The Life of a Dead Man
Charlie always said he was a dead man.
“I have no life to speak of. What was, was. What is now is nothing to anyone. Just like when you’re dead.”
Over our all too brief time together, I hope that he came to believe otherwise. Maybe that in itself is what makes this so sad, so avoidable, so typical.
Charlie was one of the gentlemen who resided in the local park. We became acquainted over cookies and coffee, sandwiches and orange juice. We bonded over film and literature, and our shared belief that life is deliberate, must be fraught with meaning, and that our soul knows… it just does.
I drive past that park daily, and despite being familiar with the regulars, most days the flow of traffic has me racing by, barely able to glance over in their general direction. Other days I stop to bring lunch or other things.
One recent day, as I drove past, I saw Roberto, one of the ‘Parkees’ , as they call themselves, at the corner, keeping an eye out for me as I drove past, to flag me down. By the time I had parked the car, and was crossing the street to the park, his two friends had joined him to stand somberly by his side.
‘Charlie. He got sick and they took him away. We wanted you to know.’
I asked so many questions – too many questions – far too rapidly. What ambulance company or rig number had taken him? Had he been ill before he collapsed? Was he conscious when they took him away?
As I caught my breath, I inhaled their fear. The sadness for their friend, the reality for themselves permeating the air… and now every fiber of my being. I saw the faces full of terror, their worst nightmare come to life. It was not the drudgery of surviving each day on the streets that haunted them, it was what would happen when their time came. How can one already unseen… vanish?
We sat on the grass, and they shared what little they knew.
Charlie had been walking back to the park, and as he neared the corner, he collapsed. A clerk at the fast food stop across the street saw Charlie go down, and called 911. The ambulance came, the EMTs checked Charlie and whisked him away in an ambulance. They had not seen him since.
Roberto gestured towards Charlie’s now ownerless cart, and said that they agreed to wait a few more days before dividing up his belongings. Just in case they brought him back. We all knew that ill or well, Charlie would not be returned to the park, but it was loyal and respectful of their friendship, for them to wait.
Pulling a book out of his pocket, Roberto handed me a small worn paperback.
‘Travels with Charley’ by John Steinbeck. I smiled as I took the book from him, remembering how Charlie – OUR Charlie had loved it. A Steinbeck book he had not read yet, and one that bore his name at that. The gents there at the park loved it when I brought books in addition to snacks. It ‘gave them something real to talk about’, they would tell me. Usually each book I brought made the rounds, with each having a turn at each title, trading as they went along. While Charlie allowed his Steinbeck novel to be borrowed he made it clear that it was indeed HIS. And now his friends, my ‘Parkee’ friends, wanted it to be mine. I was touched by the gift. More touched by their apologies and explanations that they were not returning my gift to them of the book but really just making sure to do what they were certain Charlie would want. I thanked them and assured them that I would cherish it always, which I most definitely will.
Darrin, the most silent of the group, spoke up and said he really thought that I should also take Charlie’s other favorite book, since he and I had many lengthy discussions over it. He handed it to me, and I was tempted in a ridiculously selfish way. The book was beyond dear to me in its own right, its source, and the lengthy distance it travelled to reach my hand, adding to its priceless value to me. Compound that by the time Charlie and I did indeed spend chatting about it; Him uncharacteristically laughing aloud at my indignant response to one line at the very end of the novel. I knew I was not taking this book. I had my own copy to be sure, but the strongest reason was hearing the gents chat about it as all of these memories and sentiments ran through my head. They loved this story. Could relate somehow, were entertained by it, and best of all bonded over it. The essence of that volume reaching out and touching more hearts, meaning more…and ironically in so doing became even more dear to me, I told them that it was theirs, I indeed had my own, and to please keep enjoying it.
I had to know what became of Charlie. Was he still alive, alone and ailing in some hospital? Had he already passed on? I needed answers, but even more than that, these men seated with me in the park, brave and efforting to be stoic, needed to know. About their friend. About themselves. They HAD to know, to see, to feel that just maybe when their time came, someone would notice, would care, and would seek answers.
I promised to be back with any information I could find.
That afternoon I came home, clutching the worn copy of Steinbeck, and bawling. It was not so much sadness in case he was gone, but more so mourning how much more could have been of his life. When someone is alive in front of you, there is always that hope that maybe… one day… it could be better, be more… But Charlie was gone.
I called every hospital and clinic and emergency care center in the fairly reasonable radius from the park. No one by the name of Charlie or even with the anonymous moniker of ‘John Doe’. I contacted a local acquaintance, well versed in records research and overall digging up info. No luck.
When I know what is important, what MUST be, I don’t give up. Ever. I once referred to it as ‘obnoxiously tenacious’ and Charlie corrected me that it was ‘loyal, loving, and hearing my soul’. I pray he is right.
I decided to take this on from a different angle. If I could not find where Charlie had been transported to, then I would start from where he was picked up, or rather how… by whom. I dug up the non-emergency number for the local 911 dispatch center and kept asking, and asking, and being transferred to person after person…. until I found out which local firehouse EMT station and rig had answered the call.
