What to do about Harry

An old hippie type, Harry could be someone I dated in high school or college. He’s tall, quite a bit over six feet. Like me, he came of age in the 1960’s, his hair is now a silvery grey, long, pulled back into a ponytail, much like my husband’s. He has wire-rimmed glasses, a mustache, a short beard. A brown plaid shirt, dark jeans, hiking boots, he looks like he could be the owner of a record store, maybe a bookshop. 

We see him sitting on the tree-shaded steps of an apartment building near ours. In summer it’s cool and comfortable, in the California usually mild-wintertime, his spot is sheltered from the wind. He’s usually reading, novels by the same kind of writers my husband likes, John Sandford, Lee Childs, Tom Clancy. Sometimes he’s listening to the radio, an honest to God transistor radio, a wire leading to his ear. What did they call earbuds before they were earbuds? If it’s fall, it’s football, his favorite. If it’s summertime, a baseball game might be on. Otherwise it could be one of the local news channels, keeping up with what’s going on in TrumpWorld.

My husband and I often stop and have a short chat.

‘‘What are you folks up to?’’ he might ask and, as if by some mutually agreed talking point, though we haven’t verbalized it openly to each other, my husband and I will downplay whatever it is we’re up to. A movie, dinner out, feel like conspicuous displays, not of wealth but of common comforts. 

‘‘Oh, just out for a walk.’’ ‘‘Off to the grocery store.’’ 

Harry is homeless, you see.

Last year, when we returned from our month long trip to Europe, we avoided him completely for weeks, too uncomfortable at the idea of sharing the details of our trip.

The people who live in the apartment where he sits reading don’t mind, he confides, because he sweeps the steps, keeping them free of the constantly falling leaves. He’s gone by the time they return from work in the evening. He sleeps in a parking lot behind one of the buildings on Fairfax. The owners say it’s okay as long as he is gone before the beginning of the workday. He must leave his things neatly stashed somewhere but we don’t know where, and wouldn’t presume to ask. 

He keeps himself clean and his clothes tidy; the only negative is the occasional tobacco stain of his mustache and the fingers of his right hand. 

‘‘I stopped meth and crack in June of 2005,’’ he says, rolling a smoke, shaking his head in self-loathing. ‘‘You’d think I could quit these.’’ 

Harry is just one of half a dozen homeless people we see regularly in our neighborhood but he has nothing in common with the man in the wheelchair who is perpetually perched at the door to CVS who asks for change. Harry never asks for money. 

He has nothing in common with the man who sprawls across the entire sidewalk, his belongings a trash heap we have to skirt, open containers of half-eaten fast food scattered about, his hair a nest, his clothes filthy, a cliche. Nothing in common with the woman with the stringy blonde hair piled on her head who has commandeered a busy corner here in Los Angeles. She stands to dress and undress as if she were on an isolated beach in Bali, barely bothering to cover herself with a strip of batik around her breasts, or the ancient sarong that encircles her girth. Most likely mentally ill, too far gone to worry about where she urinates. He has nothing in common with the couple of guys who sit on the sidewalk, drinking, their belongings scattered about, almost always in the same spot opposite the Farmer’s Market. Walking past, I feel like I’m walking through their living room, like I’m the one intruding. Our city, boasting the largest homeless population in the country, rounds them up occasionally, chases them out. But they come back.

That’s not Harry. You’d never know Harry was homeless to look at him. He won’t hector you as you pass by. He’s not the type to call out incoherently, to make you move aside in fear.

Harry will tell you his problems are of his own making. 

I wish I was the type of person to take him in, I’ve read about people like that, generous individuals who don’t just open their hearts, and their pocketbooks they actually open up their homes. I wish I was more like. But I’m not. I won’t start a ‘go fund me’ account in his name. I won’t offer to do Harry’s laundry, or let him take a quick shower at our place. We feel for him, we like him, but we also like to keep our distance. We don’t want to get too close, we don’t want to feel obligated.

It’s raining today. A California winter’s day. Coming down in torrents strong enough to bring down hillsides. The woman with the stringy blonde hair will be drenched, huddled under a lean-to she’s made between her laundry cart and a chain link fence. Some homeless people flee to the library in weather like this but the man sprawled on the sidewalk won’t be welcome there; he’s too disheveled, his shoes, disintegrated into useless flaps under his feet, discarded long ago. Those men I regularly see sitting on the sidewalk drinking will help each other find an awning under an empty building somewhere. 

I’m not sure where Harry goes. I’m curious, concerned. I like to think he’s dry, that he’s found a place under cover somewhere but I won’t ask him about it the next time I see him. The truth is I don’t really want to know. Knowing would mean I might have to do something about it, something more than the rare $5 or $10 or $20—at Christmastime—we send his way.

I know there are things I can do “to help the homeless.’’  
I can volunteer. I can donate. I can advocate for homeless programs. 

I just don’t know what to do about Harry.

Popular posts from this blog

Baker Street Station—Sherlock Holmes was there

Brad Pitt: I knew him well. (Okay, that’s a lie. But I did know him!)

Above Ground on the London Underground—Day 46: White City