Losing the Big Coin Flip

Some win, some lose, and it’s never fair.



“Man, did you watch the Orioles last night?”

Charlie asks me the question before I even get in the door. He knows I watched. “I swear. Those guys … How many men did they leave on base? Fifteen? Sometimes I can’t stand to watch.”

God knows, I agree with Charlie. The Orioles are atrocious again this year. But how does Charlie know how awful the O’s looked? I guess they had the game on in his homeless shelter.

I see a lot of people like Charlie at my job. The work I do doesn’t directly involve them, but I talk with them whenever I have a few minutes. If I’m having a bad day or someone gets under my skin, I walk out to the lobby and sit down for a little while.

Some of them are homeless. Some of them are crazy. Some of them are high. Some are funny and want to talk. Some are sour and want you leave them alone.

Being homeless or addicted or HIV-positive—or all three and many more—doesn’t define Charlie. It’s just some stuff he lives with. You can’t make those things better.

They all have stories. Got laid off. Got locked up. Got hurt at my job. Been using dope for 20 years.

I’ve learned a lot since I started talking with them. I’m embarrassed now at the assumptions I used to make about them. Without realizing it, I assumed poor people weren’t smart. Or that they weren’t interesting. And that they didn’t know anything about my world.

Turns out, it’s not my world. It’s ours.

And yes, some of them are obnoxious or weird or mean. But no more so than anyone else.

It turns out, poor people are—get this—just people. People who happen to be poor.

There’s nothing to be afraid of. Be yourself. Talk to them as you would anyone else.

Seems simple, I know. But when I first met Charlie, I wanted to tell him something that would make him feel better. Something that would help him get better or get his life together.

It’s arrogant to think you’re so strong, that you could solve Charlie’s problems. That you could speak some words so influential and inspiring that his bleak day could get better. It’s arrogant temptation I still fight.

But they live this life every second of every day, just like you do. Being homeless or addicted or HIV-positive—or all three and many more—doesn’t define Charlie. It’s just some stuff he lives with. You can’t make those things better.

Well, you can do little things, like support the clinics he needs. Or you can buy gloves and socks in the winter time and take them to the shelter. But no, there’s no magic trick you can perform to make Charlie or any of the millions of real, actual, flesh-and-blood people in America—and billions around the world—not brutally poor anymore. Charlie lost The Big Coin Flip. I won and it’s not fair.

When Charlie talks about the Orioles, it can make me unbearably sad. Usually, when we’re done talking, we’ll do some kind of hand-slap/shake thing, and we’ll say goodbye, and he’ll tell me to be good. Then I walk to my office, shut the door, and sit for a few minutes, fighting hot tears. For me, it’s a complicated hash of baseball and America, tragedy and opportunity.

Sports are a diversion. They’re weird little events that happen outside of real life. Somebody wins and somebody loses. Tidy successes and failures. Nothing complicated about it. Every night, no matter how terrible the team is, the Orioles take the field and represent my city. Charlie’s city. Win or lose, we’ll talk about it the next day.

Enjoy the game, Charlie.

—Photo Noel Feans/Flickr

About Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is the author of Extra Innings and is the editor of Bugs and Cranks. He and his wife live in a Baltimore house full of animals and catcher's equipment.


  1. Your example of Charlie is someone who’s too far gone to help. Addictions are bad.

    There are people though who are without addictions, HIV and other incriminating problems, yet are poor and are in a financial crisis much like our economy and the European debt crisis – many today are living from paycheque to paycheque and on the verge of homeless or already are.

    Many want to work and keep their houses from bankruptcy, and be able to support their families. But the standard of living is increasing all the time, and jobs are disappearing; and the disparity between rich and poor is obvious. I think we’ll see more Charlies. This doesn’t have to happen…the average person doesn’t gamble – they’re normal people who want happy lives and security…who doesn’t?

    I don’t think a homeless person starts out in life with becoming homeless as a goal. Every able and hard-working person ought to be able to find work and have job stability. A job not only helps people out financially and provide a sense of security, but a job serves to give people dignity. Dignity is very important to the mind and body – our mental, emotional and physical health. That’s why a year ago, there were suicide stories, one story for instance: a father shooting his entire family and himself, after he just lost his job; he couldn’t imagine how he’d support his family – he felt that he failed his family.

  2. great piece, thanks for writing it

  3. Marc Curtis Little says:

    Thank you for informing all of us that PEOPLE MATTER.

  4. Yeah – hard not to leak from the eyes isn’t it – Thanks for the post .

    • Thanks for reading it.

      Yeah, I feel weird about how sad I get after one of these conversations. If anything, guys like Charlie are kind of inspirational; they’re still participating in life, even when it appears they’ve been defeated.


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