Isn’t it ironic? On the same day I’m questioning whether I will ever write about the homeless again, I cross paths with a man I’ve wanted to sit down and talk with for the last month.
‘Rhino’ is a Vietnam veteran. He has a bullet hole in his shoulder and 3 more in his leg. I would say he ‘was a Marine’, but if you’ve ever said that around a Marine you are quickly corrected with the phrase, “Once a Marine, always a Marine”. Rhino stands on the corner in front of Walmart relying on the generosity of others for his next meal.
I first met Rhino about a month ago, when I asked him if he wanted to go to lunch and chat. He said he had just settled in at that location and said maybe some other time. When I saw him today the last thing on my mind was to write another story about a homeless man, not after being criticized and motives questioned. I was bitter. Rhino, on the other hand, has a surprisingly positive manner to him, considering his situation. We walked over to the nearest fine dining establishment (see photo) and had a lengthy conversation about life.
This veteran talked about being stationed in San Diego and feeling secure that he wasn’t going to be sent overseas into the war zone. Time passed by, and eventually, he was indeed shipped overseas to Vietnam. He didn’t have a lot to say about his experiences in battle, other than that he survived when so many others didn’t.
After time served in the military, Rhino came home, got married and settled down to a life as a truck driver for the local dairy, plus becoming a father of 3 kids. With his arthritic cramped up hands barely able to pick up his iced tea, he talked proudly about his kids growing up to become good people, successful adults. He told me about his daughter who works in the medical field as a radiologist, his son who is career ARMY, traveling and setting up a new version of mobile medical stations which he played a significant role in designing. His oldest son is a tech guy with his own business, setting up wi-fi in commercial buildings.
Rhino has had his battles with addiction, however, he says he’s been clean for quite a few years now and takes pride in talking about never using the money for drugs that he’s given while out on a street corner asking for help. His mind is sharp, filled with memories of his youth and adult life so I don’t doubt he is telling me the truth. He smiles when he talks about himself and his brothers stealing apples when they were living in poverty during their youth. He smiles and tells me about being caught, only to have the owner of the property give the boys a bag to collect apples and ask for an apple pie in return.
I asked him how long he’s been living this lifestyle on the streets and he said it’s been about 8 years now. There is no hint of sorrow or sadness in his words or in his eyes. He simply says this is what works best for him at this stage of his life. Behind Walmart, there was a grouping of some old trees where he lived for two years, until recently when it was decided to rip out all of those trees to get rid of Rhino and a few others living there. He does do a little bit of ‘couch surfing’, staying indoors a few nights here and there, but mostly sleeps outdoors in an empty field, tucked away in some bushes between two logs. I ask him, “But what about … ” and he interrupts me, knowing what’s coming. “What about the cold weather? How do I deal with it? You just do. You just do deal with it.” Where I live it’s not uncommon for the temperatures to drop to twenty below zero, and we’ve had times where it drops to -40 below zero. He casually says, “You just cover up with blankets.” Last week he suffered a seizure, injured his shoulder, and spent 3 nights in the hospital. For Rhino this isn’t a negative, it’s 3 nights of having his own bed, and some food.
Rhino says he does ‘Pretty good’ on the corner. He pulls out eight dollars to prove his point. Eight dollars. I listen to Rhino talk and all the while I just cannot understand how a person can be so positive, so upbeat, all the while being homeless. He even sounds cheerful when he talks about his daily verbal abuse by people in cars racing by, yelling at him. Each person handles this type of situation different, there is no right or wrong way, he happens to be one of a select few who shrugs it off and says it’s all good.
With seven billion people walking this earth, we are sure to have different types of individuals around the world. A society that works just fine for most, does not work just fine for everybody. With his hands knotted up from arthritis, plus a handful of other health challenges, Rhino prefers to live the lifestyle he does, rather than working a minimum wage job that wouldn’t even be enough to cover the cost of living. I suggested he would surely be eligible for disability benefits but he wasn’t interested. He was not interested in suggestions on how to live his life and I am not a pushy person, I prefer to listen, not judge and tell a person they’re doing it all wrong. Until I become the perfect human, who am I to judge?
Our society is flawed and it doesn’t seem to be getting any better. Our government takes in more revenue in taxes than any nation on the planet, yet somehow the politicians are always cutting programs that help the neediest among us. Every human soul deserves reasonable living conditions, whether they are physically able to work to earn the money to pay for housing, utilities, and groceries, or not able to.
What I learn when I have lunch with a homeless man is, more often than not it isn’t as easy as the solution they are offered every day, “Get a job!”
Photo credit: Copyright 2017, Brian Crandall