After the show, “William” asked me for a ride to Midtown. Talking to a bushy-haired, scraggly bearded man in a busy coffee shop is one thing; getting in a car with him is something else entirely. I would have refused if my husband had not been there, and if I hadn’t had friends who knew William better than me and assured me that he was safe.
He had just finished playing guitar and singing “The Handicapped-Accessible Restroom Blues” at the coffee shop’s open mic, as he does just about every month. After that, he sang “The Vagabond,” about people stepping over a homeless man, no one noticing him on the sidewalk as they hurry on to their important destinations. I wondered how many times he had passed by the man before he wrote the song. He packed up his things in his duffel bag and pulled it toward the car.
“This will be good,” I said. “That way you won’t have to haul all that stuff down the street.”
“Well, no more tonight, anyway.”
What did he mean?
“I have to haul it around wherever I go,” he said. “I lost my home last year, after my wife died. I’m trying to save up enough to get an apartment at the Salvation Army.” His wife died last year from complications of diabetes. They had been together for twenty-six years, except for a period when her friends convinced her to leave him. But she came back, and they had been together ever since.
When she had to be admitted to a nursing home, the staff tried to separate them. He refused, insisting that he was responsible for her care, and he would not let them take her away. “She was my rock,” he told me. “She meant everything to me. When I read poetry at these open mics, those are the poems that she wrote, and I wrote these songs for her. This is how I remember her.”
He told me that he still had problems, although he had been clean and sober for seven years, as was his wife, right up until the day she died. He described himself as having “schizo-affective disorder,” although I was unsure if he had been diagnosed as such by a psychologist, or if he had self-diagnosed.
“But I’m going to be all right,” he said, thanking us for the ride. “I’m taking classes, working on my degree. I want to be a psychologist so I can help other people with their problems.” He hasn’t been able to find a job, but between playing his guitar, selling CDs, and applying for financial aid for school, he said, “I’m going to make it. And when I graduate, I’m going to be a doctor!”
I thought about his song, about people stepping over the vagabond without noticing him. I had seen him at the coffee shop four or five times, and this was the first time I had spoken to him, had taken the time to get to know him, the first time that I understood he was the vagabond and I had been the passerby. Not any more, William. I am not the passerby any more.
Good luck with your classes, William; and I promise that I will clap louder than everybody else when they announce your name for your diploma.