We looked for him this morning on the way to school, the emaciated man I have seen every day, at least twice a day, for the past four months.
“The one who always wears the tan jacket, right?” my son asked.
“Yes,” I answered, slowing down for a speed bump.
“Is that him?” my daughter pointed to a young man with close-cropped hair. Then, to a woman with a scarf wrapped around her face, “That him?”
“No, not him,” I answered.
My son chimed in, “He’s very skinny, has long white hair and a scraggly beard.” At nine, he couldn’t help but notice the man, too.
I first saw him when we visited Atlanta over the summer in advance of our move. The city was still anonymous to us—the details of every street were just starting to etch their way into my brain as I drove over, through, and around them, ultimately enough times to bring them into my existence.
He was like a “you are here” dot, orbiting us in Midtown. There he was over by the high school. And then he reappeared over by the Whole Foods on Ponce, which seemed magical to me because I did not yet know of the cut-through he must’ve used to bridge the distance. It seemed like he was everywhere we were—holding himself at the right angles of his elbows, looking a little like Charles Manson, only a lightness to that darkness. Sometimes he would wear a ball cap. Sometimes he would tie his jacket around his waist. Once he carried a small bouquet of weeds and I wondered if they were for him or someone special.
It’s cold here now. Not cold like up North where drifts pile waist-high, but cold enough that the kids wanted to walk through the grass for the joy of crunching frost on the way to the car.
“Did you bring the jacket?” my son asked. I’d already forgotten twice. But yes, the down jacket I’d bought 10 years ago was balled up in the passenger seat.
We didn’t find him before drop off, and they wished me luck as they stumbled out of the car—warm, loved. I started for home, taking a different route in the hopes I might catch up with him.
And I did!
I was stopped at a traffic light when I looked to my right and there he was framed in the chrome of the window—a snapshot that telegraphed: cold, lonely. I smiled, thinking, There you are! You were everywhere, then nowhere, and I decided to look for you . . . and there you are!
I quickly rolled down the window, “Excuse me,” I shouted. I wanted to ask him his name, introduce myself, but I was in the turning lane and he was on the sidewalk. Cars were approaching. “This is for you,” I held up the jacket, hoping he’d be able to make out what it was. He shook his head at me. I held it up higher, so he could really see it, see that I wasn’t trying to hand him a bible, or a half-eaten sandwich, or lure him into my car. I held it up high so he could see that I had a coat that would warm him. He shook his head again, smiling this time. “You don’t want it?” I asked idiotically, my voice lilting upward. And he smiled—I don’t think I’d ever seen him smile before—and gave me a thumbs up.
He didn’t want it.
The other day, my 4-year old wanted to help me while I was cooking. She pulled up her step stool, grabbed the bottle of olive oil, and poured it into the measuring cup I’d set aside. Then she dumped the oil into the butter and sugar I had just creamed. “Why did you do that?” I asked, more than a little frustrated. “I wanted to help!” she told me, confused at the edge to my voice. So I reminded her, “You can help, but first you should ask me what I need.” She looked from the oil bottle to the bowl, struggling to understand. “I didn’t need oil for this recipe,” I continued. She just stared at me, so I asked her to help me add the milk, and she smiled.
The coat is still in my front seat, along with the seven dollars I had shoved in the pocket just before I rolled up to that stoplight. It was not what the man needed, no matter how cold I thought he looked. I’m glad we noticed him. I’m glad we sought him out. And I’m glad we found him. I just wish I had thought to ask him, “What do you need?” somehow I suspect he would’ve answered me with the same thumbs up and smile. Nothing, as hard as that might be for me to understand.