I am talking to Pete (not his real name) at the coffee shop. It is probably more accurate to say I am listening to Pete. Pete is homeless, and he passes many hours of each day at the coffee shop, usually sitting outside except on the coldest days of winter. Most days he greets everyone by name including, occasionally, people who are not there.
Some days when he is having a hard time and his demons, whatever they are, get the better of him, he doesn’t greet anyone at all.
I don’t know why I talk to Pete. It’s not my job and I always have something else I should be doing, a manuscript to work on, a document to review. Pete can talk for a very long time if he can get someone to hold still for it. He doesn’t expect anyone to listen but he always appreciates it when they do and thanks them afterward.
The secret is in not breaking stride. You answer his greeting, one hand on the door, and then you slide inside, no harm done. In other words, I know how to avoid him. It is just that some days I don’t. I have no idea why.
Today it is a beautiful Friday afternoon with a light breeze and a sunny sky. It is the first day that feels like spring, a perfect spring day, the kind we don’t get nearly enough of.
I’ve taken my coffee outside and Pete starts talking. It’s not as if I have to listen to him. I could get started on my project, which I have spread out on the table in front of me. He will take the hint and won’t be offended.
Instead I lean back in my chair, coffee in my hand. Every now and then I’ll interject a comment and he listens carefully and when I am through, he will say, “Yes, that’s right,” or “Yes, but here’s what I think.”
He is never adversarial. No one is ever wrong, they just don’t have all the facts. His talk covers foreign policy, Greek mythology, Erich Fromm, and the cultivation of innate talent. I realize halfway through that I talk with Pete because he’s more interesting than 99 percent of the people who enter my orbit, prattling on about their multilevel marketing plans for Christianity and how about those Royals.
Today he tells me something his wife used to say, then adds, “She died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital.” I don’t know if this is something that happened recently or a very long time ago. It seems to be both at once, fresh and remote. Like he is trapped in a temporal fold, and the event keeps playing over and over. He can’t escape it. He has had a while to get used to it but he still can’t believe it happened.
“I’m sorry,” I say.
“You didn’t know that?” He sounds a little puzzled, and seems to sort through his memory, trying to figure out what I know about him, which isn’t much. I’m not trying to save him or be there for him or anything like that. I’m just listening to him because he’s interesting. Believe me I wouldn’t bother if he were prattling on about the ten pounds he needs to lose.
He seems to know a good deal more about the inner workings of the federal government than a sixty-something homeless man ought to and for a while I imagine he is a retired CIA agent or maybe a diplomat who had a little trouble with drink at his last posting. He is tactful, the way I imagine an ambassador would be, or maybe the protocol officer on an ambassador’s staff.
But then his talk about the government shades into government conspiracy theory and I realize he is just someone who reads a lot.
Today he is roaming over his past, apparently having decided it is safe enough to entrust it to my keeping, and it comes out that he first started having trouble in third grade, when he didn’t understand the purpose of school. I think how young that is for it to already start going wrong.
Then he tells me he is sharing his stories because he thinks someone can learn from them and I guess that means me, and maybe I will. Right now I am lifting my face to the breeze and sipping coffee and listening to Pete straighten out the world. I think he would be very good at it except when he has his bad days but maybe then we could just have a substitute, or close the offices for a holiday.
He is talking about playing soccer and not understanding the rules and he laughs a little and then he says, “I just thought you kicked the ball down the field. But you had to be part of a team. I never learned how not to be alone. I don’t know how to do it.”
And in that moment I am right there with him. It is curious and hard, to be apart from the world, to see the games and not understand them. I think maybe someone will invite me to play or that I can invite myself and I try that but I still don’t know the rules. Everyone else seems to know them. But when I try it turns out I cannot play, because I do not have job promotions to crow about and my daughter isn’t getting college acceptance letters and I’m not celebrating twenty years together this Tuesday.
I think the anxious bleating about Courtney and Stanford and the waitlist is just window dressing, that there is something more serious beneath, but it turns out they think Courtney and Stanford and the waitlist is serious; they think it is just about the most serious thing that could be. The vapidity is not just surface; it goes clear through. I can’t begin to imagine being like that. I cannot begin to imagine wanting to.
Maybe all of us feel this way. I don’t know. How would I know? I can’t seem to scratch beneath the surface of anyone. I think most people fit in okay. They’ve taken the stray ends and tucked them in so they can belong. Belonging is powerful and safe and I get that, I understand it but I don’t believe in it. I used to, until I learned that you can’t buy safety no matter how good you are or how much money you have.
I see the apartness grow, the gulf between becoming wider and wider, the connections dropping away. My ex-husband calls my life “streamlined” because there is just me and my daughter and my work and sometimes I’m pretty damned doubtful about the work. I long ago stopped believing it was worth doing or that there would be some reward other than a check payable to, so maybe all I have left is a habit. If I didn’t have my daughter, my next stop would probably be homelessness, too.
Pete is talking about his friend, who made a scene downtown and was arrested. “She just wanted attention,” he says and I know he doesn’t mean like a kid acting up although in a way he does. He means she wanted someone to say, Yes, I see you there. Yes, I see you.
“They gave her pills,” he says. “It wasn’t pills she needs.”
That’s a favorite solution, like two round white pills will do the trick. That what is wrong is something to do with brain chemistry or socialization. Maybe it is. But I somehow doubt it. People think the homeless would stop making scenes downtown if only everyone had access to some round white pills and a kindly social worker to pass them out. But human lives are complicated and mental health is hard, especially when we pathologize every difference. It used to be that conformity was suspect. Now it is nonconformity that alarms people. Twee hipsters pose at it but they are just as invested in the games as anyone else.
I probably became a writer to try to bridge that apartness, to have a conversation and not just an echo. But sometimes all I hear is the echo.
I sip my coffee. The breeze stiffens into a wind. I realize I have more in common with the homeless guy than with any of my friends. That is a fact worthy of contemplation though I have no idea what to make of it.
But for a little while, as the heavy trucks barrel down 23rd Street and I strain to hear what Pete is saying, I’m not alone at all.