another autumn day some time ago

10 October 2009

My nephew is getting married today, and I’ve been thinking a lot about just when we become grownups and when we become those capable adults that make lives for ourselves in this crazy old world. 

As the time for Joe’s wedding comes around, and the weather starts to bite us with her change from late summer to ripe autumn, I’m thinking about a man I first encountered on a cold fall day in downtown Detroit around the turn of the millennium.

The man had no feet. I usually found him parked in his wheelchair with a cup held out at various spots along my route from the Windsor/Detroit tunnel to my office just on the other side of Detroit’s Greektown. What struck me about the man was his matter-of-factness, which I found strangely comforting. In fact, if you chose not to look at him, as most of us tend to do on walking by the homeless, he would withdraw the cup without bothering you.

If you did look at him, you were probably surprised at the look with which he held you – as if you were old elementary school pals. His face was dried into a map of crevices from his mostly outdoors existence, but when I really looked at him for the first time, I found a man about the same age as me. Mostly it was his eyes that still held me; they had the boldness of an old boyfriend.

His hair had formed into long dreadlocks and I couldn’t help but think of the filth and neglect that sustained those graceful, long ropes. That hair was sexy, I thought, in the odd man I’d see in the street walking to an office or playing in a band.

One day, not unlike most days during that time, I almost walk by the man with no feet as I emerge from the corner store with a carton of milk for our daily tea. I give the man the change left over from my purchase and before I can take any more steps, he holds me up with a commanding “Wait!” He drops a handful of coins into my hands, saying that he’s got enough money for a meal. Before I can even think about the layers of dirt that are coating his hands, he’s listing out the items he needs me to purchase for him inside the store.  (A store not equipped for homeless, or wheelchairs or men with no feet.)  

The man with no feet commissions me to go back into the store and purchase him some fried chicken, as many pieces as I can get with that pile of coin. Taken aback, less by his boldness than his matter-of-fact demeanour, I follow his bid and return to the store, orders trailing behind: “Don’t forget bread! And a Mountain Dew!” Inside, giving my strongest looks to the clerk behind the bullet-proof barrier (it’s downtown Detroit, remember) who is looking at me with equally stern suspicion, I pay for the order with my nickles and dimes, and I add on as much food as I can with my allotted budget. Back outside I return the meal and the bits of leftover change to the footless owner, and I linger for the slightest instant; me in my offic-y splendour.

I can tell you I didn’t pity the man with no feet that day.  I saw in him a fellow human who showed dignity and capability as he made his way through his world the best he could.  Qualities I needed to see in myself just then.  And now, in my nephew Joe as he gets married and starts a new life on this Thanksgiving weekend in 2009.

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5 Responses to “another autumn day some time ago”

  1. Susannah Says:

    Thanks for sharing that story – The man with no feet has just made himself known and felt to someone on the other side of the planet through your words.

  2. Reluctant Blogger Says:

    Yes, that was a very moving and thought-provoking story. We all too often see these people as victims. I try not to but I think I still do.

    It is interesting watching children move towards adult-hood. My daughter is definitely an independent adult now (she is almost 21) and has been for some time but I never really marked the moment. I rather wish I had now. But I suppose it happened gradually without me noticing.

  3. Jennifer Says:

    Thanks you two! It started back when I worked in that city – where I became so familiar with some of these street people. I recall seeing (from the safety of my office window) a man who was desperate to share something or other from what looked like a holy book, and no one would listen. (I would have been afraid to as well.) But it really struck me that it was so tragic that the man had something to say, which seemed so important to him, and no one to tell it to. What must it be like to be living on the outer edges of society, invisible to most.

    Re: turning into independent adults – is there ever a ‘moment?’ I think it does happen gradually. I didn’t really feel ‘grown up’ myself until I was in my mid-twenties – and I had two children by then! Maybe it was a matter of confidence.

  4. Nancy Says:

    I really enjoyed this story Jen , I’ve often been told not to give homeless people money , because they will just use it to buy boose! Just goes to show you how people are labeled because of the way they look ! When really all this poor man wanted was food! There should be more people like yourself out there !! As you said they also probably just have a story to be told! I know i have witnessed the terrible looks and stares at times bein with my sister in the emergency room for mental illness!! thanks for sharin this story ♥

    • Jennifer Says:

      Thanks for taking the time to comment Nancy! They say most homeless people are mentally ill in some way, and it’s so much easier for us to treat them as if they’re invisible, not thinking, feeling human beings. Thank goodness your sister has a loving, caring family around her. Here in Toronto, I find sometimes just to look at someone, to acknowledge or speak to him/her is enough.


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