Barefooted at The Hilton

“It’s been about eight months since I could just take off my shoes and not worry about it,” Steve says as he settles in to his camp spot. “It might not look like much to someone else, but for me, it’s the Hilton.”

Steve has been living rough, sleeping under a Japanese Maple tree bounded by an old warehouse building on one side and a dead end on the other, for months now. He lost his marriage and family, his home, his grounding. “I didn’t know how to walk out that door,” he says. That’s when he started drinking away the pain. At first it was manageable but then he couldn’t get through the morning without a beer. He eventually wound up losing his job too.

For most of his days he sits in the same spot holding the peace for the others who come by and need a person to talk to, someone who can hear them. Steve is that guy for a crowd of folks who come just to sit, talk, take some comfort from the relentless hardness of a life lived outside, in the open, never silent, never private. He is the dispenser of wisdom and hugs. Handshakes and “Now c’mon, you’re going to be okay.”

“Oh yea, you can’t take your shoes off ever. If you need to move quickly in the night, then you’ve got to have your shoes on. If you leave them around, they’ll be taken.”

It’s not something I’ve ever thought of and I’ve thought about a lot in the past many years I’ve been taking down the stories of the homeless. But his big smile, his exclamation of comfort sitting on the picnic bench at the shear joy of bare feet in the grass had not registered before. Not until I saw it, did I get it.

Bare feet.

No old shoes taped together, too tight or loose with rigged laces and lumpy soles, smelling of feet in dirty socks for months without end.

Naked feet, toes stretching, arch bending, skin touching soft grass and dirt. Wow.

His eyes cast over to the grate on the fire pit, I’ve loaned him some camp gear. The small fry pan and cook pot arranged there are part of the offering. “I don’t know if I can stand to leave that. I may need to hide it. It looks like something, someone might take. I know it’s not supposed to be that way here, but I’m not sure if I can trust it. Not yet.”

He’s looking at the things on the picnic table—eggs, chili, tortillas, fork,spoon,knife and some plates. There is also a new towel and soap. Here he can shower every day if he wants.

“It’s almost too nice. I’m afraid to enjoy it.”

I’ve put him up in a local campground for the week. He needs a break. There are five other spots in a row right down the line from him. The sites are small but lush with trees for shade, trimmed grass and picnic spots. “Now see all these empty spaces. Why couldn’t we put up the rest right here? James, Elise, Robert. Would it be so hard to figure out a way for people to camp legally and sleep without having to fear being woken up by the cops–or worse?”

He’s back looking at his stuff scattered around the campsite, including a one person tent.

“I don’t know how I’m going to do. It’s weird,” he says looking like a kid being dropped off at summer camp. “I think it’ll be nice. I’m going to try to drink less beer. I don’t have to be around anybody so this might be a good way to start.”

It’s hard in the morning. He feels physical pain and terrible anxiety. His body can be pretty shaky. “It’s really tough before the first beer. But if I don’t have to talk or be around people I might be able to start.”

Soon he’ll be admitted into a program. It’s only a few weeks off but now that he knows it’s coming he’s struggling to stand it outside. Sometimes when you know a tough time is about to get better, the waiting can be excruciating. “It’s just harder each day. You can say it’s only a few weeks but it feels so long now.”

That’s part of the reason we hatched this camp site idea. “I think I’ll go to an AA meeting tomorrow,” he says. “I can shower up and clean my clothes and go.”

Steve smiles easily and while he looks a bit awkward in the store supplying up for the campout, he gets through it. “Just pretend it’s back in the old days when you took your son camping. This is you taking a vacation. That’s all,” I tell him this while I’m convincing him to let me buy him some food.

For some folks who live rough going into a store or sitting down at a restaurant is too much. I’ve had both men and women tell me they can’t do it because they are too afraid of making a scene, of being thrown out in front of me.

Steve was a successful guy for most of his life. He grew up in a nice home and made his way in the building trades. He was in a long marriage and fully expected he’d round out his life that way. But when he could no longer go home and the job slowed to a crawl during the recession, the bottom fell out. He was something he had never imagined–a homeless man.

Depression hit him hard and he discovered a deeply buried secret–he’d struggled with it most of his life. It was in his family too. He’d been known to drink beer at the end of the day but he figured it was no big deal. Until it all came down on him at once.

Now it weighs on him daily.

He’s been in and out of rehab a few times. “What makes me think it’ll stick this time? Maybe this is who I am,” he says despairingly. I tell him it’s really his call. Once he gets through the physical detox he gets to decide.

“I think it’s just the loneliness. It will make you crazy.” I assure him I know. But it’s possible I don’t know. The kind of loneliness a person feels who is homeless is an entirely different level. A homeless person is invisible and highly visible all at once. I’ve been told more than once that people see a drunk or a bum or an addict, they rarely see a person.

That’s a whole other kind of alone, I imagine.

Yet, here he is on this afternoon with the sun making a sharp line through the trees illuminating his face. The river is flowing and he is barefoot and smiling.

Yes, maybe this is the time it sticks.

We sit and talk for awhile. I feel weird leaving him here. “Hey next time you see me–would you mind bringing me a book? I’d love to get some reading in. Maybe some kind of spiritual book or something uplifting,” he says as I pick up my keys to leave. “There goes Grapes of Wrath. I was going to bring you that.” We both laugh.

“I’d read it. I suppose I’ve lived it in some ways.”

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