While in Singapore, I forgot about the homeless here in Houston, how they shuffle up and down the medians at every major intersection, hitting up the drivers in the turning lane. What did life throw at them, that they’ve ended up in the blazing sun with their palms out? (Also, it becomes heavy-coat cold during the winter months.) Most are men, but there’re some women. Most suffer from some form of mental illness, or possibly they’re addicts or alcoholics. When I worked at a downtown soup kitchen four or five years ago, there was a trend among the street people to hold dead phones to their ears and pretend to talk and listen. Who does that? Abnormal people longing to be normal.
I roll to a stop, turning from Fountain View on to Westheimer. I’m six from the front. The red-faced man peers up the line, assessing the newcomers. His white hair is thin, shoulder-length, and scraggly. Looks sixty, probably forty-five. At first he doesn’t move, but slowly he takes one step, then another. Plucking a five from the pocket in the console, I wonder if he’ll make it to my window before the light turns green.
“You’re going to have to make more of an effort than that,” I say.
He meanders between cars, crossing lanes and backtracking. Nope, doesn’t make it. The five goes back into its little hole.
The man at Chimney Rock recognizes me. His sign reads: HOMELESS VET. PLEASE HELP. I gave him money yesterday. I’m not in the turning lane, so he limps between cars, waving, a smile on his face. Because I gave him five yesterday, today he gets only two. I ought not to have to buy him lunch every day just because he’s set up his station on my regular route.
Other signs they carry:
NO MONEY. NO HOME. NO HOPE.
CANCER. CAN’T WORK
NEED MONEY FOR FOOD
The pleas are barely legible, ink on pieces of rough-edged cardboard.
I come to a stop later, homebound now, at Westheimer and Chimney Rock. The guy I gave money to earlier is still working the opposite side of the intersection. Another guy’s on this side. His sign says:
CAN’T GET WORK
This guy’s between thirty-five and forty. He stops at my window. He’s missing several teeth, has an uncontrollable eye, and looks like he hasn’t bathed in weeks. In Houston these days there’s a job for every person who wants one, and this man’s sign implies a belief that he could hold one if he could just get it. His hand shakes as he accepts the five through the crack in the window.
“You’re an angel sent by God,” he tells me. “Hey, you want some T-shirts? I got, like, seven or eight shirts in that bag over there.” He points toward the center island, where his few possessions make a pile.
“What? No, I’m thinking not.”
“Some guy just came and handed them to me, like I’m the Goodwill. I don’t want his old shirts."
“People do crazy things.”
I’m irritated at the guy who gave this homeless man old shirts. Does he tell himself he’s being generous? Unloading worn out stuff on someone who doesn’t want it or have a place to put it seems lazy and thoughtless.
The light turns green and I continue on my way, humming along with the song on the radio. It’s not often that someone tells me I’ve been sent by God.