I finally found out what “Charles” did with that large suitcase he is never without. For years, he has sat on the same bench watching time flow by like the traffic does on his part of State Street. It’s like he was waiting for something, always watching.
I wasn’t even sure he knew who I was until one morning he said, “Hello, Ken.” It was an acknowledgment, a breakthrough of sorts, but he still refused help. For years, that large suitcase would sit next to him — his faithful companion. I assumed it contained all of his personal belongs, including a ton of clothes, as he was always dressed neatly and well-groomed. He was a man small of stature, advanced in years and on the frail side, so whatever was in the suitcase couldn’t weigh much.
I remembered one time when I found a homeless woman who needed a bandage change of her leg, and there were no empty benches around. I told her we could walk down to the next block. Charles snapped out of the cold, distant existence he lived in and told me we could use “his bench,” the one he was sitting on. I was deeply honored. It was like someone offering me the use of his or her house. I watched him grab his suitcase and walk down the street, leaving me questioning the story of his existence.
It was weeks later, at 7:30 in the morning. I had stopped to get my morning fix of caffeine. The streets were deserted and quiet. I walked past a storefront and looked in, only to see Charles. He was asleep, curled up inside his suitcase. He had unzipped it, folded it out and presto: instant bed. A pillow and only a few items of clothing were all that the suitcase contained. It wasn’t exactly the secured retirement planned for by most of us.
“Doug” is a kind and gentle man. He plays music for the benefit of others. I’ve never had the courage to ask him if he actually hears sound from the make-believe musical instruments he plays so passionately. I firmly believe that people are entitled to their delusions. Before the present, and in a more innocent time, we called them idiosyncrasies.
Doug often suffers from bouts of debilitating depressions — so deep that it brings tears to one’s eyes and searing pain to the soul when you can’t figure out the magical words to help him break the bleak mood. For such a goodhearted man to be so punished makes one realize the extreme depths and cruelty of mental illness. But there is always the magical music he shares with the world in his attempt to bring cheer to others that stands in such stark contrast.
For months, Dr. J. and I have gone weekly to clean and bandage a series of life-threatening wounds of a mentally ill woman. She, too, always turns down the offers of help, of placement in a shelter or hotel. In fact, she has never not paid for our services. Every time we finish taking care her wounds, she hands me a handful of diamonds as payment. To some, they resemble nothing more than broken pieces of safety glass. To me, more brilliant diamonds would be impossible to imagine. This woman has made me a wealthy man beyond my wildest dreams.
There is the homeless man I meet nearly every morning as he makes his way from the church where he attends morning services to the soup kitchen. He told me how his life shattered years before when he had suffered a massive heart attack and was technically dead for eight minutes. In a soft, confessional tone, he continued to share with me how, during those dead minutes, he traveled to heaven before coming back to Earth. Who among us wouldn’t have their life altered after such an event?
I had been dealing with another man who also deeply impressed me. After he received a lump-sum payment from an industrial accident, he told me he had given some of it to a friend who had lost her job. She was a single mother with two kids — who also happened to have one great and kindhearted friend.
Then there was the man who was a hard worker all his life but found himself sinking into homelessness when the hurricane of the recession hit. He felt overwhelming despair, and he shot himself.
For some reason this morning, the memories of those good friends accompanied me as I walked down a deserted street. I think maybe it’s because death was held at bay this one week, allowing me to contemplate the humanity of those who tragically call these streets home. They aren’t bad people — in fact, some are near saints in their compassion for others. Many are damaged by life’s circumstances beyond their control.
They are our neighbors asking nothing more than to be greeted with a warm smile and a gentle hello — the same things each one of us would welcome, especially if we were sick and downcast. Small gestures often can carry so much meaning, so much kindness, and the cost and effort are so very little.
Unfortunately, death’s reprieve was all too short as 71-year-old John E., homeless and a long-term member of the community, died in jail. He was the 26th homeless person to die in Santa Barbara this year — the ninth since the memorial for the homeless dead this summer, and the second man in his 70s.
— Ken Williams has been a social worker for the homeless for the last 30 years. He is the author of China White and Shattered Dreams, A Story of the Streets.