"WHOA!" I heard somebody yell as I rollerbladed down a hill. I skidded to a stop and turned around. I saw a man who looked about age twenty-eight running up and grinning as he looked at my rollerblades.
He had a neatly shaved head, a clean face, and startlingly green eyes that turned into a piercing shade of gray in the evening sun. His teeth were chipped and worn, but managed to retain some suggestion of ivory.
"I used to skate around on the lakes around here when I was a kid," he reminisced. "I would just stand up and put my arms out and let the wind blow me around."
It made me think about the days of my youth where my father would take me ice-skating on the local pond, with big red mittens and old leather hockey skates.
I balanced myself on the wooden fence separating us, and took a closer look at the man. His eyes gleamed with nostalgia.
"Say," he added. "It must be pretty tough to skate on those things. Do you ever fall?"
I gestured toward my knees and elbow, which were a bit pink from the injury that I had sustained a few weeks earlier.
"Yep," he said sympathetically. "I've got a few scars myself from falling." He pointed to his forearm. I could see the imprint of a long-faded cut running up and down, winding around like an unnatural vein.
"Where'd you get that from?" I asked, my curiosity piqued.
He grinned. "I used to ride a motorcycle," he said.
I've always been very fond of motorcycles, because I think that they represent a kind of freedom, the unbinding of the romantic spirit. They are the faithful horse of the modern man, and every time I see one roar on by, I am disappointed that I do not hear the tell-tale whinny of a stallion running free.
"Do you still motorcycle?" I inquired.
His smile faded, and the gray light in his eyes dimmed. "No," he said. "I lost my old lady, and than I lost my motorcycle, and than...well..." He waved his arm as if to cast off the series of misfortunes that had befallen him. His arm stretched out to the central park in New Haven, where a ring of tents stood like a giant circlet of green and brown mushrooms springing out of the grass.
"Now I'm there," he said with remarkable grace and dignity. "I'm homeless, but I work for a company out in Danbury paving driveways, seven days a week." He glanced over at a tall canvas tent in the distance. "That's where my work partner lives," he said. "I just give my money to him. Give me some time, and I'll have enough to get back on my feet eventually."
The city authorities had closed down the main homeless shelter, and it wasn't opening back up again.
"Aren't there any other shelters open?" I asked. His eyes widened. "There are a few out there," he said. "But they cost money. Most of the homeless don't have the three dollars to get in. And when you get in, they take away your cigarettes and your little possessions, and when you get out, they don't give them back. They tell you when to eat, when to sleep."
"Some of them are like institutions," he added.
"The church is letting us camp on its property," he said. "But we only get another week and a half, because a bunch of people messed up their bathroom with liquor and the Pastor is angry now."
"Well, a church is a holy place," I offered. He nodded emphatically in agreement. "Now whenever we see anyone with liquor, we just kick them right out," he said, illustrating with a swift motion of his leg.
I was silent for a moment. What could I possibly say to a man who had lost his wife, his home, and his vehicle?
"It must be tough," I said feebly. He shrugged philosophically. "It is tough," he admitted in quiet voice. "But I just take it day by day, you know? It'll get better."
"What's your name?" I asked him.
"Scott," he said. We shook hands. His hands were stained by streaks of tar. "The only way to get it out is to wash it out with gasoline," he apologized.
"Pleased to meet you," I said, and we parted.
As I left I realized, in a latent sort of way, that he hadn't asked me for any money. And indeed, he didn't need any of it. How could I possibly help a man who had lost everything that he had ever owned, the tangible possessions of materials and the intangible possessions of love, a man that didn't complain or admit to anything except that, yes, it was tough? He was the tough one, if anything.
He had given me some company in exchange for some of my company- that was that, but it was something more. Somehow it restored some of my faith in man and his ability to get back on his own two feet. I don't aspire to be a homeless asphalt worker, but I now believe that there is a good deal that we can learn from those who are put by chance in that position.