“I don’t want to talk about it!”
Usually when a homeless person walks up to me they just want money or food, something along those lines. This was a new tactic, so I bit. He didn’t seem like the average sort, wasn’t drunk or strung out, just looked like he had a run of bad luck.
“What don’t you want to talk about?” I inquired.
“Nothing,” he said, scoffing, “I don’t want your money, I don’t want anything from you!”
“Okay… then why did you say that to me? It sure seemed like you want to talk about something.”
“Well… okay, I’ll tell you, but you can’t feel sorry for me. DEAL?!”
“Fine, I think I can live by that rule. What is it you want to talk about?”
We walked to a nearby café. I asked if I can buy him a cup of coffee. He was inclined to accept this minimal level of hospitality from me. I smiled and came back a few minutes later with two piping hot cups, drawing stares from the people around us who were evidently not used to someone having a casual cup of coffee with a homeless person.
“Women man, stay away from them… they’re just trouble.” He sighed and sank back into his seat.
“What makes you say that?”
“Because they’ll do whatever they need to do to get your money. I used to be a rich man – multiple houses, cars, toys, the works. We had a great life, had two kids, great friends, it seemed like the perfect life.”
“So what happened to all of that? How on earth did you become homeless?”
“That’s what I’m trying to tell you!” He became agitated. “She took it all! The houses, the kids, the friends. I didn’t do anything, either! I gave her a great life!”
Confused, and pretty skeptical, I asked, “So, what happened that she left you, surely something happened?”
“Well, I worked a lot, my business was growing, and I spent more time at the office than at home. I stopped paying attention to her and she thought I lost interest. So she lost interest in me and slept with one of my friends to get back at me. Then, before I knew it, a courier walks into my office and slams divorce papers on my desk. I was floored! I called her and started yelling at her,‘I work so hard so that I can provide for you and the kids! Where do you think all this money comes from? The trips? The cars? The houses? Huh?!’”
I sat there for a few moments, in silence, taking his story in and still not understanding how he got to this low point. Surely if he started a business and it was profitable enough to give this level of comfort it would still be around…
“So, what happened to the business? It really seemed like you had something good there?”
“Do you have kids? Are you married?”, he asked.
“No – to both”, I responded.
“You wouldn’t understand then. I can’t see my kids. My kids were my world – they were why I worked so hard, so they wouldn’t have to grow up like I did. Broke, hungry, parents that fought constantly about money. Some months we had to decide between water or electricity, that’s how bad it was for me growing up. I didn’t want my kids to have to go through that. Now… now I can’t even see them because my ex said that I beat her, WHICH IS TOTAL SHIT! I never touched her, the court never got any evidence, I loved her. Her attorney said that she could get more money out of me if she said I beat her, so that’s what they did… AND THE COURT BELIEVED HER! NO FUCKING EVIDENCE!”
I looked around and realized how heated this conversation is getting and how emotional he was becoming to recount his story.
“Hey, want to go walk around and keep talking?” I asked, trying to move from this quiet environment before we would be asked to leave.
We got up and walked outside.
“Where was I?”, searching his thoughts, “Oh yeah, so I lost any form of seeing my kids, I lost my houses, I lost my wife, I lost my friend! Then, to make matters worse, right after we settled out of court the markets crashed!”
“What does that mean for you?”, I asked.
“It means a few things: I lost my job, my life, and my everything. Do you know how they set child support and alimony?!”
“It’s based on your income! And they don’t care that I lost my job, they just care that I pay. So not only was I paying for my wife to live in my old house with the man she cheated on me with, I was living in a crappy studio apartment on a futon and eating shit for food. Every month my savings depleted more and more, and I couldn’t do anything about it. She didn’t care, no matter how much I pleaded with her about how I didn’t have enough money to eat.”
“Man, I can only imagine what that was like. I mean, I’ve had my own issues with having enough money to eat but my problems have been nothing compared to what you have been through.” I cut in, hoping to interrupt how emotional he was getting.
Over the next 20 minutes he told me about all of the places he’d been, the random work he had done to make money, how he had been jumped a few times along the way, and where he is heading now. I realized how far people that seem to be on top of the world can fall. You can have it all, then have nothing based on a few small decisions every day. As I snap out of my own head and back into the conversation, I ask him, “So, if you could go back in time and change anything about what happened, what would you have changed?”
Stopping and really thinking about what it for what seemed like an eternity he lifted his dirty face from looking at the ground and snapped, “Why does it even matter? I can’t change anything anyways so who cares?”
“Because I’ve listened to you blame your wife, the economy, and everyone else for your problems!”
He stumbled back in surprise at my aggression. He hung his head again, took another minute or so, and sighed.
“I guess… I could have worked less and spent time with my wife, maybe she wouldn’t have left me if I spent time with her. And… maybe she wouldn’t have cheated on me… But I can’t control the economy!”
“No, you can’t control that. You can control how you react to it though.” I said.
“Yeah, I was so tied up in my divorce and hating my ex-wife that I just let my business tank” he sighed, shaking his head.
“You see, life and the events that go on in life are just things that happen. You can choose to let them happen to you or you can accept them for what they are and allow them to happen for you. I may not be married or have kids, I may not have every made a million dollars, but I do know a few things that you didn’t know.” I said calmly.
“What’s that?” he asked, curiously.
“I’ve learned that marriage is like a business – you have to constantly invest in it for it to go well. Same with your kids. Life is never going to be perfect, so fuck thinking that, it’s a lie. Business is not going to be easy if it’s truly worth it. And if shit hits the fan, you can always bounce back if you choose to. But YOU must choose to! You may never get your wife back, you may never grow your business as big as it once was. Hell, you may not want to be in the same business. You have a blank slate now. You get to choose how the rest of your story goes.” As I got off my metaphorical soap box, I noticed this intense look on his face, eyes looking back and forth.
His head popped up from its downcast position and he demanded, “Who the hell are you?!”
“Me? I’m just a stranger on the street that you didn’t want to talk to. I’m glad you did.”
We stood there for a few minutes in silence, him deep in thought, me just standing there to see if he had something more to say. I told him that it was nice to meet and talk with him and that I appreciated this chance encounter. I turned around and walked away marveling at the strange experience, shaking my head and chuckling.
I never saw him again and probably never will. I never even got his name. But I’ll never forget that odd exchange.