In between two of my trips to the mental ward in March of 2010, I was driving around town on St. Patrick’s Day. I was driving around randomly while manic, late at night. I actually had no idea then, or now, what time it was or what day it was, I just knew it was dark. I realized it was St. Patrick’s Day because I had gone into a gas station near the university and seen tons of college kids dressed in green buying beer. As I was driving away from the gas station, I saw a rather rotund man yelling at a cop. He was holding a sign, and seated on a milk crate. The cop was still in his cruiser, with the window rolled down. He was having some sort of exchange with the man, but after a few minutes, the officer gave up and drove off. I was driving in the opposite direction, and after the police drove away, I turned around and pulled up to the gentleman on the milk crate. He was sitting there on the crate: holding a sign, as you do when you’re homeless and begging for change. He appeared to be in his late 60s, wearing a green jacket, a hat, and sporting a gray beard. I rolled my window down and offered, “Hey, you need a ride?” He replied in the affirmative; after all it was fairly cold. I asked him if he wanted a beer, so I stopped at the gas station again and grabbed him a tall can of something like Fosters. I got a few for myself as well.
I introduced myself, and asked his name. He told me it was Harry. “Where do you want to go,” I asked. He replied that it didn’t matter, so I wandered around for a while on the darkened streets of my city, mostly empty because it was late at night, I suppose. Eventually we made our way back to the apartment building where I recently had lived. My room had since been emptied and locked, and I had been dispossessed of my key. We spent a few minutes trying to see if there was any way to cheat the lock and get inside, as it was fairly cold, but alas, we could not. We kind of just hung out there, outside the place, drinking beer and carrying on late into the night, waking up half the apartment building. As I found out later, tenants claimed a big party involving many people was going on outside, late into the night. Eventually, after all the beer was finished, we retired back to my little Saturn, and I turned the heat on. At this point, Harry mentioned that he wrote poetry, and had been a Vietnam veteran. He asked me if I would like to hear one of his poems. I replied that I would.
Harry produced a worn out sheaf of yellow, dog-eared notebook papers and began to read. I listened with rapt attention. I don’t remember clearly what he said now, as I was in the middle of going rather insane, but I seem to recall one line clearly: “I cried so many tears.” His poem was about his life, what he had seen, and he shared with me his wisdom. I regret that I never got a copy of it, but again, insanity. It was warm in the car, and after we shared this poem I told him I was going to sleep, and that he was welcome to sleep next to me in the passenger seat. He took me up on my offer and we both dozed off.
Maybe three hours later we both woke up, restless, the car still running and pouring out heat. I asked him if he wanted to make a campfire, and he said sure, so I started driving. I took him a ways to my parents’ house (where I wasn’t really welcome), and we walked back to the yard, and sat around the fire pit behind the shed. I produced my Swiss Army knife and started shaving wood. I don’t remember what we used to start it, but there was plenty of wood, and it didn’t take too long to get a nice big fire going. We relaxed a bit, and he rolled up a pant leg and showed me a big sore from an injury he had got a while back. We sat around the fire and talked some more and he read me another poem. I asked him to read me the first poem he had read to me again. He did, and I listened again, hearing the emotion in his voice. I was overcome by the heartfelt nature of this art he had created. We sat around the fire for a while longer, and then eventually it was time to go. I think he knew better than me that he did not belong there, in the suburban world of the housed, where people get things like health insurance and a paycheck. At some point in the night of our adventure, he had lost his panhandling sign, and he asked if I could get him some cardboard and a marker. I dashed back to the house and returned after a brief search. He made himself a new sign and we departed again.
I asked him where he wanted to be let off as we were nearing a highway off-ramp, and he insisted that right where we were, at the exit, was fine. I questioned him, asked him if I could buy him some food, but he declined. So I left him there, alone, with his sign, on the off-ramp. I drove away, with tears in my eyes. I never saw Harry again, but I’ll never forget him.