, and started to eat his sandwich.
“Son, I gotta be thankin’ ya again for this,” he said in-between bites. He had an accent I couldn’t quite place. I wanted to say Eastern European, but I wasn’t entirely sure. Regardless of where he was from, I told him, once again, no problem. It really wasn’t that big a deal. The amount of cash that Geoff and I were about to get from these jobs I was running in Albany made five dollars seems like pocket change. Of course, I wasn’t about to tell him that, for obvious reasons.
“What be ya name, son?” he asked me as he finished his food.
“Jacob,” I responded. “Jacob Hillier.”
“Hillier, eh? Not one ya hear too often ‘ese days. That be an ol’ Hungarian name.”
“Yeah, I guess,” I said.
“Ya ain’t from here, are ya son?”
“Nah, I’m from Connecticut.”
“What bringin’ ya up here?” For a homeless old guy, he was sure being awfully prying, and I was starting to get annoyed.
“Just some business,” I said.
“What, is this twenty questions now?” I snapped at him.
He let out a laugh. “I’m sorry, didn’t mean to pry. I’ll mind my own business.” It was silent for a few moments, and I sort of felt bad for him again. I had totally neglected to think that being homeless also left the old guy without many people to talk to, in all likelihood.
“What’s your name, anyways?” I asked him.
“I got no idea,” he said.
“Wait, so hold on. You can start in on me with questions, but you can’t even answer me when I ask you something?”
“No no, it’s not like that,” he said. “I lit’ly can’t remember my name.”
I was confused. “How can you not remember your own name? You got like, amnesia, or something?”
“No, it’s just, nobody has called me by my name in years. I haven’t heard it in so long, I don’t even remember what it sounds like.”
“That’s kinda sad,” I said.
“Such is life,” he said as he shrugged his shoulder. “You go wanderin’ long enough like I been, eventually nobody remembers you.”
I didn’t quite know how to respond. I took a sip of my coffee to buy myself a few seconds to think of something, but he spoke up before I finished.
“You’re on that same road too, ain’t ya son?”
I swallowed. “What are you talking about?”
He laughed. “You can’t go an hidin’ it from me, your eyes be givin’ it away. You ain’t just here on business, you be just startin’ out on the road.”
“Maybe I am,” I admitted, “what’s it to you?”
“Just bein’ givin’ a friendly warning from someone who been there.”
“I think you might be confusing our situations, old man, I’m not broke.”
“Not yet, you not be. You be goin’ out seekin’ some fine riches, but you gonna be findin’ somethin’ a bit different.”
“What do you mean, something different?” I asked, eyebrows raised.
“Jus’ sayin’ son, watch out you don’t become like me. Nothin’ more than that. Ya don’t want to become a lonely ol’ jabberin’ fool with nobody to lean on.”
“You don’t have any friends or family?”
“I had a friend once, a long time ago. He was a really good friend, an’ almost a brother, you could say.”
“What happened to him?”
“Well, we got in a fight. He tried to help me, an’ I was too proud to let him. I said some nasty things, and he died before I had the chance to make things right.”
“Wow,” I said. “I’m sorry to hear that.”
“You wouldn’t be more sorry than me, son. I’ve been wanderin’ this land ever since, carryin’ this regret. But I can’t go changin’ what be done, so I keep wanderin’ until the Lord see fit to let me rest.”
Meanwhile, I was finally getting tired. As interesting as this crazy old homeless man’s stories were getting, I still had to wake up for work in the morning, so I excused myself and said goodnight. But as I walked out the door, he shouted back at me:
“Ya gonna be comin’ ‘cross lot of crossroads, son. Try not to fly through all of ‘em, if ya can help it.”
I shook my head, laughed, and waved through the window as I started the walk back up the street to the hotel. I still wasn’t quite sure what he was getting at, but then I realized maybe he wasn’t really getting at anything at all. Years of vagrancy had clearly done a number on his mental health, and his brand of being homeless wasn’t quite what I had in mind with my own plans. I was going on this trip with a solid cache of money, a car, and the skills to pick up jobs wherever I ended up. Completely dropping a social life and living in rags? Well, that just wasn’t anywhere in my future. I don’t know what mistakes that guy really made in his past, but the “being too wracked with guilt to be productive” story wasn’t quite cutting it for me. Regardless, for late-night entertainment, his tales sufficed well enough, and I felt pretty good about myself for giving him what was probably a long overdue meal.
That one good deed certainly wasn’t going to negate the thousands of bank account numbers I was going to swipe from work in the morning. But hey, I’ll take my good karma where I can get it.
I woke up around seven in the morning to my cell phone going off. Geoff.
“It’s barely even dawn, this had better be good,” I answered.
“It’s very good. I just sold your last haul.”
My eyes shot open. I was wide awake now. “Already?” I asked.
“Yeah. You should come down to Connecticut tonight. I know a great little joint.
My sleep, again, was not to last long. Around midnight, I once more awoke to a tapping on my window and a bright light in my face. I was unamused. I hadn't slept well all week, and this time I was blatantly honest with the officer when he questioned me.
"I live in here."
He went livid, and proceeded to lecture me on private property laws. I pointed out that there was hardly a shortage of parking here, and he responded by telling me I'd be arrested for trespassing if I continued being smart and didn't leave immediately. As I left, I couldn't help but notice my unmolested friend in his van go undisturbed. I wasn't going to throw a fellow derelict under the bus by asking why he got to stay, because I finally realized what I was doing wrong. I was being too obvious. Anybody could walk by and see me sleeping in the front seat. I stopped at a gas station to rearrange the car so I could curl up in the backseat hidden by tinted rear windows, and found a commuter parking lot to sleep at and test my new theory.
This worked for three nights, though I still couldn't sleep. Cramped in the tiny back seat, I was in serious physical pain.
Maybe I jumped into this too fast. I was almost about to consider giving up on this whole crazy plan and find another new place to rent and settle back down in, until it struck me: Why not just get a bigger vehicle? With the money I made with Geoff, I could afford the hit in gas mileage. The only questions now were what kind of a vehicle to replace my Thunderbird with, where to acquire it, and how to rig it up to comfortably reside in. And I knew just the right person to help me solve all three of these objectives...