A new video from a Florida advocacy group features homeless people holding up signs that describe themselves, such as “I speak 4 languages” or “I was on the Buffalo Bills practice squad from 1998-2000.” It brings to mind an encounter I had with a homeless man more than thirty years ago in Spokane, where I went to college.
One night we were downtown at a rock club or jazz bar, and as we left the joint, a homeless panhandler in his fifties approached us. We gave the guy some change. He was perseverating, something about a suitcase. Nonsensically and unkindly, I started reciting from Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part II, as I had recently memorized a good chunk of it.
I quoted Prince Hal, “Why doth the crown lie there upon his pillow, / Being so troublesome a bedfellow? / O polish’d perturbation! golden care! / That keep’st the ports of slumber open wide / To many a watchful night! sleep with it now!”
When I paused, glancing around for yucks among my friends, the bum responded with Henry VI’s words: “Thy wish was father, Harry, to that thought: / I stay too long by thee, I weary thee. / Dost thou so hunger for mine empty chair / That thou wilt needs invest thee with my honours / Before thy hour be ripe? O foolish youth!”
He recited the entire soliloquy.
We punks looked at each other in amazement. I replied, “O, pardon me, my liege!”
We took the guy out for a midnight dinner at Denny’s. Maybe a Denver omelet and hash browns. That’s what I would have ordered in those days, if I’d had the money. The waitress shot hateful looks at us for crowding a smelly bum into our booth, but she didn’t kick us out. She slammed his silverware down, slopped the coffee cups in place. Then again, she was working night shift, maybe her feet were tired, and it’s not impossible she was only a couple rungs above homelessness herself. It turned out our panhandler had been some kind of electronics engineer in Minnesota, so he said. He told us he was mentally ill or had suffered a brain trauma (I can’t recall which) that prevented him from working. Lost his job. Drank to self-medicate. He wasn’t an actor, had just memorized Shakespeare.
We brought him back to our dorm and put him up in an empty room for the night. Crazy of us in retrospect, as it was a co-ed dorm and we knew nothing about the guy. But we figured he would appreciate a night off the streets. He kept talking about that suitcase, and we realized he really had lost it, his only possession other than a plastic bag with a few trinkets inside.
The next morning one of us with a car took the bum back downtown and bought him breakfast. I think they checked with the cops for the lost suitcase, but nothing turned up. That’s the last any of us saw of him.
I am touched by the lives revealed in the video. I doubt that most homeless people are former robot makers or NFL practice squad players, but some of the more modest signs are equally touching, telling of giving up one’s kids to keep them off the streets. As a reporter I would seek documentation for whatever claim a source might make, or leave it out of the story. But I know that, now in my fifties, if a college punk with a few beers in him threw some Shakespeare at me, I couldn’t respond as well as that panhandler.
Bless his soul, our poor tormented engineer, wherever he is, in the grave or still, improbably, on the earth.