Elias is from Cairo. He’s homeless in Hoboken. He’s about 65 years old, taller than I am, heavy set, sort of bad teeth. I don’t look too closely or for long at his mouth. No need. I like to watch his face. I like to start the conversation, let him know I’m there, and then just let him go. I shut my mouth, open my ears, and he takes it from there.
His accent is thick and his English is very good. English: it’s probably one of many languages he masters. He sits on a turned up milk crate, just outside the front door of McDonald’s. From all accounts, he’s sometimes a happy man and sometimes an angry man. Good mood, bad mood, and all in between, and he stinks. He’s dirty. He’s polite and he’s nice to me and he puts his complaints in an upbeat tone. He is animated. Maybe he’s a nut case.
I met him a few weeks ago when I finally got over that ‘just keep going’ urge....the one that keeps me walking past the guy or gal on the street who’s asking for money. I like to give, but I also like to keep moving. Plus about ten other feelings wrapped up in walking right by a homeless person, within feet of him or her. [Me, the person who will be inside my house in about seven minutes from here, lock the door, take off the shoes, and eat junk food on the sofa, and watch a movie or some show I really enjoy. Make a big cup of hot tea. With sugar. The life of the not homeless person. ]
He is close to me; he’s dirty, needy, and he’s asking the passing river of humanity, me included, for food or money. Elias repeats, over and over and over, “Spare change. Can you give me some spare change?”
Eight out of ten times I walk past him. I don’t stop. I can handle only so much of the same conversation. I’m not in the mood many days, many times. I’m not in the mood to give. I’m not in the mood to listen. I’m not in the mood to stop. I’m not in the mood to deal with another person. The two times I stop, it’s pleasant and I’m glad I did.
So I bought some apples because they were only .99 a pound and decided they were the better choice, better than potato chips. I live in a home, I have a shower, I can choose between apples or greasy salty junk food. Tough life.
We all need fruit [ barring the two years I didn’t eat one piece of fruit].
I stopped to say hello to Elias. When I passed him on my way to the bank he was sitting, talking on a cell phone. ‘Great!’ I thought. “I just love it. He’s homeless and even the homeless guy has a cell phone!” On my way home, he was on his feet, no cell phone, and I think he recognized me. He always acts like he does. He does.
“Hi, Elias.” I thought “we all need fruit.” [ Do we all need fruit? Or do I need to give him something and fruit is what I have today?]
“Do you want an apple?” “Yes,” he said.
I had to comment on the phone; it was a great image of reality. Homeless guy, sitting on milk crate, talking on cell phone, outside McDonald’s. So needy, yet so hip. So global, if he just dialed a few more numbers.
“Where’s your cell phone? I saw you talking on a cell phone.”
“Oh,” he said, “that’s my friend at the grill. She lets me make my calls, then I give it back.”
Terrific set up. No cell phone bill and sort of unlimited calls.
“That’s a real nice deal,” I so keenly figured out. And it really is a real nice deal.
He was in a good mood, but, of course, complaining about the weather.
A big, tall, chunky man with red cheeks and thinning hair came out of McDonald’s. He stepped over toward us and handed Elias a big McDonald’s bag. I imagined a happy meal in there.
“More food!” I chirped, and looked at the man and then looked at Elias. Elias -- from Cairo, thick old accent, standing there with a big old McDonald’s bag in hand.
He thanked the man. It seemed like they knew each other, but I don’t know.
The man smiled and walked away.
Now I felt good; Elias was holding a big bag of food, and it added to the healthy [boring] apple I gave him.
What mothers already know, from the inside: it feels good to feed people. It also feels good to give. That red cheeked man was smiling. There’s a reason for that smile that came on his face when he handed Elias the bag of food.
Sum lunch time total: I gave Elias an apple. Red cheeked man gave him a hamburger and fries. The woman two businesses down gave him cell phone calls. That’s how the community works. We have, we give, we keep moving.
Elias will go to Florida in two weeks, and he’ll be with his sister there for the winter. He repeated: “It’s too cold here. This is no good. I don’t like it here. I have to go. I must go to Florida. It’s not good here. Forty-one degrees. I don’t like it.”
I backed away from Elias and spotted Eric and Angel coming down the sidewalk.
They have each other’s company, in the non-stop swirl of Hoboken’s homeless. They describe the difficulties of finding a toilet. They are kind, they laugh a lot, and they are homeless, too. Eric always takes my hand and kisses the back of it. He loves to rub my shaved head. The fuzz. It’s good for a laugh. We laugh. Angel rolls his eyes and pretends he’s annoyed. He takes off his cap, for the nth time, to show his head is shaved, too.
Another reason to keep on going.