What does it feel like to see a homeless beggar and realize that you know them?
Perhaps they were a relative, former schoolmate, co-worker or lover. What did you think and/or do when you recognized them?
I had this type of experience while riding on the L train when I lived in Chicago.
I saw one of my classmates from grade school, who back then was a soft-spoken and mild-mannered guy. On this particular Winter day, however, he was ranting and raving angrily over a cell phone with who was probably his case worker, screaming about why he was kicked out of his last housing situation.
I hadn't seen him in over a decade. He reeked of cigarette smoke and body odor and had the same sort of bedraggled, spun-out look of so many of my patients that suffer from chronic mental illness. He had a certain spinning gaze in his eyes that showed how much his mind was swimming. If I had to guess, he looked like he had been suffering for awhile from a drug-induced psychotic break.
I stood up and put a hand on his shoulder just as his screaming reached a peak and the other riders started to shift about concernedly.
"Ricky," I said (not his actual name), "hey buddy, do you remember me?"
He held the phone to his ear but stared at me deeply. He was still arguing with the voice on the other end but would keep trailing off and looking at me.
"Who the fuck are you? How do you know my name?" he finally said.
"I'm Matt...we went to school together. I'm here to help you today."
He closed his phone. "How the fuck do you know my name?" he repeated. I could tell that something about my face was registering with him, but he couldn't tell what.
"We went to school together. I sat next to you in Mrs. Krepp's Science class in 7th grade."
He continued to stare at me, and I could see that the paranoia was growing. I gave up trying to push the point.
"Hey Ricky, everything's cool man. I'm here to help right now. That's why I'm here. Some people on this train are getting scared because you're yelling. I know you don't like to scare people so I just wanted to tell you that...the person on the other end of that phone must be giving you a really hard time, because you didn't even know how loud you were, right?"
"Yeah, they don't...they don't understand what I'm going through right now."
"That's okay man, here let's get off here. Let's get off here at this stop."
We walked out onto the subway platform and up the stairs to the street above. I took him to a diner and let him order whatever he wanted. He ordered three plates of ravioli and combined them into one. Between bites, he kept looking up and staring really intently at me. A few times I thought he even might punch me, but he never did. He ate all the pasta and drank four glasses of chocolate milk. He finally told me he had no place to go.
I walked him to a motel up the street and put him up for the night, then wrote down a bunch of numbers for shelters and low-income clinics and put them on his bedside table. I told him to make sure he called them in the morning. He didn't say anything, he just nodded and tucked himself into bed, clothes and shoes and all. I turned up the heat and walked toward the exit.
Just as I opened the door to leave, he shouted from his bed;
I stopped, completely surprised that he finally remembered me, and I turned around. He was leaning forward in bed and near tears.
"I wanted...I just wanted to...I want to tell you that..."
He swallowed deeply and then cast his eyes toward the sheets, taking in breaths through his mouth that lifted him up by the shoulders. Finally, he regained his composure and looked back up at me.
"I...wanted to make sure...that you're not going to kill me."
I smiled. "No, Rick. I'm not gonna kill you. Don't forget to call those numbers in the morning. They'll only let you stay here until noon."
I walked into the sharp downtown air and boarded the train again. Last call on the Blue Line back home to Jeff Park Station. I got off and walked toward my apartment. Just as I got to my door I reached into my pocket to get my key, but it wasn't there.
Son of a bitch, I completely forgot: I was on my way to get my key I left at my friend's house. I grabbed for my phone, and of course it was dead. I climbed into my garage through a side window and slept in the corner under a pile of old laundry and my grandpa's wool blanket from WWII.
It was a cold night in Chicago.