This is a repost of a blog from New Year’s Day, 2011. That day I wrote about a man named Bill who I haven’t seen now for over two years. He’d be 68 by now. The street people around here who know him haven’t seen him or heard anything. I’ll keep asking, but all of us have the feeling Bill’s life may have passed. I’m spending lots of time considering house and home these days, so offering this Ode feels just right.
January 1, 2011.
I live in a house that was built in 1898. It’s my home. And it’s home to my daughter, even as she lives her new and bountiful adult life 6000 miles away for now.
I’ve been paying on my mortgage for 9 years now. I’m one of the lucky ones for whom timing and other circumstances have made “ownership” possible. I love my home.
There is a man. A white man who lives his life on the street. He is 67 years old and has been living his days behind a grocery cart for 40 years. His name is Bill. I know this because for 12 years, now, we’ve been exchanging small waves and smiles and, after the first two years or so, words.
Bill smokes found cigarettes. A few summers ago when he came by the house for the bottles. I said, “Can you wait for a little lunch?” He nodded. I ducked in the house and in a few minutes brought him one in the ongoing series of tortillas wrapped around beans and melted mozzarella that dot the years. Bill and I can go months without crossing paths.
I handed him the wrap. “Bill. Do you have teeth?” I asked “Nope.” “Can you eat this stuff?” “Sometimes.” “So, what keeps your body going?” “Hops.” “You mean beer?” “Yeah.” “Woah. How long have you been on that diet?” “Since I was 27.” That’s when I asked his age. “65.” With that, he smiled and was on his way. We had just set the world record for length of conversations with Bill. He doesn’t say much.
Here’s the story I want to tell today – New Years day in 2011 – a day our country is aching with loss and fear – especially around shelter, around the ability to provide for our families, for ourselves.
In these days, Bill and I have had another conversation.
Not long ago, Bill mentioned to my neighbor David that he had spent his early childhood living in the house that is now “mine.” In the mid 1940’s his grandmother owned three houses: mine on the corner, David’s to the north and the one just behind me to the east. Wow.
The next time coincidence or proximity made it so Bill and I talked we were on the wide sidewalk at the edge of the bridge over highway 84. 84 is the interstate that connects the east bank of the Willamette River in Portland, OR with Lincoln, NE. The bridge across it connects me and Bill to the grocery store.
I had recognized him in the distance – bent behind his cart, shuffling in house shoes too big and flimsy for the winter rain, wrapped in the same clothes he’d likely worn for months, and slightly dwarfed in a coat that looked of more substance. Bill has ways for surviving this life of his. Years of practice. As he got nearer, he looked up, smiled without dropping the unlit stub of a cigarette from the corner of his mouth and lifted the fingers of his left hand from his cart’s push bar. “Hey, Bill,” I responded.
“I’ve got a bunch of bottles at home,” I said. There were a scant dozen bottles rattling in front of him. “Want to walk up there with me or should I leave them in the yard?” “I’ll come now,” he mumbled. I only heard, “now.” He turned his cart around. We walked at his slow pace. Side by side. No words.
At the house, I lifted the garage door and reached around the corner for two bags of bottles. I was yammering something by way of apology because it had taken months to collect these. I’d given up soda…again. “These are from having students over.” “Eee gads,” Bill said. That’s Bill’s signature way of saying “Wow, that’s a lot. Thank you.”
“Hey, Bill,” I went on, “David told me your grandmother lived in this house.” “Yeah.” “And she owned these three?” “Yeah. Rented them for $18 a month.” “And you lived here with her?” “Yeah. Sometimes.” “Do you have good memories from that time – from when you were a boy?” “No.” Bill looked up. Usually when we talk, he stares at his bottles. “They were mean drunks,” he said. “I’m a good drunk.”
There was a pause, our eyes still meeting. I said, “I believe that. That’s why I like you.”
Bill looked down. He took a step forward, eyes back on his bottles. “Well thanks,” he mumbled. “See ya,” I said as he picked up the slow cadence of steps behind the clatter that takes him through his days – steps that, for now, would move him the half mile to the Fred Meyer bottle exchange.
Night came. Then day, again. I do wonder where Bill sleeps. There’s something about a periodic check and a room down on Morrison.
That morning I put what I needed into my bike courier’s bag (way more fashion statement than necessary for transport…) and stepped out the back door of my home. I went down the wooden steps, walked along the narrow sidewalk right next to the garage and came to the four concrete steps leading to the street. On the cinder block wall at the edge of those steps I saw a small pottery cup with what looked like winter branches etched into it. Inside it were two expandable metal bracelets. They were painted gold. The gold was rubbed off in places from wear.
From he who has nothing.