– December 3, 2011
Outside of a clothing store, a dark skinned man was straightening strings of flowers on his arm and I was struck that my mother and I had just been discussing this. The flowers were purple, and they were real. I stopped. Purple is my favorite color, and this guy is a street vendor. That’s a synonym for poor, and buying his flowers would help him out too. We asked about the lai’s, and he said that he makes them himself. He said we could have them for a couple dollars each. As he finished his sentence, local police came by to tell him that he needed a permit. He was going to have to move along. We bought the last 4 of his flower necklaces before he walked away.
I took about 10 more steps when I saw him asleep on the sidewalk, his cardboard sign facing me and his hat pulled low over his eyes. His hat said “Vietnam Veteran” and his sign said “homeless. Terminal cancer. Can you help please? God Bless. Shalom. Aloha.” There was a tube protruding from his stomach, and his shirt was pulled up so that we could see. I wondered if his sign, his hat, and his medical tube are earning him more money out here, but I doubted it. I watched as people walked past him without looking, and my chest felt like it was caving in as I watched the ones that did look at him and his sad sign turn their eyes away from his misery and back to the commerce on the other side of the shop windows.
My mom was staring at him. I asked her if she had any cash left. I wished that I had my own money, or some socks, or something else that I could give him. But I took her 5 dollars and I walked toward his spot on the sidewalk. When I got close I realized that he was fast asleep. I remembered Venus as she whispered in my ear on Lower Whacker drive in Chicago. “Don’t leave anything next to someone who is sleeping. Wake them up. If you don’t, they’ll never get it. There are vultures out here…” and I remembered the fear on her face and the shift of her eyes as she glanced at Marie. I squatted down and examined the set up around the sleeping veteran on the streets of Waikiki. “Paradise…” I thought to myself as I studied his cardboard bed and listened to the crackling of his radio. His face was old and weary. There were stacks of coins, separated into dimes, nickels, and quarters, that probably equated to around 1.50 or less. There was a dollar bill folded and stuck between the pieces of cardboard. I folded my dollar bill and stuck it on top of the other as Thomas opened his eyes and flinched. I didn’t know whether or not to feel bad or good as he pushed himself up on one arm and said “Hello”. I leaned back on my heels and smiled at him as I tried not to stare at his scrawny stomach, the streaks of dirt that covered his skin and the tube that protruded from his chest. My skin crawled and my nerves tightened and I thanked God that the veteran had his head down and wasn’t watching my reaction. He stared at the cardboard as he said “thank you” in a raspy voice between deep breaths that rattled his whole body. I apologized for waking him up, and he waved his hand and shook his head from left to right and said that he was just trying to sleep for a few moments. “I’m so tired. I just want to rest in peace.”
I was about to stand up and leave him alone when he looked up at us and I realized that wasn’t what he meant. He smiled at us both, looking into my eyes and then my mothers, and thanked us again for stopping. He reached for my mother’s hand, and she accepted and thanked him for serving his country. I asked the veteran his name. He said “Thomas, Yoman, the wandering Jew.” He asked us where we were from. My mother told him Chicago. He asked us what part. My mom made something up. I smirked. It’s habit to say “Chicago” because it’s the biggest city in Illinois, but my mother is actually from 2 hours south. She’s not even familiar enough with Chicago to make up a place. She stuttered as he asked her if she was familiar with Holt Park. She nodded just to nod and he said he lived around there for awhile when he was a teenager. He talked about the streets that he used to run around on for a moment before I interrupted to ask him how long he had been in Hawaii.
“I’ve been here since ’69. Or at least that was the first time…” he said between coughs. “I was on my way to Vietnam.” I asked him what branch of the service he was in. “Marines!” he said as he stuck out his scrawny chest with pride in his answer. He held up two fingers and his eyes got wide as his raspy voice explained “Two tours in Vietnam and I didn’t feel like goin home again…”
I couldn’t look him in the eye as he turned to my mother and continued. “Throat cancer. They don’t care. They don’t keep their promises….” He mentioned the name of the VA hospital where he gets treatment and then muttered again as he lowered his head to look at the cardboard. “they don’t keep their promises.” I watched him with a growing sense of sorrow as he lifted his head in a manner that made it appear as though everything inside Thomas was heavy. His eyelids slowly lifted as his voice filled with despair. He defended himself against the ‘they’ and ‘them’ who had abandoned him. “I kept my promise…”
I wanted to cry and scream at the same time. It’s not fair. Thomas coughed and his body shook and rattled as he explained that he knew it was only a matter of time. He had come to terms with it, but he wanted to find a nice spot to rest. I told Thomas that we would pray for him. And I watched him squeeze my mother’s hand. He asked our names and we told him. He looked down for a moment and then replied “Shay… Shay May and Jenny June.” He looked to each of us and examined our faces as he repeated this emphatically… “Shay May and Jenny June. A little word association to help me out. I won’t forget you two, you’ve done me a grace by saying hello.” He squeezed my mother’s hand again before lowering himself back down onto the cardboard. He coughed again and curled his scrawny arms under his head as he closed his eyes.
