I Wonder What Happened
Sometimes I wonder what happens to the nameless, the unseen, the misunderstood; those without families who sleep on the street, under bridges, wrapped in blankets and booze. The the warmth of liquor on empty stomachs.
I wonder what happened to Henry.
I wonder what happened to Ralph.
I wonder what happened to Crow.
Old Man Dan.
And to little Miss Judy.
And I often wonder who will be next.
I wonder what happens to those, the voiceless, and if after death their voice is regained. I wonder if I were to tell you their stories, would you wonder, too?
I wonder what happens to the judged, the people that cause couples holding hands to divert their eyes, and cross the street. Rarely do I wonder about the jury, the ones that smile and carry their judgment to the bar, leaving Buffalo Wild Wings with to-go containers while waiting for their Uber next to signs that read “Hungry and Homeless,” and maybe this means that I don’t wonder about you.
Henry was a veteran and so was Ralph and they were best friends, too. They were part of the old school, damn near thirty plus years on the streets. They were gruff, unapproachable, and oftentimes smelled like piss.
I brought them some military patches that I found in an old closet of a new apartment where I had just signed a lease. I asked them if they knew what they were, which they did, so I hand sewed one on Ralph’s hat with a piece of red thread and after that, we quickly became friends.
I wonder what happened to Ralph, after he died in the hospital. Organs failing, going through detox with forty years of binge drinking under his belt, his nurse saying he was grouchy cause he was “just lonely,” while I thought, “The only family that he has is out on the street, sleeping in tents where they may die and I’ve been here a week so I just think he wants a goddamn cigarette and most definitely a beer.”
I also wonder what happened to all of the DVD’s I left for Ralph to watch, which happened to disappear as soon as he did, the next time I tried to visit his room.
After Ralph died, Henry would break down in tears every time that he saw me, asking if I still had the photo I had taken of his best friend. I told him I did. It was framed and waiting, for when he got his apartment.
Henry would often comment on the feathers in my hat, a green fedora with a fly fishing pin and feathers tucked in the brim. He would show me the little feather he had tucked in his cap. Crying, he would say his wife was Native American and had died of liver failure, the same as Ralph. He told me her name meant “Little Feather,” and so after that I also looked for little feathers to tuck in my hat, for however long, before being lost in the wind.
I wonder what happened to Henry after he froze to death in his tent. I wonder if he ever stopped crying, or if tears were left frozen to his face.
I wonder how long he laid there before somebody found him, before they patted him on the shoulder or back, or gripped his arm and felt the frigidness of death stick to their fingertips.
I wonder how things would have been different, if he had made it to his moving in date, which was just weeks after his death.
I wonder if Ralph and Henry are together, and Little Feather, too. I wonder if they’re happy or if they are drunk or if they are both, and knowing them, I’m pretty sure they are both.
I wonder if he had the choice, which choice would he make? Would he take an apartment, no friends or close family, a love lost like the feathers that fly from out of our hats?
I wonder do organs fail in the afterlife?
I wonder if Crow still plays harmonica, even though he froze to death, too.
I met him in a cubby when he had a black eye while reeking of booze. He told me he was Crow, the Harmonica Man, and how he learned to play to chase the cows back in the barnyard, as a child.
I asked if he would play something and allow me to film, and we videotaped three songs, before he was done.
I asked him if there was anything I could do, to which he replied “Can you walk me to the shelter?”
Arm in arm we walked half a mile to the homeless shelter, passing bars and apartments and cars that had to wait for our three-legged race. The concrete always wins and his bloodied face was the truth.
I kept saying “Just lean on me,” and he always replied “I feel like that’s a song.”
We walked passed this one bar with these young drunken punks who stepped out for a smoke. They scoffed and laughed at Crow in his Hawaiian shirt, dirty long beard that was supposed to be white, and he tried to stand but mostly wobbled while he said he was the best damn harmonica player they’d ever heard.
