He was always in the same place, day after day, sitting on the military blanket, wearing two different shoes, no socks, and a leather jacket that was probably black when he first took to the streets many years ago. Unlike most of the other homeless people that I see in the city, he didn’t hold any signs or cups out to me when I passed him by. One day, I stopped and asked him how he was doing. He startled as if I had crept up on him.
“You can see me?” He asked.
I told him that of course I could see him, that I had seen him every day for the past year on my way into and out of the coffee house. He squinted at me, his face pruned up in suspicion, and held his hand out towards me with all five of his fingers spread apart.
“How many fingers am I holding up?”
“Five,” I said, smiling.
He dropped his hand and stared at me, his expression blank.
“Well, I’ll be damned,” he said; “You’re the first person to see me in twenty years.”
It was my turn to look suspicious.
“O…kay then,” I said. “You have a good day, sir.” I turned to walk away, but he called me back.
“Oh, please don’t leave,” he said; “not yet.”
I stopped and turned back towards him, looking down at him, at his scruffy face, his sunken eyes, and wondering what he must have looked like when he was young, before the streets got a hold of him.
“Do you need anything?” I asked. I began to dig around in my pockets, sure that I had at least a couple of dollars.
“No, no,” he said waving his hand at me. “People like me don’t have no use for money. Transparents can get food whenever we want. Nobody can see us, so we never get caught.”
“Yeah,” he said. “I’ve never told anyone this, but when I around forty years old, I was kidnapped by a secret organization and given a bunch of shots. When they were done, they dropped me off downtown. I walked home, but there was nobody there. My house had a big sign on the door that said it was foreclosed and my wife and kid were nowhere to be found. I tried calling my wife’s friends and parents, but they couldn’t hear me, so they hung up.”
Poor guy, I thought. He must have lost everything. Maybe he’s an alcoholic, or a gambler.
“That’s terrible!” I said, playing along. I checked the time on my phone. “Look, I have to get to work before I’m late. If you want, I can come a little earlier tomorrow and we can talk some more.”
“I need a home,” he said.
“Earlier you asked me if I needed anything,” he said. “I need a home. I suspect that if you can see me that others will begin to too. Then the government might find me, lock me up. Maybe the cops will arrest me like I see them doing to the others when they can finally see them.”
I checked the time again – I had an eight-thirty meeting with my boss and he valued timeliness.
“I’ll come by tomorrow,” I said. “Maybe there’s a place for you to go, some shelter or something like that.
Tears welled up in his eyes.
“That won’t work,” he said. “They can’t see me either. They can’t see any of us. Take me home, sir. When I’m visible again I can get a job and get back on my feet.”
His expression saddened my heart. It took all of my will not to cry a little myself at his sad expression and sadder words. When I went to speak to him, my voice failed me. I wanted to tell him again that I would be back tomorrow, that I will figure out some way to help him, but I couldn’t get the words out. I did the only thing I could do, I walked away from him and tried not to hear his sobbing as I got into my car and drove away. As I pulled out onto the street, I glanced back through my rear view mirror, but he was gone.
That was the last time I saw the homeless man. I returned to the coffee shop every morning before work and would sometimes see the old military blanket spread out against the brick wall of the building, but the man was never sitting on it. Once, I thought about stopping and waving my hand through the place where he would have been sitting, but I couldn’t do it. I guess I was afraid that my hand would hit something, something that I could no longer see.