It’s not that unusual to see bicycles along U.S. 11 in the suburb where I live, but something caught my eye about this one. It was around noon Monday. Lunch traffic was heavy, so I passed him slowly enough to get a good look.
It was an old man on a beat-up bicycle. On the back, there was a hand-lettered sign that said, “Hungry — please help.”
I’ve seen desperate people and panhandlers many times, but something about him — or maybe just the mood I was in — made me wonder about him. How did he come to be an old man who’s desperate enough to ride around and beg?
It’s easy to look at such people and assume they’ve made bad choices. I mean, we’re not in their position, so we’ve obviously made the right choices and they haven’t. Right? Was it alcohol? Was he lazy? Did he have something unexpected happen to him? What was his story?
I didn’t know the answers to any of those questions, but I felt a tremendous sense of empathy for him. I wondered how life could have taken the turns that led to where he is today.
So I decided to find out.
I found a place to turn my car around and head back toward the man. For all I knew, he could have turned onto a side street and I’d never see him again. But as I approached the traffic light in the very center of my little suburb’s downtown, I spotted him pulling into the parking lot of a gas station and convenience store. I turned my car into the parking lot, still not sure what I was going to say to him. I parked over to the side of the building and got out, just about the same time he was getting off his bike.
“Excuse me,” I said. “I noticed your sign. Are you hungry?”
It seemed like a awkward way to start, but I wasn’t sure what else to say. My first impression was that he looked tired. It wasn’t just the tiredness that comes from working hard one day. It was the kind of tired that comes from years of being on the losing end of life.
“Yes, sir, I am hungry,” he said quietly.
His overall look was similar to most homeless people or panhandlers I’ve seen, but his eyes didn’t match the rest. They were piercing and blue. Something about the look in them suggested intelligence and a gentle spirit. Was I just seeing what I wanted to see? I wasn’t sure. He introduced himself as Carl.
There’s a Hardee’s about 150 feet from where we were standing, so I suggested that he meet me over there and I’d get some lunch for him. I’d experienced “hungry” people before who turned food down, because they really wanted money instead, but he readily agreed. I moved my car and he moved his bike and we went inside this fast food place.
After we got his food, we sat down for him to eat. He said he wasn’t accustomed to having company with him when he ate anymore. He had gotten two burgers, but no fries and just water to drink. He started eating, but he wasn’t like a ravenous animal. He was more like a well-mannered gentleman who had sat to eat at a nice business club.
“I used to eat lunch with people every day,” Carl said. “I got tired of it, because they were clients and I didn’t really like most of them. It’s funny how you can miss something you didn’t really like, just because it was familiar.”
Carl kept talking and a picture started coming together. He had been in the advertising business in New York City 30 years ago. By his reckoning, he had a successful career. He had moved up through several ad agencies and was poised to become partner in a firm.
He said his life had been happy. And the brightest light in his life was his wife, Kathleen.
“She was just the right wife for an advertising man,” he said. “We’re half crazy and half mad genius — and we’re completely fueled by coffee, and she was just the same, because she was a writer.”
He loved Kathleen very much. She loved him. Life was good. But Kathleen got sick. It was breast cancer — and it killed her.
Kathleen was from Alabama and was buried in a family cemetery plot on the west side of Birmingham. After burying his beloved wife, he returned to New York City to resume his life alone, but his world was never again the same.
“In the beginning, I thought I’d be fine,” Carl said. “I knew I needed time to get over the loss. They told me to take a few weeks off, but after spending time in that apartment for a few days — her apartment — I knew it was worse not to do anything, so I went back to work.
“I can’t explain what happened. I’ve gone over it in my head a million times and I think about it all the time, but I still don’t understand. It was just like I quit life. I didn’t mean to. I was still dragging my body to work and I went through the motions, but my heart wasn’t in it anymore. My world had been technicolor and all of a sudden it was cold and monochrome. I guess I had a breakdown.”
Carl never used the word “depression,” but it was obvious that he had slipped into serious depression without the companionship of the woman he loved. He said he never turned to drinking or drugs, but he still doesn’t remember a lot of what happened. He quit coming on time to work. Then he started skipping some days. He had always been dependable and hard-working, but he had lost his will to live or take care of himself.
He eventually lost his job in the agency where he had been poised to become a partner. His former reputation was enough to get him another job — with a smaller firm — but he soon destroyed all of his goodwill there, too.
“I don’t know what happened,” Carl said. “There was something wrong with me. If you’re sick, you can go to a doctor and they’ll patch you up or give up a pill. I knew there was something wrong with me, but I didn’t know how to say what it was. My heart was broken and I didn’t care about anything anymore.”
Although he had never lived outside the area of New York City, Carl gave up his apartment and packed what he had to move to Birmingham. He knew it was crazy, but he thought things would be better if he could be near Kathleen again.
He sold advertising specialities for a few years, which was a big comedown for someone with NYC agency experience. For a couple of years, he thought he might be getting better, but he never could care about anything more than just barely surviving. His once-big ambitions were gone. A big part of him had died with Kathleen, and that part of him never returned.
I’m not clear on exactly how he lost his last place to live. I’m not sure how much Carl remembers, and I’m not sure how much he wants to remember. For the last seven years, he’s been living on the street in one way or another. For awhile, he was on the west side of the Birmingham area — near Kathleen’s grave — but he finally moved to this side of town, because the area near the cemetery had become too dangerous for an older man. He’s 66 years old now.
He has what he called a “shanty” on some wooded land slightly east of Trussville. He’s been there a couple of years. It started out as a tent, but he’s used scraps of plywood to reinforce parts of it. Since it’s dug slightly into the side of a hill, he said it doesn’t get as cold in the winter as I might think. And he has a little portable stove that works as a heater, too, when he has fuel for it.
He said he lives every day with the fear that it will be the day that the property owner finds him there and destroys his encampment. In the meantime, he ventures out in search of food and whatever else he can find and then he returns to what has become his home.
I asked him if he didn’t want to try to find a better place to live. I reminded him that there are a number of churches and agencies which help people in need.
“I looked at one of those places one time, son,” he said. “The people there are crazy and criminal. I might be a little crazy, but I’m not one of them. I’m safer out here.”
Carl mentioned that he knew he had become eligible for a Social Security check, if nothing else, when he turned 65. He said he kept meaning to go to a Social Security office to see what he needed to do to get a check started, but he never got around to it.
“I can’t tell you why I do the things I do,” he said. “I feel lucid and my brain works. I feel like I could still do any of the work I’ve ever done. There’s just something wrong with me and I don’t know what it is. I just don’t care about anything. I still feel empty and I still feel numb.”
He paused and looked out the window for a long minute.
“I just don’t care, but I wish I did.”
After we left, I handed Carl the few dollars of cash I happened to have with me. He thanked me for the meal and for the money.
“Thanks for listening to me,” he said as he got onto his bike. “People just see me as a bum now, so they don’t listen when I talk. I understand. I probably wouldn’t have listened to me, either, when I was young. You don’t know how much you miss having someone take you seriously until the time it almost never happens anymore.”
And with that, he took off on his bike, heading for the plywood and canvas shanty that he now calls home.