I hadn’t entered a Roses…since…since…I worked in one during my college years. I took a summer off from working textiles to take some summer school classes and needed a part-time job to keep my head above water. I scored the position of stock room supervisor…a lofty title ruling over a staff of exactly one, me.
Today my wife had sent me to Roses on a quest, not for a holy grail but for a special type mop that Walmart didn’t seem to carry. It became more than a quest.
The man called to me from the shadows created by the storefront at Roses. I heard him but I couldn’t see him right off. I could hear him but wasn’t close enough to understand him. Cupping my ear with my hand I walked toward him.
He was an old man of color, skin a deep coffee with just a hint of cream. He was clean-shaven, with skin smooth and clear. His eyes were bright and twinkling although a bit sunken I thought. He was dressed in old clothes consistent with an old man…something I might wear. A faded army field coat over a blue and white plaid shirt worn over, threadbare, shiny khaki cords. I saw slender ankles disappearing into scuffed but polished tie-up shoes. The clothes were worn but clean. The jacket and shirt swallowed him and later I noticed his belt caused his pants to bunch around his waist. He held a cane across his lap.
His smile showed oversized false teeth, “Captain, can you spare some change? I need a little food to keep the wolves away.” His voice was deep and gravelly and somewhat melodic.
I am leery of panhandlers and have seen the video of one getting into her Mercedes after a long day of standing on the street. As she placed her hand-lettered, cardboard sign in the trunk of her E class the interviewer asked a why question. She ignored the microphone thrust into her face and roared off into the sunset without answering.
I looked at him with a sideways fisheye and reading my mind, he volunteered without me asking, “Naw sir, I ain’t drunk no al-ke-hall in over five years. I’m just a little short between gubmint checks. If you can’t hep me I understand.”
As I pulled out my wallet, I asked the old man, “If you don’t mind me asking, how old are you?”
“I just turned sixty-nine last week. I’s born November 13, 1950.”
I was stunned. The old man was six months younger than me. It was almost a kick to the danglies.
“I’m six months older than you. April 9, 1950.”
He grinned, “Yeah? Looks like I might have a bit mo mileage on my speedo.” I nodded and thought, “I sure hope so.”
Looking in my wallet I found three twenties and two ones. “Listen, I’ll be right back,” and went in to complete the search for my holy grail but failed to find it. No mop with my wife’s specifications. I called her admitting to my failure and explaining what I was about to do.
The old man was still there…funny how I thought of him as an old man still. “Come on, let’s go across to Wendy’s and I’ll spring for a burger. What do you say?”
He paused and pondered…finally, I tried to assure him, “Look, I’m harmless, come on.”
He stood and I slowly walked with him finally helping him into my old Ram 1500.
Once in the truck, he volunteered, “Ya know, I ain’t homeless. I live over yonder in them gubmint houses. I just come up short this month.” He signed, “Pay my bills or eat. Tough choice sometimes.”
I glanced at him, “No need to explain. I’ve had hard times too.” Compared to him I knew I was lying.
“My name’s Don, incidentally.”
He extended his hand, gnarled and callused, “I’m Herbert…Herbert Perry. Pleased to meet chu.”
Once inside he held back until I prodded, “Go on get what you want, Herbert.”
He stepped forward and in his gravelly voice slowly asked the woman behind the counter, “Kin I get me one of them double burgers with bacon? How’s your coffee? Fresh?”
I stepped forward and added, “Throw in an order of fries for him and a second double burger with bacon. Also, large vanilla Frosty.” One of the voices in my head laughed saying, “Eatin’ high on the hog ain’tcha?”
We sat in a corner, him eating his burger, me drinking my Frosty,
“My son comes by an looks in on me but he’s out of town. He goes to where the work is with his company. In Colorado now…been gone a month. ‘Posed to be back this week. He’ll slide me a bit of money until my check comes in. Doctor’s bill cut into my social and the little bit of retirement money I get from Southern Weavin’.”
“What’s wrong if you don’t mind me asking.”
“I got the sugar and neuropathy. Medicare don’t quite cover it.”
Food or medicine, what a choice.
“Did you grow up in Greenville?”