When we stood, a young Japanese man stepped toward us from behind. He was probably a college student, and he said “Who are you?” with genuine curiosity. My eyebrows went up. “Who are YOU?” I asked him. He flinched and smiled as he stuck out his hand. “Sorry, I’m Keith. I’ve known this man a long time, and what you’ve done is what Christ would do. You’ll never know just how much this means to Thomas.” I stared at this kid, speechless. My mom smiled as she shook his hand. She glanced down to Thomas, while Keith asked us if we were Christians. He was holding small pieces of paper in his hand and I was suspicious. We both nodded. He smiled and said “of course you are! This is why you acted like Christ…” he said this with a tone of relief and changed the subject. “Since you are Christians, will you remember me in your prayers? I have finals coming up and if I pass them all, I will graduate this semester.” I nodded and smiled and told him not to worry, that he would pass them all. “You’re smart,” I said. “You’ve got this.”
Keith thanked us again for taking the time to talk to Thomas tonight and we told him to have a good night and God Bless. As we walked away, my mother repeated what he said. “Keith said that we were being like Christ, and that he has known Thomas for a really long time. He said that we would never know how much this mattered…” Her voice cracked at the end, and she blinked repeatedly as she looked away from me. Her voice was strained and broken as she finished… “That’s just really cool.”
I’m amazed at how God will show up in the strangest of ways, to teach people something that they wouldn’t learn any other way. I realized my mother needed to meet Keith.
The walk back to the room later that night was a little more than 2 miles, and I was on the phone with Shane. I kept seeing people that I knew could use the other 5 dollars my mom had given me before I headed back, and I was asking God what to do. I always said “Hello!” and smiled, waiting for that open door. I think it didn’t happen because I was on the phone, and before I knew it, I was at the corner. I hadn’t seen Thomas. I was holding the phone to my ear but I had stopped breathing, and Shane was saying “What!?” into the receiver as I looked around. I felt like someone had just sat on my chest. I needed to find Thomas. I hung up on Shane and walked back up the street. One block. Two blocks. No one. I stared at the spot where Thomas had been sleeping and wondered. “God, why do you play these games with me?”
I remembered something. As I had walked up this block I had seen a man in a wheelchair. There were bags tied to the handles and he was obviously a street person. I had waved at him and he had looked at me, but he didn’t say anything. I had noticed that he didn’t have a hand on his right arm. It was cut off at the wrist. But I had walked past him, talking to Shane on the other end of the phone. Now I cursed myself. “Idiot!” I thought. Missed my chance to be like Jesus. I walked back up toward that street corner with my head down, assuming that just like Thomas, the man in the wheelchair would be gone too.
Wrong. When I got to the crosswalk, there were two college aged kids standing next to his wheelchair. For some reason I assumed that they were messing with him, so I kept my distance and spied on them for a moment. They were talking to him, and he was talking back, but I couldn’t figure out what was being said. The guys were looking at each other with genuine concern though, and my curiosity got the best of me. I stepped in.
“What’s going on dudes?” I asked the short guy with the curly brown hair and the goatee. He looked up from the man in the wheelchair with relief. He smiled at me sheepishly and pointed down at the man. “He needs help…”
I took another step toward the man in the wheelchair and realized that the situation was more severe than I had initially realized. The man didn’t have a hand on his right arm, but he didn’t have a left arm at all. He had a massive deformity on his right leg just below the knee, that would have made mobility an impossibility even if that was the only issue, but it can get worse. His left leg ended at the middle of the thigh. The issue that the boys were attempting to remedy? The man wasn’t wearing anything but an old tattered grey Tshirt, and he had wrapped a sheet around his waist. He had soiled the sheet, and in his effort to get the wet part of the sheet off of his legs, he had exposed himself.
