I was just at the end of my solid 45 minutes of running, listening to Robert Altman talk about how perfection is unnecesary and subjective, when I heard someone shouting. I continued on, but then heard the noise again. It was Chuck, my homeless veteran friend, pushing his shopping cart. He was on the other side of the big city street.
I pulled out my earbuds, waved at him, and then crossed over. It was about 6:30am. The sun had risen, but it was still too low in the sky to see and there was still a cool moistness from the ocean in the desert air. (I love L.A.)
"How's it going?" I asked him. He seemed a bit weak.
"Ah, doin' okay. Just tired. Wasn't feeling that good the past couple of days," he said, sounding exhausted already.
We were almost in front of our apartment, so I told him to wait a sec and I'd run up and get our recyclables, which he was dutifully collecting.
"You don't really get a day off, do you?" I said, upon returning.
He took the bag of cans, thanked me enthusiastically and then sorted them out in the various plastic bags he had hanging off his cart. He looked up at me, "I work seven days a week," he said sounding weary.
"Let's keep walking," I said. "I haven't cooled down yet." Now that I've made the decision to conquer this triglyceride problem through sheer force of will and hard work, my routine is to run for 45 solid minutes every morning without stopping.
"Okay, cool," he responded. We walked on down the block. But then, a few minutes later, after I had cooled off some, we saw a couch sitting on the sidewalk. Something someone had thrown away.
"Wow," I said. "This couch is nicer than the one we have in our apartment. Let's sit."
He said, "Turn the cushions over first. They'll be wet." So we turned them over and then sat down. It felt good to rest. Looking up at the apartment complex in front of us, I said, "Well, I love what you've done with the place, but the TV is too small."
He laughed and said, "Yeah! Welcome to my living room!"
I asked him if he was still living in the same place he was living in before, which he had described as a little room behind someone's house, the electricity supplied by an extension cord.
"Naw. She's selling her house and the real estate person said I had to go."
"So, where are you living now?"
He pointed to his cart. Beneath the basket was a plastic bag. "Right there. That's all my bedding. I found a little spot in the parking lot of a department store near where the electrical box is housed. I get there about 10pm just as the bigwigs are driving off and the lights go out. The maintenance men all know me. It's pretty nice actually, but I have to find someplace else when the rains start."
"You don't have a roof over the place?"
"Naw. But it's okay. No one knows it's there, so I feel safe. And I have this GREAT big blanket that I found in a bin not too long ago. You could cover this whole couch and it would still run 10 feet out in front of us."
I noticed that he looked a little less clean than he used to. Chuck has always taken great pride in not being dirty and always finding clean shirts for his excavations.
"What about going up north? You still planning to visit your friend and pan for gold in Oregon?"
"Only if my sister sends me some money. I have to buy some fishing gear and some camping equipment. I'm not sure. I'm okay right now. I like the two dollar movie house. You can get two hot dogs for two dollars."
It's hard to know what to feel at times like this. Jimmy and I have struggled a lot with bills over the years, especially after I got sick. But we never have had to sleep out on the street, even when we had to go to friends to borrow money for rent.
Chuck and I sat on the couch and talked awhile longer. "Hey," I said. "I haven't seen Saddam Hussein this morning."
"Naw, he's probably gotten his welfare check." Chuck refuses to get welfare or VA help. "When he runs that out, he'll be back out here. Meanwhile, I have the whole area to myself."
"Well," I said. "I need to get back home. I've been waitin' to hear about a job. I hope it comes through." I dug into my pocket and picked out a few bills.
He objected. "Oh, you don't need to give me money."
I put them into his cart, anyway, apologetically. "It's not much, my friend. Just a few bucks. Have a couple of hot dogs on me."
He got a twinkle in his eye. "Hey!" He said. "You know, what goes around, comes around. I have a few old, homeless friends and I'm always giving them a few bucks so they can get a sandwich or something. Now, you've given me a few bucks. This means good luck for you the rest of the day! That job is gonna come through. I just know it."
I smiled and said goodbye, but walked quickly away because my eyes were starting to burn a little. I stopped after a moment and shouted back, "Good luck, Chuck!"
He smiled his goofy, half-toothless smile at me, waved, and said, "So long, buddy. So long."
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