They continued to laugh, write him off as a bum, and it pissed me off so I pushed him against the wall and told him to play. He leaned against the concrete, pulled his harp out his pocket, and began to blow. And then the laughter stopped.
We left them in awe and stumbled to the mission.
I began organizing a showcase at a local music venue where and told him he could perform but Mid-Western winters in the snow-belt of Michigan can be unforgiving.
I assume he was cremated, like Ralph and Henry, and I wonder if they thaw the bodies before they started to burn.
Do cows go to heaven? Is he ushering them to the barnyard?
Old Man Dan sat on a stoop and when I say he sat on a stoop, he practically owned that stoop; a neighborhood fixture like a statue across from the liquor store. On the same stoop he sat for nearly twenty years. Dan was a wonderful old man, who never meant any harm.
He would ask for spare change, a cigarette here and there, and I don’t know how he ate or how he managed to stoop it so long. All that I know is that he once had an apartment in the building by the stoop, but it didn’t pass inspection and ever since that the only thing he had above his head was the stoop’s small awning, and God up above.
Dan was a man of simple words and simple gestures. He wasn’t allowed in the liquor store because he was always so soiled. His brain was mush from soaking in alcohol for so many years, and no public restroom within walking distance left him nearly unbearable at times, and I wonder if Jesus washed away more than his sins.
One day, I ran into Dan. He was in a fit of distress. Not the same kind of distress that he was in the night before, the night he asked me to call the ambulance, worried he was going to die.
Last night he was in distress because a woman had sat next to him, on his window still stoop, smoking a cigarette then leaving and on her way out she dropped a clear plastic bag. In that sandwich bag, her social security card, her ID, bank cards, bus card, everything.
He waved me down from across the street, and told me what happened.
“This is her business. Her ID don’t do me no good. I don’t want to get into any trouble, I just want her to get it back. I want to do what I need to do, wrong or right.”
He asked and asked, “Am I wrong or right?” and I told him he was right and doing the right thing, while a sleazy white man sat next to him and eyed the clear plastic bag with all of it’s contents, saying he could take that to the store and pick up some booze. He could sell those contents for cash, if he wanted. Which is what he did want.
Dan wouldn’t let me leave with the bag, saying she might come back for it. She would know where to find him. He couldn’t chase her down, some days he can hardly walk. He had been in the hospital two of the last three days.
But here he was, “I’m just trying to do what I gotta do, wrong or right,” he says, “Please!” he yells, “Help me! Find her so she can get it back. It’s her business. This is her identification.” He wouldn’t even open it saying “I don’t want to get into any trouble,” but I opened it and I took a photo of her bus pass ID and started walking around asking if anyone knew her.
I showed the photo of her documents to the security guard at the building where Dan once lived, and she recognized the face and the name but not how to contact her.
Two hours later her items were returned safely and Dan thanked me, saying he couldn’t have done it without me. But the truth is I couldn’t have done anything without him.
After that, I asked Dan if he would let me take his photograph and post it online, letting everyone know the deed that he had done. I was hoping people may see him, and know he’s no threat and no matter the state of his physical being, his eternal self was truer than true.
The alcoholics on the street live their life on repeat, day after day down to the same story they speak.
Every day that I saw Dan I would remind him of his deed, tell him he was right and that he should feel pride in himself, thinking it’s better to live like a record on repeat where the words that are spoken reflect not the state of his flesh, the liquor on his breath, but the eternal being that ripples and makes waves throughout the world, no matter how small or large of if they never even leave his stoop, and soon after that, Dan disappeared.
One day went by, no statue on his stoop. Two days, then three, then weeks at a time. After a few months I assumed he had died and wondered if anyone noticed, or cared, or if anyone really knew.
Months went by before suddenly he was back. He flagged me down again and I asked, “Where have you been?”
“I just got out of rehab,” he said with a smile, toothless but proud, and I couldn’t believe what he said or what he said next. “Got enough change for a beer?” and I said “Hell no, Dan! Not after that. That’s amazing and I can’t seem to bring myself to do that.”