As a caretaker, my immediate response wasn’t like “I can’t see this guy naked!” it was like “this guy needs some real help, right now. What can I do?” I looked back at the curly haired kid who had introduced himself as Jake while the other guy moved the sheet to cover the man’s middle. I tried to think. I can’t even imagine how to handle this. The man is going to keep shitting and pissing himself, because he can’t get out of the chair. This is probably why he doesn’t have pants on. I asked him his name, and he responded “many names.” He wouldn’t look at me, but he was staring at the boy who’s name I never caught. He would nod at him, but he wasn’t really talking. Finally after a few moments, he said the word ‘scissors’. Jake had a pocket knife. As the man nodded, they lifted the sheet to cut off the wet part that he had soiled. When they reached for the sheet, the man in the wheelchair looked at Jake and said “have her look that way,” and nodded across the street. In that moment, I suddenly felt the awkwardness of the situation. I hadn’t really absorbed that part of it. I sensed the awkwardness of the guys and tried to put them at ease while they helped someone who desperately needed it, but I wasn’t awkward myself until that very moment. When I realized how embarrassed this man was. I stared at the walk sign across the street as the boy whose name I don’t know cut the sheet. When they replaced the sheet around the man’s middle, it wasn’t really long enough anymore for it to stay in place. The man in the wheelchair moved it around with his left arm, but it wasn’t making much of a difference. It barely covered him up.
The boy whose name I never caught was asking me where I was from, making small talk with me, and I knew he was trying to take his mind off of what he had just done for the man next to us. A moment later, Jake couldn’t take it and said he had to go wash his hands because he was pretty sure he had touched the dude’s piss. He started walking away. The man in the wheelchair started muttering about the piece of the sheet on the ground and the kid I was talking to reached over and picked it up. “I’m going to go throw this away, you don’t need that, and we don’t need to leave it on the street…” he looked me dead in the eye and I knew he wasn’t coming back. I looked down as he walked away, my mind blank with trauma. Not my trauma, just everyone else’s. I looked at the man in the wheelchair. I don’t know why, but I was trying to imagine that reality. I was trying to imagine… and it wasn’t working. I tried to calm the sea of questions swimming in my head and find even just one answer that I could cling to… He finally looked up at me. While our eyes locked, my phone rang. It was Shane. I pulled the phone out of my pocket and the man’s face lit up. He started nodding. I didn’t answer, I just started asking. “Is there someone I can call? Do you know someone who can help you?” I was praying for there to be a magical number for a caretaker. A hospital. I was praying to know that this man wasn’t REALLY on the street like this. No hands, no feet. No clothes. No help. The man’s face went blank with my questions and his eyes shifted back up to the traffic light. He rested his eyes there and sighed. The phone was still ringing. I pushed the green button, but I didn’t speak. I stared at the blue walk sign over my shoulder. I dropped my jaw and sighed…. Painfully. Defeated. I looked at the man one more time, and I said “have a nice night” as I took a step forward. I was a failure.
I hung up on Shane again and I just walked back to the room where I stay. When I got inside, I couldn’t swallow. I couldn’t breathe. I called him, and poured it out. I told him the story as quickly as I could. When my voice was reduced to the stutter of “worst shay Kelley moment ever. I suck,” Shane interrupted.
“Really? THIS is what you’re so upset about? Don’t you think after 50 weeks that this is not that big of a deal?”
I dropped the phone.
A moment later I picked it back up and started screaming. “A man with one arm and no hand and one leg with no foot just pissed himself on the street corner and he’s out there right now, trying to cover up his nakedness and you say “big deal?”
Then…“I’m sorry. You’re right. I don’t know why I said that. I can’t even imagine that. I have no idea what I would think or feel or do or say in that situation. Now that I stop to think, I have a million questions. I don’t know.”
I took a deep breath. “Then say that, Shane. Tell me you don’t know what to say.”
He responded “but even with all my questions, You still couldn’t have done anything different. He wouldn’t talk to you. You can’t help somebody who doesn’t want your help.”
I told him the truth. “You know what I was supposed to do? Stay. The reason that this is the worst Shay Kelley moment? Because I gave up. I walked away. I should have sat my ass on the concrete next to him until there was something I could do to help. I was supposed to STAY.”
