I have caught every single red light from Cold Spring to Cincinnati and this one, at the corner of East Liberty and Broadway, coming off the exit is no different. Another red light. Seriously. I’m not running late but it still perturbs me. I’m sipping my caramel mocha and enjoying a sausage biscuit when he catches my eye. Guiltily, I put the food down in my lap.
He stands here every day or at least every day for the last two years. When I worked at the children’s hospital up the road a bit, he was there and if he wasn’t, I wondered where he went, if he was okay. Now I only come over to teach or attend class so I don’t see him as often. He is tall and lanky, he is of medium build, neither fat nor thin. He has a long face with perpetual grey stubble and a baseball cap is always perched on his head. Today, he has a gauze pad duct taped to his leg and there is blood seeping through. It couldn’t be good to have duct tape holding gauze in place or for a wound that is clearly pretty severe to be outside all day. But, he seems as pleasant and kind as ever, offering me a nod and a wave which I return.
I wonder if he has a schedule for waving, as ridiculous as that sounds. When I drove to the hospital, it was much earlier, just after seven in the morning. He would already be there, set up for the day. At that time, he would hold a sign and give a warm nod to each person. I nodded back each time but never rolled down my window. The exit veered suddenly and in the autobahn that is Cincinnati rush hour traffic, one is expected to make the right on red turn the nanosecond it is feasible lest the person be regaled with the horns of a thousand angry commuters.
I noticed on Fridays and days before major holidays, he held the sign, but gave a smile, a little wave, and a nod. His sign usually said: “Homeless—Please help” or “Homeless and sick—please help” in black magic marker, written on a square of cardboard. But I never did. Sometimes I felt like I could barely help myself.
Now, I come through later, a little past nine. He is still there, but the sign is at his feet. Instead a wave/nod combination, he gives genuine smiles and bigger waves. Perhaps because there are fewer cars he has more time for the more elaborate gestures. When someone does roll down their window and extends a hand, proffering money or sometimes food, he accepts it with gratitude and puts his hand over his heart, thanking them profusely. One morning, a woman gave him a hug too. In Cincinnati traffic, if one does not immediately move the second the light changes, it elicits rage-filled, horn blowing, however, no one did that. I wonder if I should have picked up an extra sausage biscuit. Would that be demeaning? How do you offer a breakfast sandwich to someone in a bad situation? Here’s a biscuit, sorry about the homeless thing.
Our local news media has gone to great lengths to warn the citizenry against charlatans masquerading as the homeless but earning $60,000 per year from panhandling. They did breathless exposes about how these morally depraved individuals would hold up signs reading “Homeless—please help” and “Homeless and sick—please help” for 8 hours a day, then drive off in a late model SUV. I look at this man and wonder if he is truly homeless or if he is what Channel 9 has warned me about. He looks clean and well-kempt, his clothing is nothing extraordinary but again—neat and clean. His shoes are well-worn but not falling apart. Maybe he is well-versed in navigating Cincinnati’s abundant social services to get most of his needs met? His smile is the confusing thing. It’s a great smile, set in a weathered face that seems to have seen a lot of hard living and sun exposure (although I did see sunscreen hanging out of his bag once). His teeth are straight and white, a very bright smile. It seems opposite of what I’d think a homeless person would be able to maintain. I need to check my privileged self and stop stereotyping.
At least I see him as a man, a person. I have seen some people take the time to roll down their windows and scream at him “GET A F****NG JOB!” and variations of that, usually involving the phrase “tax dollars” at least once. How nice for them that they have never hit bottom or had to rely on others for help, assuming he is truly homeless. Even if he’s not, I’m generally against the rolling down of windows and verbally abusing others. The man, in response, puts his hands together in a prayer gesture and nods his head at those hurling insults and abuse, never returning fire on them.
But I know he has it in him. One evening, I came over the hill much later than normal. I didn't usually take this way back or come through at this time. I saw a different person where the man normally stations himself. I was again stuck at a light, a punishment light that makes you sit so long you feel like you’ve done something wrong, and he came swooping out of nowhere absolutely livid at the other guy for being in his spot. The altercation got physical quickly and as I drove past, they were trying to shove each other off the cement traffic island into traffic (which, fortunately, was very light). I wonder how sick he could be to fight that quickly and vigorously. He was at his post as though nothing had happened the next morning.
I wonder about myself most of all. Am I that distrustful that I believe this guy would stand outside in all weather because he has lots of other choices? Wear a band-aid fashioned from gauze and duct tape to put on a show of being homeless when he wasn’t? Could I not make sure I had some cash on me (because I never do) to help make this man’s life a little easier? Could I get over myself and offer him an extra from whatever junk I had picked up for breakfast?
Ugh. I think I think too much.
The light turns green.
I drive away, doing nothing like I always do.
Jennifer Herald lives in Northern Kentucky. She is working on a PhD in Rhetoric and Composition and is a full-time English Lecturer. A couple of years ago, she decided that being afraid of the what-ifs in life sucked, so she applied for the PhD program and started submitting work for publication. Her work has also been published in The Bethlehem Writers Roundtable. She has two wonderful daughters.