“I’m seventy-five years old.”
I don’t know why I was surprised. The homeless man was emaciated, of course. The crooked teeth protruded from his hollow-cheeked fish-mouth like a picket fence being pushed up from below. The greasy cork-screwed gray hair sticking out the sides of his filthy cap comically resembled Orthodox sidelocks–I swear I almost asked if he was Jewish.
But it was his manner. He was one of those who retained a youthful attitude–I don’t mean this in the strictly positive sense one would normally use when saying “youthful attitude”, for this common condition I fear I have acquired. Some proper maturity is forfeit to it. The young don’t trust it, or they view it as a sort of cultural appropriation. The old disdain it. But for him, cheerfully joking about living rough on the streets at 75, it might be heroic.
I could barely understand him. He was sitting alongside a memorial for Oregon’s volunteers in the Spanish-American War–a tall obelisk, where you can still see the shadows of sand-blasted graffiti–keeps the anonymous soldier atop safe from toppling. He’s forever charging into battle with his rifle, despite taking repeated hits like the blue paint splatters on his pants.
“Who is that up there?” He asked as I recorded the sight on my phone.
“Just a soldier. Nobody in particular”
“I thought maybe he was…” His voice was low and his speech slurred; the last part slid beneath the level of comprehension. I didn’t ask him to repeat himself.
“You know about the guns?” I pointed at the old Civil War era howitzer behind him. “Says it was used at Fort Sumter.”
“Yeah, it’s pointed at my back.” He joked. Most of what he said I couldn’t understand, but I just let him go on. He said he’d been an early computer programmer, that he’d built a house once. He lamented this or that missed investment. Here and there he gave evidence he was in fact educated. I tried asking him how he ended up on the street; I don’t think he understood. He started telling me a story from that long past.
“…this black guy, asked for two fives for a ten…” he wheezed a little in laughter “…then he grabs my wallet!” He smiles, as if to say, can you imagine that?
He’s like a regular guy locked in a crazy suit–there’s definitely a psychological defect that put him here, but it isn’t psychosis–his grasp of reality is as good as any. Whether that is a curse or a blessing for him I don’t know.