Today, is Armistice Day, better known as Veteran’s Day; a day of honor, thanks, and remembrance of all of those who have served their country in times of War. Sadly, most people only think of veterans on this day, if ever at any other time when a reminder isn’t directly in front of them. (The history of this day can be found here on the Veteran Affairs official site.)
As much as I may be tempted to use this moment to recite the numerous disconcerting facts concerning veterans returning from combat and the mental health “treatment” they receive, how many dispossessed veterans make up the homeless population, or any other soapbox worthy spiel, that’s not what I want to post about today. Today, I want to tell you about a man I met over seven years ago. A couple of years ago, I wrote the story of how I met him, and why I will never forget him.
This is the story of..
A Man Named Art
When I was 19, I decided I wanted to move as far away from my home town as I possibly could. This led me to move to California, about 3,000 miles away from home, to live in San Diego.
My boyfriend at the time, we’ll call him J, worked at a fast food place a few minutes from the apartment we lived. I usually drove him to work. There is one big main street in the little city we lived in of Mira Mesa, with lots of stop lights. Down this road you will find homeless people on just about every corner.
There was one man I grew to recognize by sight. He had a big bushy brown beard, tanned and leathery face repeatedly baked in the Sun, a worn and patched camo jacket, and raggedy pants that looked like they’d fall to pieces. He also wore a baseball cap, and walked with an extreme limp.
Some of the homeless had signs, some did not, some of them looked like drug addicts, others would fall asleep while holding out their cups of change. But this one man, I remembered.
On this big main road, I had to make a left turn down another street in order to get to my apartment. It was an annoying street in this way because the lights to turn left took a long time, at least 10 minutes, by the time all of the other lights had a chance to change.
It was at this light that I would first speak to this one raggedy looking homeless man. I had my window rolled down partially, for the breeze. I didn’t realize it was still down by the time I had stopped at the light. I saw the man limping up the line of halted cars, he had no sign or cup, was just walking past the car windows. A car or two in front of me rolled down their windows just far enough to shove a $1 bill out of them. When he came to mine, it finally dawned on me that my window was down. I’m not a confrontational person and was not looking forward to telling this man that I would not give him any money. Most homeless people I’d encountered were drunks or druggies, usually just trying to find more money to slowly kill themselves with.
However, this was the beginning of something else. He stopped at my window, and looked at me. I looked back at him, trying to find my voice to say “no”, when he looked at me and said, “I hope you have a most blessed day,” and he gave me one of the most genuine smiles I’ve ever seen, and then he limped past me. He didn’t ask me for money, or a smoke, or shove a cup in my face and jingle it. He just wished me to have a good day. It touched me.
Sometime later, after a couple of more light stops and “hellos” back and forth between this man and me, one day, he didn’t travel down the line of cars as usual. This day, he turned to me, smiled, and started a conversation. He’d grown used to me, and I to him. A time or two I gave him an extra dollar I found in my pocket or left over change. But this day, he said “so, how’ve you been doing?” I replied “Not too bad, I suppose. How are you holding up?” To say that I had no idea how to talk this man so casually would be an understatement. I was afraid of offending him, or reminding him that I had a home I was going to, and he did not. He looked at me and said “Well, I have air in my lungs, so I take that as a good sign”, then he chuckled, gave me a smile, and then limped off down the street.
A month or two of these casual greetings led to a “hello” one day that ended in me learning his name, Art. I liked the name. I’ve always loved art, and have explored what I can do with art since I can remember. It was a good name.
One day, I was making chicken for dinner. The packets at the supermarket came with four, even though I was only cooking for two. Sure, I could have saved them and had left overs for the next day, but I had other plans. I told J he was to go find Art, and bring him here. J looked at me, surprised. I told him we had plenty of food, Art might as well have a nice meal for once.
It took about 20 minutes for J to track Art down, but he did. Over my threshold limped the bearded, camo jacket clad man I’d said hello to so often. The old book bag on his back was coming apart at the seams. He looked nervous, unsure of what to expect. I smiled at him and asked him to sit down at the table. Then I asked him if he liked chicken and macaroni. He nodded, and then looked at the table. I brought him over a plate with the two extra pieces of chicken and a big helping of macaroni. He looked at the plate, then at me, and said “Is this all for me?” I told him yes, and that he should dig in before it got cold.
It was over this meal that I learned much more about Art. He was a veteran, had served in Vietnam. On one of the bases he had been stationed at, he had been hit by a Humvee, which had almost completely shattered his hip bone. The medical facility he was taken to had decided to just put a pin in it, which was very painful to walk with, and of course, was the cause of his limp. Between the pain in his hip and the pain in his mind, he drank, heavily. He’d had a couple of children, to be honest I don’t remember how many. His wife had died. He knew he had a grandson, but he had never met him. He told me that he was not a good man when he had been drinking. He didn’t know what else to do with himself. He’d tried to get jobs doing construction, since that was a trade he knew, but with this hip, he was a liability, and no one would hire him. I also learned that he hadn’t touched a drink in nearly 2 years. He hoped to prove to his son (the father of his grandson) that he was worthy of another chance. He told me when he’d been sober for 5 years, he would track his son down and go see him. That was his plan. To live and be sober for 5 years, and hopefully he would get his family back.
I wanted to cry. It was one of the saddest stories I’d ever heard. This wasn’t a movie or a book, this was real. This man had served his country, and when he came back broken, they told him to deal with it all himself. It’s a sickening thought. No one who has protected and served their country should be treated like this.
Art ate everything but the second piece of chicken. He wanted to know if he could save it and take it to a friend of his, another homeless man. They sometimes pooled their money together after a week or two, and rented a cheap hotel room, so they could get a shower and a bed for at least one night. I packed up the piece of chicken and gave him the rest of the macaroni with it.
We took him back up to the main street. As he got out of my van, I handed him some blankets I wasn’t using, an old sweatshirt, and J even gave Art a pair of jeans that didn’t fit anymore. I also gave him a little money, not that I had much myself, but I felt that he needed it, and would use it for something other than alcohol or drugs.
Whenever I saw Art on the street, I waved and smiled. If I had the chance, I’d stop and talk to him, check up on him.
One day, I didn’t see Art in his usual spot. There was another homeless man. He’d taken the prime spot because Art wasn’t there.
More days passed without seeing Art anywhere. I was worried. J found the man Art sometimes pooled money with, and asked him about Art. We were told that he was in the hospital.
I found the hospital that Art was at and decided I would go visit him. Before going, I got a book of crosswords, word searches, a pack of pens, and a “get well” card. If anyone knows how unfun hospitals are, it’s me, so I thought something to do to keep his mind off everything might cheer him up.
When we walked into the room, Art teared up. He couldn’t believe we’d come to see him in the hospital. I handed him the little bag of things to do, and his get well card. He gave me a big smile, and a most sincere “thank you”. He told us he found out he had colon cancer. They weren’t sure what they were going to do yet, since everything had to go through the VA. We stayed for an hour or so before leaving. Art took my hand, and thanked me one more time.
A week or so later, I called the hospital to talk to Art. They informed me, he had died. I was so angry, so sad, and so heartbroken that he didn’t get a chance to finish those 5 years and that he never got the chance to try again with this family. My only comfort was that, at the end, he knew at least one person would remember him, had cared about him.
It’s been almost 5 years now since I met him, and I still remember and think about him. It still makes me angry to see how a country can ask men and women to fight for it and die for it, but if they are unlucky enough not to die and instead come back injured, that the country they fought for would do the least it could to help them.
But, for ever and always, I will remember a man named Art.