“Naw, down near Orangeburg…little place called St. Matthews. My parents and grandparents were sharecroppers. We moved to Greenville when the mills started hirin’ coloreds in the late Sixties. I finished my senior year at Sterlin’ High. You know of it?”
“Yeah, I drove a bus during summers takin’ kids to the pool at the old Sterlin’ gym.”
He laughed…”I reckon you looked like a pimple on a black face didn’t you?”
I laughed, “Yeah, I did. But the people were nice and the kids…they were kids.” I went on to explain my choice of vocations, a teacher and a coach for forty-five years. I began teaching just after schools were totally desegregated.
“I worked at Southern Weavin’ until the jobs went south. Nearly thirty years. I did odd jobs after that. I’ve always been good with my hands. Dorothy, my wife, was a nurse until the cancer got her. I kind of fell into a bottle for a while. I crawled out about five years ago.”
“It happens. You say you got a son, any others?”
The conversation shifted to families, children, and grandchildren. I was happy an old black man and an old white man had so much in common.
“Captain, you not going to eat that burger?”
“No, that Frosty filled me up…I thought I’d let you take it home for supper.” I didn’t fool him at all but we both ignored the lie.
“Why you doin’ this?”
I shook my head, “I don’t know. Someone in my head told me it was the right thing to do and I hope I’ve made a friend.”
He nodded, “Could be.”
“Why don’t you let me take you home. That way I’ll know where my new friend lives.”
I again watched his slow trek to the truck and offered him a hand. He was quiet for the short trip to his home…a government-supported group of duplexes. It was well maintained but had a gridded and boring sameness.
Kids, home from school, played along the streets. Chasing each other, along with Frisbees and colorful balls. Carefully I wove through them and at his direction pulled up to a corner unit and got out to help him down. A little girl of my granddaughter’s age ran up to him. Wearing a pink Minnie Mouse tee-shirt, she hugged him around his knees.
“Where you been Mr. Herb?”
“My friend and I just went for lunch Lizzie. You go on and play now I’ll be out in a bit to watch chu.”
To me, he added, “Somethin’ about the noise kids create makes you forget your troubles. I likes to sit out and watch ‘em.”
Leaning on his cane, “I ‘preciate the meal. Maybe you come by sometimes and I’ll stand you one.”
I nodded and smiled, shook his hand and walked back to the truck. I watched him slowly hobble to his door. Turning, he waved as I cranked my old truck before disappearing into his home.
As I drove home, I had time to think. I was reminded of an old phrase from some educational advertisement and adjusted it to “A mind is a terrible thing….”
I wondered how many people were having to make decisions on whether to eat or pay for a prescription. How many people became homeless. Bankrupt because they got sick. I also gave a silent thanks for more blessings than I deserve.
In this country we continue to tout ourselves as the greatest in the world, we have people dying because they can’t afford health care…people who don’t have to die. People who are dying because of corporate greed. Being told to “pull themselves up by the bootstraps…or get another job.” How many are hiding in the shadows?
We have a family member who has “the sugar” and neuropathy. He also lives in government-subsidized housing and his “social” doesn’t quite cover some months. He is not an alky or drug addict. He made some bad business choices and picked the month’s just before the Great Recession to try and start a company, sinking all of his resources into it.
The company went under and everything went with it. His home, his car, his equipment, his country club membership, his life. He went to work cleaning offices or selling everything from shoes to his soul, his wages garnished to pay off the loans made in good faith that had been sunk into a business that sank like a stone because of greedy mortgage lenders and Wall Street tycoons.
He has survived but could just as easily been hidden in the shadows. Survived because of the family…but what of those who have none. One “social” check short of the street. Eat or buy meds, buy meds or pay the rent.
I tire of pontificators spreading the lies of the “welfare queens” living on the taxpayer’s teat. Are there abuses, of course. There are always people who play the system…some might say that billion-dollar corporations paying no taxes might be playing the system. An excessive number of “welfare queens” are retired or disabled folk. In many cases, they are people working multiple jobs to keep the wolves away.
Enough of the rant… I hope I’ll follow through with my thoughts…Herb is a bit old to be adopted but maybe I can shine a bit of light into his shadows.
Don Miller writes on various subjects, some that bother him so. His author’s page can be found at https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM