Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Rattlesnake Red

“Hungry, homeless, please help.” The crumpled cardboard sign belongs to a grizzled black man sitting on the post office steps. He’s been hungry and homeless for at least the fifteen years I’ve known him.

“Hello, my old friend!” I greet him, not knowing whether he’ll recognize me and certain that he won’t recognize my son.
“Is this…?” He asks, incredulous, smiling at Josh. Yes, the young man who towers over me is the baby I used to cart around in a car seat.

“You haven’t changed at all!” the homeless man tells me. A lie that my hairdresser and bright lighting could dispel. I wish I could say the same for him. His black hair is now tiny whorls of white, emphasizing the caramel color of his eyes and skin. Once upon a time he used to stop me outside Rite Aid and ask for money. My answer was always the same:
“I won’t give you money, but if you’re hungry I’ll buy you something to eat. Or maybe you’d like something to drink?”
He would ask for soda – Dr. Pepper’s – and sometimes a snack can of tuna with crackers.

As the years went by, Rite Aid changed hands and I migrated to other stores, but I would always see him pan-handling outside the post office, or standing in the middle of the street turning his smile on the drivers of cars stopped at the lights. In the last couple of years, I’ve noticed the genial demeanor has been replaced by drunken confusion, watched him staggering in the street and in danger of being sucked under by the passing cars. The last time I saw him, he was sitting on the pedestrian island in the middle of six lanes of traffic, cup extended but eyes unfocused. “He’s so out of it,” I remarked to Josh. “Poor old guy. He’s just getting worse and worse.”

Fortunately, today is a lucid day. “This is just until I get my retirement in November,” he tells me, nodding at the sign and cup perched on the steps. “I worked twenty years for the railroad – Southern Pacific.”
“Will you stay here?” I ask, meaning Los Angeles, but he interprets the question differently.
“Oh yes, otherwise how would I see all my friends? Not that,” he says, nodding again at the sign, "The people who talk to me, who give me a little bit of their heart.” He clasps a hand over his chest. “That means more to me than the money.” Suddenly his eyes brighten and he mimes holding a steering wheel. “When I get my retirement, I’ll take you in my limo to Hollywood and we’ll get us some Chinese food.” He looks at Josh. “You like Chinese food?”

We marvel about how long we’ve known each other – so long that I was hugely pregnant with Josh when we first met. “And my mother. Did you meet my mother?” (Her presence was a fixture of Josh’s early years and almost grounds for a divorce according to my father.)
“Yes, I remember your mother. Tell her Rattlesnake Red says hello.”

For a moment, I picture my mum among the rain and cow parsley of Normandy, her neat clothes and the tea trays lined with lace cloths, and cannot imagine a less likely pair of acquaintances.
“Yes, we will,” I say, glad that I at least now know his name.

When we get in the car Josh asks, “What kind of name is Rattlesnake Red?”
“I don’t know. Sounds like a poker player to me.”
Josh is quiet for a while.
“I wonder where he sleeps at night.”
We ponder this in silence. Finally Josh says, “Do you think he’ll still be there in ten years time? When I’m in the police force, I want to get to know the community like that.”
The community of the homeless and substance abusers. The ones the police usually move on or hassle because they make the neighborhood unsightly. Good for you, Josh, good for you. Rattlesnake Red must be a fairy godfather who gifted you with compassion at birth.

© Louise Godbold