See You Around

I took a different way home.

Standing on a corner just east of the Mississippi River in a neighborhood with money, a bird lets out a sound. An unfamiliar beautiful sound. A foreign sound. Something from the jungle. I watch. In the oak tree across the street, I see something big compared to a lot of birds around here save the crows and predators of various sorts. As best as I can tell, it was a pileated woodpecker that I spied. It was only this summer when a descent of them caught my attention. That’s when I realized that woodpeckers can get rather big. They were foraging in a stand of dead trees just off the bike path farther down the river.

I keep watching. The bird looks oddly human as he backs down the tree in a clumsy fashion as if navigating a doorway with a large box in his beak. Then I hear the sound again and realize that it’s coming from elsewhere. Another woodpecker? Are there chicks in that nest? Isn’t that a squirrel’s nest? Nothing is clear. I keep watching, somewhat aware that I might be agitating anyone who might be peering out from behind the curtains of any one of those lovely houses.

Parked across the street I see a car that looks familiar. Is it the car that I sometimes see idling in front of my house for several minutes at a time? A white sedan missing its hubcaps. So familiar. I will have to ask Brian about this.

A man unloads something from a van. Someone is having some work done. A second man approaches him. He’s holding two black garbage bags. Each is less than half full. He wants to know the time. The first man with the van disappears into a house. It’s hard to say whether he just didn’t hear the question or was doing that thing where you pretend you don’t see someone because you sense drama and you just don’t want to deal with it. So the guy with the garbage bags turns to me.

“I don’t have a watch.” I tell him. I hold up my wrists.

“It must be about nine.” He says. “’cause I left at about eight-thirty.”

“Sometimes you can tell by looking at your shadow.” We look at our shadows and I make a guess. “It’s a little after nine.” This gives him plenty of time to get to his job. At eleven o’clock he’s going to clean out a friend’s basement.

His name is George. The first thing I notice about him is his eyes. They seem cloudy and a little googly, like a broken doll where they’re never quite looking forward, but always rolling upwards a little bit. I suspect he is homeless. I suspect he has a drinking problem.

He used to have a bike with a cart that he could use to haul scrap metal and cans to a place that buys the stuff on Snelling Avenue. But he loaned it to someone who never brought it back. So now he’s on foot.

“Why would someone steal your stuff?” He says. “Why would anyone do that?”

In my garage I have a bike that gets little use. The Huffy is a souvenir from when I taught English classes for a summer to mostly Japanese college students. One day right before they headed home, one of the students brought his bike to my office. He wanted to give it to me. The next thing I knew, I had a dozen bikes in my office. After redistributing them to friends, decades later I still have one. When the repair shop said that it wasn’t worth fixing, I paid to have it fixed anyway.

Thirty or forty years ago George’s wife was murdered in what sounded like a drug deal that went sideways.

“I told her to stay out of them crack houses, but she wouldn’t listen.”

The man who cut her throat is in jail.

George is still hurt by the way his wife’s family had her cremated without telling him. After all, he was her husband, right? Shouldn’t he have a say? He would have had her buried. I was curious about his objection to cremation, but it didn’t seem right to ask about it. Instead I ask an equally inappropriate question. Does he ever think about getting sober? Am I some kind of missionary? No. Don’t worry, George. I’m not going to whip out a Bible.

He would actually welcome it. He’s been known to go to a church on Franklin Avenue.

“The preacher there is real good. He’s White but he’s good. He preaches like a Black preacher.”

What’s the difference? I wanted more and got nothing.

“His father used to preach, but when he died the son took over.”

Pinning George down on the facts wasn’t easy. He would say things like “thirty or forty years ago” and “six or seven sisters.” He also referred to his cousin’s widow as his mother-in-law. She helps him pay the rent at the wet house where he stays. She’s a fine person. Really helpful. She has that “disease where you have to take those insulin shots.”

George wants to know if I am married. Coming from anyone else, I might have been annoyed by such a ham-handed question. Besides, there I was, asking a stranger about whether he thought his drinking impacts the quality of his life. He admits that it probably does, but retracts his confession when he says that he only drinks beer and not that much beer, really. Then he pats his front pocket, indicating a flask inside. I imagine it’s whiskey.

“I also have a little of this sometimes, but that’s it, really. Not too much at all.”

George aspires to get a place of his own because he’s tired of living with the men at the group home where they aren’t allowed to have any women. He has his own room, so that’s good. But the men are pigs, always leaving trash everywhere. They have a tent where they drink and George is always picking up after them.

“There’s a trashcan right there! Why can’t they use it? But they don’t. They just throw bottles everywhere and it’s my job to keep the place clean.”

In my garage there is scrap metal that we have been meaning to recycle. I want to give it to George, but the logistics of that are more than I want to contemplate.

George is a drummer. His brother taught him how to play. He can also play the guitar and used to have an amplifier until it was lost in… I’m not sure what the story was. Something about an eviction, I think. George used to play in a band in Memphis. But they had too many drummers and when the group did not heed his ultimatum, George quit. That’s when he moved to Minneapolis where he had family. Nine brothers and sisters minus two sisters who are dead, one from a heart attack. There are numerous cousins and nephews and nieces. He doesn’t see them too often, though he would like to see them more. He imagines that they probably worry about him, but doesn’t elaborate on why they would. Unlike some families, they do not fight because family is family. He mentions a brother who just got out of jail. Again, I’m curious but let it go. Like the guy with the van who fled into a house, there is some drama that I’d rather avoid for now.

George wants to be friends. I say sure. I tell him that if I see him around that I will say hello. He likes this, almost as if we had made plans for coffee next Tuesday.

George knows when people throw away their junk. Last month was a good month. He got some baskets, by which I think he means shopping carts. There were some bikes and a lawnmower. He told me this the way I imagined he might brag to the other scrappers. Indeed I am a scrapper, if you count garage sales. And it’s true that the painting of poppies that hangs on the wall behind my bed came directly out of the neighbor’s trash.

What do I do? I never have a good answer for this. George offers encouragement. As long as you have something going on, some useful endeavors, well that’s all that matters, right? George and I have this in common. We both have useful endeavors.

George wants a hug.

If he could cop a feel, I imagine that he would. But it’s hard to say if he is a straight up lech or just a person who longs for the human touch. A long time ago, I learned how to maintain a comfortable distance in these situations. So I shake his hand, lean in just enough and give him a rap on the back. We finally go our separate ways, George over the bridge from where I had just come and me up the hill. I am relieved that he doesn’t alter his plans to continue to walk in my direction, as I hadn’t yet formed a polite but foolproof reason to part otherwise.

In my garage there is a wagon, a sort of garden cart that I never use. It was a Christmas gift from Brian back when I could imagine using it for grocery shopping. It doesn’t really work for that. So it sits by the access door and collects odds and ends until I work up the nerve to sort through it all and put things in their proper place. When I think of Brian assembling this wagon late into the night on Christmas Eve, I feel loved.

See you around.

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