I thought about the situation. I thought about where I was. I thought… that there was an extra sheet in the closet. I set the phone down and went to the closet. Sure enough, on the 3rd shelf sat a plain white sheet. Clean. New. I picked up the phone and my key and put my shoes on as I walked to the elevator. I told Shane I would call him back.
As the elevator went down the 16 flights to the landing, I thought to myself. “Duh. Basics.”
I walked 2 blocks back up Walina and 2 blocks to the right down Kuhio carrying a sheet. The drunk girls standing outside the bars smoking their cigarettes were staring at me… a little white girl in bright blue shorts and a Tshirt carrying a sheet down the street in the middle of the night. Whatever. “God, let him be there.” Something inside me told me he would be. When I got to the corner, there he was.
“Yo dude! I have this sheet. Can I give it to you?” He looked at me. He looked at the sheet. He looked back up at my face and nodded down to his sheet. “You want this one?” he asked me.
“Ummm no, not really dude. But I’d like to wrap this one around your chair if that’s cool. That way you don’t get in any trouble or anything.” The man nodded.
I wrapped the clean sheet around the man and he asked me to tie it to the black handles of his wheelchair. I did as he asked me to. When I got it tied up, I heard a voice from above me.
“That’s really nice of you.”
I turned around to look. A black kid was sitting eating a cup of noodles on the 2nd flight of the fire escape behind me. He nodded in my direction and repeated himself. “For real, that’s really nice of you.”
I nodded at him and turned my attention back to the guy. For some reason I wanted to run away right then, but I heard myself. “STAY.” So I planted my feet. The man began muttering something under his breath and I asked him his name. He still wouldn’t tell me. As I tried to have a sort of strange conversation with this man, without much success, the black kid came off the fire escape. He offered the man in the wheelchair a lit cigarette, and he accepted. I asked if he knows this guy, and the kid nodded. “What’s his name?” I asked him. The kid shrugged. I laughed. “Then what do you mean “you know him?” I asked. He laughed too and said “I see him a lot. Don’t let him fool you. He knows what’s going on. He just doesn’t want to talk to you. He sits here on the daily, and when he needs something, he just moves the sheet over and someone will stop to help him out, give him a cigarette, whatever. “ I was relieved that this kid knew the routine of survival for this guy, even if knowing that truth was slightly disturbing. “Watch, he’ll be fast asleep here in a few minutes.”
“What’s your name dude?” I asked him as I stuck out my hand. He shook it. “Nick,” he smiled again when he said it and his black eyes sparkled. His smile reminded me of my friend Orlando. “Where you from?” I asked.
“Right here. Born and raised.” He answered. When I looked back at our friend in the wheelchair, he was fast asleep. I smiled. Nick nodded. “Told you…” he said. “That was for real a nice thing you did. Why’d you do that? Where you from? Who are you?” he asked. So I told him.
The conversation led to places and people and the things that I’ve seen. How I live. He told me he’s reading a book written by Greorge Carlin about Stuff, and how we don’t need it. He told me he’s surfing couches right now, but he’s happy with it. Nothing ties him down.
Somehow, we got into a conversation about interaction. Why our society teaches us to pay more attention to our cell phones and our television sets than the real-life people around us. I explained that I think this is a huge part of the problem with the world we live in. Nick agreed. “Some of the coolest people I’ve met are “street people” he said, using his hands to quote it. “Like this guy up there…” Nick nodded his head up the street and lowered his eyes and his voice simultaneously. “Thomas,” he sad with sadness. I nodded.
I looked at the man with “many names” asleep in the wheelchair next to us. “Like, I can’t even imagine that life.” I looked back at Nick. His smile had disappeared. His eyelids lowered and he looked at our friend. “Yeah… that’s beyond me…” the silence hung around us for a moment, as he watched the man sleep. Eventually we both looked at the ground. Nick muttered “there’s always somebody out there who lives a life you can’t even believe in. Puts things in perspective.”
I nodded. “You know, I have this friend who knows someone who had her leg amputated. And her favorite thing to say is “people with legs should never be grumpy”… I looked at our friend sleeping in the wheelchair. The phrase that I have been repeating almost every day took on new meaning tonight. Nick smiled and tilted his head back again. “Aw damn! That’s good… I’m gonna remember that one. People with legs should never be grumpy”…
In all honesty I know that a sheet isn’t going to change anyone’s life, or a pair of socks isn’t going to change the world. I know that the 5 dollars that we gave Thomas isn’t enough… but it’s something. It’s somewhere to start…