Three Stories, Two Funny, One Tender, and Hard
Bear with me, I want to tell you three stories, two funny, one tender, and hard.
I’m going to call him Jim, which of course was not his name, but he is not here to give me permission to share his stories.
A few years back, I was working long nights at an emergency shelter — it had been cold and wet and snowy and we had been running long hours for weeks. The night before I had caught Jim — an an elderly man who wore combat boots and, often, overalls, with a big bottle of Aristocrat vodka, the kind in the plastic bottle, sneaking swigs in his cot. I didn’t not understand, I know addiction to be a beast, but I told him it was against the rules and I had to keep it in my office for him until he left in the morning. This wasn’t the first time I’d had to take things that were against the rules from Jim.
So when Jim came in this one particular night, his small backpack was bulging and I said “Jim, is there anything I need to know about in your bag?” He shrugged and so I asked again. He held his bag out to me. “Can I look?” “Sure, go ahead,” he said.
I opened the backpack. There were papers and some clothing on top and everything was very wet. I moved them aside to find more very wet items. I noticed the bag was dripping from its seams at the bottom. I moved a few more things and peered down: Inside his backpack was a huge snowball wrapped in a bright orange shirt. I paused a moment.
“Jim, did you steal our snowman?”
I could see out the front doors from where we were standing. Sure enough, the head and carrot lay on the ground, the button eyes rolled somewhere off in the parking lot, and the middle of our snowman was gone. “The shirt says ‘This is what awesome looks like’ and I figured it was better suited for me,” he said. Jim always made everything sound so reasonable, I thought.
The next summer, I ran into Jim downtown and we walked a few blocks together. He showed me his hand, which was swollen and clearly very infected: He had crushed it in some sort of machinery. He also still had a hospital bracelet on his wrist from being released only a few hours before and he said wanted to go back. I called the ER and explained he was in bad shape still and while, sure, it was just his hand, he didn’t have a home or safe, clean place to heal up. The woman on the line agreed to bring him back in again for an assessment and said they were going to send an ambulance to pick him up (something to do with protocol). So we waited and when the ambulance arrived, I walked up to the paramedics to tell them what was going on and realized Jim wasn’t with me anymore. I turned around and he was laying in the grass, splayed out with his legs all askew. “I can’t walk!” he yelled at the paramedics. “You were just walking,” one pointed out. “That was then, this is now!” he called back, now rolling in the grass down a small hill away from us. They looked at me and I shrugged. “What do you want them to do?” I asked. “I’m an old man, I want to ride in the damn chariot.” The paramedics got the stretcher and Jim gleefully hoped on. “See you soon, Jim,” I said to him as they lifted the stretcher into the ambulance. “I am Spartacus!” he shouted, saluting me, “I no longer concern myself with thoughts beyond these walls!”
Jim wasn’t universally loved. The rumor was that he actually had a pretty decent retirement check — enough that he might could have lived in a house. But I always figured what he did was his own business, though I did usually call him out when he’d steal stupid shit like Betty Boop car air fresheners and plastic diamond rings, which he would just use to propose to women on the street, or to frat boys if he was bored and he trying to start something. Shopkeepers, for obvious reasons, hated him, and other folks living on the street were tired of his antics as well and swore up and down that he was crazy. I got the sense that Jim had probably burned through his family years ago, too much drinking, too much fight-picking, too much carrying on, too much stepping out, sleeping in, and not showing up and that he was now totally alone — alone in those ways that I can’t comprehend and am, in fact, scared to. He spent a lot of night in jail.
One day, it was fall now, I found Jim on the top level of the parking deck where I knew he slept sometimes. In his arms he was holding a tiny kitten, wrapped up several layers of sweatpants and other clothing. He showed me her paw — it was injured, hanging limp, the fur missing. It, in fact, reminded me of his hand that one summer day. He was gently petting her, laying soft kisses on her head between her ears, while she lay surrendered in his arms. “The poor thing,” I said, inspecting her paw. “She was all alone sleeping behind the taco shop,” he said. “It’s not fair. She shouldn’t have to live like that.”
The rumor spread that fall to steer clear of Jim, that he had been seen suffocating a cat and burying it behind the depot. “He’s crazy, man” people would say to me and advise me to stay away from him. “We all are,” I would observe, hoping that it was true.
I haven’t seen Jim since then. I heard from someone that he was 89 years old. I don’t know if he was or wasn’t — streets and poverty make you look real old even when you’re just fifty. But I haven’t seen him in a long while now and I suspect that he is dead.
Two funny, one tender, and hard seems like a good way to live your life. It is definitely a good way to remember people — keeping the laughter they brought us effervescent but staying tethered by the cold nights, by the things unfair, by the lessons learned.
If you have two funny stories and one tender and hard about someone you have lost, I’d love to hear them, I’d love to listen to you, I’d love to remember them alongside. It’s a formula worth our time.