‘I’m on a conference call right now.’
Except he wasn’t. He was standing in the middle of the street, laboring under four trash bags stuffed to stretched-plastic capacity. His streaked hoodie was pulled over a frayed hat, grimed shorts drooping to his calves.
I’d just said, ‘Hey man,’ when he abruptly turned to me with wide, suspicious eyes sunk into gaunt, clean-shaven cheeks. I couldn’t tell if he was homeless. There are many among us these days, working yet unable to afford housing, homeless yet not destitute.
We exchanged a few sentences, his muttered responses mostly nonsensical, while an unease surfaced in my belly, born in uncertainty as to whether his intent might suddenly shift. Each passing moment teetered more unpredictably on a darkening fulcrum, his speech and body movements becoming more erratic, until I said we’d talk later and headed back to the car.
He dropped his trash bags and followed me, thanking me profusely for all I was doing, all I’d done, all I was going to do. Gratitude was the stream of consciousness he’d chosen to swim in for now, and there’s nothing threatening about gratitude.
Until there is.
But what could I say to this increasingly agitated man, struggling with a mental disorder and unable to communicate?
What could I say to my high school friend and college roommate, with whom I’d awkwardly patrolled fraternity parties freshman year? The gifted musician with whom I’d played songs, the natural athlete with whom I’d surfed? The housemate, with whom I’d shared a living space and barbecues and good, honest times, less than a mile from where we stood?
I hadn’t seen him in well over a decade, real contact lost in the vapid impermanence of text messages and social media, until there was no connection at all.
People talk self-assuredly about not needing to nurture certain relationships, enjoying friendships that pick up right where they left off, after years spent in different orbits.
Sometimes that happens.
But not always.
Not at 10pm on a clear August evening, in a beach town where a homegrown son once walked as a curious toddler, then as a confident teenager and searching young adult, and now as a ghost in a streaked hoodie, hurrying back to the four trash bags stuffed to stretched-plastic capacity, waiting for him in the middle of the street.