Thursday, April 1, 2010

My Pal Brad Pitt

So, I have this friend who's a homeless man. He sits every morning on the steps of a fancy bistro I've never gone to (because when I called them to ask their specials, a haughty voice said, "...and our liver of the day is..." and I decided to boycott). In a reedy voice, he asks passersby, politely, for fifty cents. Never more. Never less.

The bistro is a few steps away from the Ten Thousand Villages store I work at on Thursdays, and not far from the gelato store where I meet friends on Mondays. I see this gentleman regularly, but I didn't know his name - nor he mine - for a long time. We would have our exchange about money and then, as I locked my bike up, we would talk about his health, the weather and other such matters. And then, I was off.

In my mind, I started to think of him as Brad Pitt because, like Pitt, he often has beads braided into his beard.

Periodically, I have given him a cup of coffee. At Christmas, I gave him a copy of my book. In February, I gave him a small chocolate - "For Valentine's Day" I said. His face lit up with delight, but then, as I turned away to lock my bike up, I saw another look settle back into his face. Something resigned and harder. Something tired.

And I realized I was playing a bit of a game. No, I was not simply walking by.Yes, I was genuinely interested in this neighbour. No, I do not believe I was mocking him in calling him Brad Pitt. But, he was not my friend. Not really. I was reminded of the passage in the Bible where it says if we see someone in need and we wish them well without meeting those needs, our faith is dead.

I do not know how to meet this gentleman's needs. It's complicated. I don't think I need to stop offering coffee and the like. But I need to remember that he doesn't leave our exchange to go off into a nice day and a nice life. He sits on a cold stoop and sometimes he coughs a lot.

There was one thing though I thought I could do that might genuinely matter. I could ask him his name. The week after Valentine's Day, I told him my name and asked him his.

"Robert," he said, surprised. "I'm Robert."

Robert is my dad's name. It means "bright fame." When I hear his name, it changes things. Someone chose that name for him, had hopes for him that were probably higher than the shady step of a bistro. But Robert has managed to hold onto that name through everything. He didn't become Rob or Bob or Bobby or any other diminutive.

I make sure to call him Robert when I greet him now.

Today, though, I told Robert that I used to call him Brad Pitt in my mind, because they had similarly styled beards. He laughed, but afterwards, out of the corner of my eye, I saw the tired look return again.

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