The next day I drove to that stationhouse and explained my search to them. The rig and its crew was out, but due back later that day. Too late for me to be able to even return given what I needed to tend to for my family. I checked their schedule for the next day and promised to come back.
The next day, I indeed returned and met with the crew who had picked up Charlie. The EMT who had assessed him on site, Robby, knew that Charlie’s chances were slim at best. They chose to take him to a hospital a bit farther away that they knew were more receptive and attentive to the homeless. No delays in triage or treatment simply because you had no ID let alone insurance.
They were still there in the ER when Charlie passed on.
I had known. Even as pulled up curbside to park that first day, when Roberto waved at me from the corner, I knew.
The amazing EMT crew offered to go with me on their lunch break to that facility to see what had become of Charlie, his burial, and the like.
Gutted does not even begin to describe how I feel about what we found out. Apparently they did their ‘due diligence’ to identify Charlie. He carried no ID, no one at the park nor I knew his last name. They ran his fingerprints and DNA and he had neither a military nor criminal record. To them, to the world, he was … no one. He didn’t exist. He was cremated, his ashes in a mass ‘haul’ of ashes from ‘such cases’.
I stared at the woman behind the desk, incredulous, disgusted, and yet knowing that despite her apparent lack of emotion, this was not her fault. Not her system, not her call, not her fault. Whose was it? Everyone’s. No one’s. I thanked her for all of her help through a jaw so clenched I could hear my own teeth scraping against each other.
I told Robby and his partner I would meet them outside, and in strides far too long for my short stature, I raced out of the hospital, and unceremoniously vomited into the nearest trash bin.
HOW THE FUCK DO WE LET THAT HAPPEN???
How does a man become invisible? Get swept into a pile of ash and discarded with less care, attention, and validity than old documents sent to the shredder??! How does someone – ANYONE – not matter?? How can we just … disappear?
The ride back to the stationhouse was somber and silent. I thanked them all for their tremendously above and beyond the norm, help and heart. The next day I brought them cookies. When unsure how to express, I bake. The more profound the feelings to express, the more I bake. They got a LOT of cookies.
I knew I had to tell the men who Charlie left behind. If I was devastated, if it ripped my soul and shattered my ability to look humanity in the eye, then what would it do to these men who feared a similar fate?!?!
Perhaps it was the ‘mommy nature’ in me, but I knew I had to be honest, and yet present it in a way that did the least damage.
I went home, baked cookies, and as they baked I made a book mark for each of the men I knew would be there. I grabbed a glass candle, stopped at the store for some flowers, and assorted beverages, and was on my way.
They saw me coming, and came to meet me at the car. They knew. They had to know. To always have known. Together we set the flowers and candle at the base of the tree. I spread out the cookies and drinks picnic style, and sat with them to talk. I told them that yes Charlie was gone. No he had not been alone as the EMTs were really great folks and had still been there with him. Yes, he would very much want them to make use of whatever they could from what used to be his. Darrin asked where he was buried…was he even buried since he always said he didn’t have family. Using my best ‘suck it up and don’t let the kids see you cry’ skills, I looked him square in the eye and told him that he knew Charlie… he would not want us discussing such things. Instead we should honor him, keep alive what he brought to each of us. Since Charlie had indeed been a literature and film buff, they loved that I had made them bookmarks with something written on it that he always would say to them. They would read a bit and then start to talk about the intense level of lack in their lives and he would look up from his book and say ‘Just keep reading’. It was something they promised to keep doing and were amused that I had printed that on their bookmarks.
How is it that I have regrets about a homeless man? I regret not making sure to bring my laptop back to the park for him to watch ‘Charlie Casanova’. He had loved the film ‘Patrick’s Day’ that I had brought to the park for them to watch on the tiny laptop screen. Afterwards Charlie had asked me ‘what else did this guy write?’. I told him how different and yet amazing Charlie Casanova was, and promised to bring it to view one day soon. He would ask me about ‘his movie’…’has my name afterall.. like this book’ and he’d wave the Steinbeck novel at me. I regret that life – my life –no more important than his kept me busy – apparently too busy to bring him a couple hours of film to enjoy. I regret I never pushed harder to find out his last name. I regret… that I am part of a society that is so discomforted by our own fears that we look away from people we are afraid of becoming.
Every soul deserves to be seen. Every person deserves to be buried or set to physical rest with dignity, and bearing their name.
Shame on us. Shame on us all.
He lived, hidden in plain sight
Not even there.
His voice unheard
Muted by disinterest
A life unspoken
He stood in your disgust
Your filth you left behind
He did all of this with dignity
While you rushed past daily
Not hearing, not seeing,
Your soul deaf and blind
His story was just like yours
Till the day it changed
As yours can
With one blink of an eye
Or turn of the wheel
Maybe yours doesn’t
So you can help him change his
Maybe his doesn’t
So you can learn the value in yours.
Hearts beating in those unseen
The pulse of a city, its silent scream
Homeless we call them, but who are we
To judge the people, we refuse to see
©2015 Nadia Romanov
blog comments powered by Disqus