Saturday, June 20, 2009

My Fleeting Homeless Guy

First, a little history. When it comes to people asking for money at freeway exits, my response is inconsistent. On one hand, I was raised by parents who are generous givers, and whom always roll down the window and give something. On the other hand, the campaign of a charity non-profit "give real change" (encouraging folks to give to them instead for the most effective use of funds) has always remained in my head. Of course, so has that fact that I have not yet ever given to this organization. Needless to say, pulling up next to someone holding a sign asking for help tends to fill me with a blend of anxiety, guilt, and ambivalence.

Anyway, on to the story at hand. I met him a couple of years ago. As soon as I began to slow to the traffic light, he reminded me of someone I might have worked with at the post office. I knew he wasn't, be the fact that he looked like he could have, somehow made me drawn to him.

So I rolled down my window and gave him some money and went on. The next day, I saw him again. This time I said, "Hey, what's your name?" I've never asked someone at an exit ramp his name. "Rambo," he answered. "Come again?" I said, thinking, Rambo, like the movie character? "Rambo," he confirmed.

The next time, I pulled up, I said, "Hey Rambo, how're ya doin today?" "Pretty good," he said, enthusiastically. "I had to spend the night in jail, but they washed my pants!" he said, smoothing his hand across the pant leg of worn jeans for effect. I jokingly told some friends that I admired his optimism. Later that night, I felt like a jerk for being condescending. Obviously this man was not some made-for-television caricature, and I knew better than to enter into some distorted fantasy of his life.

Still. There was something about this particular guy. Sometimes I'd come by his exit and there'd be someone else and I would be mad, like someone was infringing on my friend's territory. One day I came by and said, "How's it goin, Rambo." Well, something had happened to his tarp, it had gotten ripped and he was pretty pre-occupied by it. I thought, I can get this guy a new tarp. So I said goodbye, went home, and tried to figure out what I was going to do. I decided I would go back and ask him what he needed, maybe a tent? So I threw some things in a bag - some socks, a sweatshirt, a t-shirt or two - and drove back.

No Rambo. No more Rambo the next day. Or the next or the next. Soon, I forgot about it.

About a year later, I saw him. I rolled down my window, and like an old friend said, "Rambo! Where've you been!?" sticking out my arm to touch him. "Grove City!" he replied, as though it was the most exotic place and not just the nearest Columbus suburb. He grabbed my arm and I wasn't alarmed. I went home, dug the bag out from the bottom of my closet and went back. Gone again.

Then I got a new job and started taking 670. Several months passed. Then one day I was running errands and saw him at the bus stop right around the corner from my house. The first thing I noticed was how badly sunburned he was. I guess that's obvious, being outside all day, everyday, but it was worse than I'd ever seen. I was stopped at a light in the opposite direction and just watched him. He was agitated, pacing back and forth. I turned and passed him.

My first instinct was to give him a lift. Then my practical side kicked in, figuring it was not the best idea to allow an agitated homeless man into my car, connection or not. I was almost home when I thought I could at least turn back and give him some money. So I did. Rambo was gone. Probably on the bus, but who knew. That was last fall.

So yesterday I saw him, at the intersection of Wilson and Broad, near the bus stop. Again, I was driving the opposite direction. I should have just turned around. Instead I rushed home, made a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, stuffed the rest of the bag with snacks, and shoved a Popsicle in the top and headed out. By now you can see where this is headed. He was gone.

I'm not sure what this all means. Obviously there is something to this man's behavior that I am alternately fascinated by and then ashamed of myself for possibly exploiting. Perhaps I just need to remember the name of that organization and make a regular donation.


  1. That is very sweet about the pb and j. When I worked downtown and routinely exited the freeway at times that people were there, I tried to keep whole fruit or fruit cups/applesauce and a spork in the car to share. This was always warmly appreciated, except the time an apple was rejected because the would-be recipient told me "I don't have any teeth!". I am afraid that homelessness is a bigger problem than we can address with a snack.

  2. Maybe the fascination started with Barney....