Dan didn’t last long before he was gone again. Now it’s been years and I’ve never seen him again. I wonder where he’s at, if he’s on a stoop in the sky, or if he somehow made it to a stoop near a bed, with a roof and a door, and his own keys to the lock.
I wonder if our daily affirmation, the confirmation of his heart, by simply switching sides to his vinyl, the script to his story, played on repeat, played part in his choice. And I wonder if done sooner, would it have played a little different.
Or maybe it was nothing and I’m wondering too much, but it meant something to me and to me that’s enough.
Amber was a bum straight down to the core, and I don’t mean to be rude, but she said it herself. The day that I met her she told me she was a poet, so she wrote me a poem and read it out loud, while I filmed her in an alley, next to a dumpster and Tim.
“I’m A Bum
Wish I was Not
Never in my life
I thought I would be
So I have to think
And then hell becomes
Written by Amber Lynn Gibson
and Now I’m going to drink”
Amber went on, “I never dreamed that I would be a bum. And I used to work jobs and take care of things and now I’m down low but I’m getting on my feet now.”
“And once I do I’ll be safe.”
“My baby. This is my husband, Timothy. I love him, with all my heart. And I want to put a ring on his finger but he’ll never wear it.”
“Oh yeah I would,” Tim chimes in.
“No you wouldn’t.”
Yes, I would! I don’t mind a ring on my finger. I’d like to have one on every finger so when I sock somebody,” Tim laughs, while rolling his hand in a fist.
“No, I want to put a ring on you.”
“Titanium alloy. And I want it to be your size, and it’s a worry ring so you can go like this,” Amber says, rubbing her finger in circles.
“8.5 or 9,” Tim says.
“Go like this,” Amber says, still circling her finger, “and when you’re worried and inside it’ll get an inscription. ‘I love Tim’ but I’m not gonna say that. I’m gonna say, ‘Forever, you are mine.’”
They are silent for a moment, fingers intertwined.
“Give me my kiss,” Amber says, “Forever you are mine. That’s what it’s gonna say. And I’m gonna have the same ring of my own.”
They kiss and hold hands and our poetry video ends.
Amber tells Tim to let me document his story and he says, “No, I don’t want to cry.”
I never documented Tim’s story, but he did ask me to find his family and I did, and he talked to his father on my cell phone for the first, and last time, in very many years.
Amber died in the hospital to causes unknown, and Tim followed soon after, and I wonder if they finally got their rings and if Tim was able to leave his memories behind, the ones that made him simply want to cry.
I wonder what happened to Miss Judy when her soul left this place. A little old lady, hunched in a walker, who used to roll cigarettes and sell them on the street. She is a reminder for all that is wrong with this country, a little old lady sent out in the cold because took those in need of refuge into her own home, collecting food donations to keep their bellies full. Ran without a permit, her shelter soon closed, leaving her on the street for years till she passed away last year.
I wonder if in Heaven, a shelter needs a permit. I wonder if all those who wander are lost after death, or if people like Miss Judy give them a place to feel at home.
I wonder if all these people are together safe in Judy’s sanctuary, somewhere in the sky, and they don’t feel the pain and neglect like they did every day. In a place without judgment, free to be themselves, and I truly hope the things that cost them the most pain, that made them live the way that they did are forgotten or lost, and especially I have hope that they are free from their guilt.
Every day I wonder who will be next, the summer coming to an end, with the cold coming quick, soon to sweep in.
I wonder what will happen to Christa, and to Kali, and to all of my other friends when their time comes, and I wonder what it will take for me to begin to wonder what will happen to me, too, when my time is here.
I wonder if I will ever believe in God, or Miss Judy’s sanctuary in the sky. I wonder if thinking like this will help me sleep better at night, and I worry these stories will leave me more calloused than cleansed.
I wonder if my documentary will truly ever end, or if I even want it to truly ever end, and even if it did, I will still wonder if a person’s story truly ever ends, if someone is listening and possibly able to tell it?