It was a regular routine for me. It was school and then a bus to work at a bar - a sports bar. I would work as many shifts as I could. The only major drawback was that the hours were very long. The job, after reconciling the sales and cleaning up, would be finished in the early hours of the morning. The good thing was that the bar paid for taxi rides home, for those who did not have cars. After a long night, most people didn't want to drive. It is physically taxing work, with long distances walked on every shift.
I mentioned this because the job took me to a part of the city that was far more commercial and busy than the usual academic setting. In that part of the city, there are the invisible people. These are the homeless people who live on the streets. Some pan-handle. Some just exist. They are there but most people really don't notice them. These street people become part of the background noise.
Often, I would try to beat the traffic rush and catch a bus to that part of town early. I would sit outside on the street benches, have some food from my backpack and perhaps study a bit. Sometimes, on those benches, one of the street people would be sitting and intently reading a newspaper. Every page would be read. To this day, I do not know his name.
It is difficult to tell how old he was when I first noticed him. He could have been in his fifties, perhaps sixties. No matter what the season, he would have his long grey coat with him. And there was an ever present canvas knapsack. I never saw him open that knapsack. It was just always with him. The most distinguishing feature was a baseball cap with a large "H" that always covered his long grayish hair. I later learned that the "H" was an early logo for the Houston Astros. Perhaps, at one time, he liked baseball. Maybe it was the only cap that he came across.
Sometimes when I would sit down on the street bench and he would be there, I would say "hi". He would acknowledge me with a small wave. At times, he would share part of my sandwich or some fruit. Just as often, he would shake his head and refuse. He would keep reading the newspaper.
When he wasn't reading the newspaper, he would be walking those streets and picking up trash that other people had discarded. He walked in a stooped fashion, with his eyes searching for the litter on the streets. All the detritus from people using that area would be cleaned. He would pick it up, put it in a bag and then dump it into a trash bin. That's what he did - his self imposed task.
There were times when I would be walking from the bus and he would appear. There would be a small wave of the hand to acknowledge me and sometimes we would walk together for a block or two. I would talk. He would listen. If there was some empty cup or some discarded wrapper that distracted him, he was gone.
Once, one of my co-workers at the bar saw this man walking with me. At work, she asked me if I was scared of him. It may have been naïve of me but I never had thought about it. In fact, over the years, the man in the baseball cap and I had set up a system where I would leave a newspaper for him. If, during the shift, someone left some reading material, I would take it out to the back of the building and leave it tucked in behind a down-spout drain. When I looked there in a few days, there would be a stone instead of a paper or whatever reading material that I had left. I would remove the stone. Message received.
If the reading material was still there, I knew that the man with the baseball cap was gone. He would be back in a few months.
There was one night in August that I will remember. The bar was really busy. People coming into the bar were commenting that there were police and police cars over the whole area. The sound of sirens confirmed that and the noise continued until quite late. It was the familiar after-midnight quiet when the shift ended and I saw that my usual cab was waiting outside. I left the bar to take the cab home and there was the man in the baseball cap, with two other street people whom I recognized.
That night, he stood straight. Tall. Imposing. He held open the door to the taxi. And then he said the only words that he ever spoke to me: "Catherine, go right home". It was a deep baritone. All I said was "ok". It was not one of my most eloquent moments. I was shocked. I had never heard him speak. Never. I didn't think he even knew my name.
On the drive home, the driver who had known me for years said that there had been gunfire and SWAT team vehicles rolling through the streets. He said that he would not have been in the area, except to pick up his regular contract fares. This trip would be his last for the night. That was not his usual hours. On a normal night, he would be working until the morning rush was done. This had been far from a normal night.
In a storybook scenario, the man with the Astros cap would begin to talk to me. Real life, however, differs. The next time that I saw him was again on a walk from the bus stop. He saw me and walked with me for a minute or so. He did not speak when I thanked him for his kindness on that previous evening. He said nothing and was distracted by some discarded litter that he saw. In an instant, he was gone and I was walking alone again. Nothing changed.
Routines are a form of protection. There is the security of the familiar. I never heard him speak again. Occasionally, he would take part of a sandwich or a piece of fruit - always refusing any banana. When he wasn't keeping the sidewalks clean from litter, he was reading every page of what he could find.
The following summer was hot, with some record setting high temperatures. I had continue to leave a newspaper or magazine behind the down-spout drain and one week I found that what I had left was still there. It was not unusual. He would be gone for months sometimes. I would resume again when I saw him on the streets.
Weeks passed. When it stretched into months and I hadn't seen him in the area, I began being more vigilant and looked for him on my walks from the bus stop. One day, by chance, I was crossing the street at the lights and a police car was stopped at the red light. I recognized both officers in the unit. They were among the regulars who came into the bar to watch whatever games were being played on the broadcasts. I walked to the side of the car and said 'hello'. I knew both officers by name. I asked if they had seen the man with the Astros hat. Of course, both of them knew whom I meant. They said that they had not seen him for some time but they would check and let me know. I went to work and didn't think about it.
Hours into the shift, the officers came into the bar and told me. The body of the man with the Astros cap had been found months ago. He had been found about ten blocks away. The officers told me that the summers were a bad time of the year for people on the streets. The heat is far more cruel than the cold. Sometimes there is no escape from the heat and dehydration occurs. It was only speculation. They didn't know. They asked if I wanted them to find out more details. They were more than willing to do so. I said it wasn't necessary - and it really wasn't.
I still walk from that bus stop. The bar shifts are not as frequent. Sometimes I think of the man with the Astros cap. I see the litter on the streets and wonder what I could have done differently. Do I have regrets? Absolutely. I have a few.
[Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images]