Every day I saw him push his grocery cart down University Avenue, the busiest street in San Diego, in Hillcrest.
He bore an iconic homeless look, with holes in the toes of his shoes, dress pants saturated in urine and other fluids. Under his beige sports jacket he wore a navy polo sweater, and a broad chest to match his superior height.
His jacket and sweater were too small, and his belly hung below them. One could see his dirt-ridden socks, because his high waters, his pants, were also too small for his hefty body, and the seams settled above his ankles.
Considering it was San Diego, with perfect moderate climate, there were always a lot of, “street urchin” flanking Balboa Parks benches, and on some days one could see a hobo pushing his Safeway cart across the World Famous San Diego Zoo parking lot to set up their cardboard homes under the numerous Eucalyptus.
But my bum called the underpass in Hillcrest home, where he carried numerous plastic bags filled with his belongings and slept under the hum of cars, buses and trucks traveling to Mexico, Coronado, or wherever else they were headed.
My homeless fixture could often be seen sitting asleep on a bench, with his hands clasping his bags, and judging by his consistently burnt nose, he’d spent many days baking in the sun. And what made him so unique to me was how he looked like Ernest Hemingway.
Tall, big build, white hair, Old Man of the Sea meets the streets of sunny San Diego.
I was guilty of giving him money, even though he never begged, he only walked slowly up and down University, stopping for naps on the bus benches, before heading back to his underpass. I’m sure he bought booze with the coins I gave him.
I was also guilty of buying him a burrito from time to time, too.
It just as easily could have been me on those benches, pushing those carts, carrying all my possessions, sleeping under the sound of horns. I could just as easily have lived in the corridors of the dilapidated buildings on the old navy base, where I took my dogs for walks and saw how cardboard homes had taken over the condemned housing units once occupied by boot campers.
The homeless fight different wars and they’re definitely warriors—they just don’t receive badges for the kind of battles they fight.
Every year, I made a huge Christmas basket for the homeless: only one. I’d fill a basket with things I knew would be priceless for anyone living on the streets. I’d put in a toothbrush, toothpaste, a comb, Kleenex, soap, a towel, a blanket, a sweater, gloves, a scarf, a Snicker’s bar, bottle of water, a piece of fruit, a five dollar bill, a lighter and three airline size bottles of booze, one tequila, one vodka and one whiskey.
Some would say I was enabling their addictions, but I saw it as a supreme Christmas gift for anyone homeless.
That particular year, instead of handing it to the first homeless person I saw, I walked around looking for my Ernest Hemingway and why I had put in there a sweater I thought would be big enough for him. I went to his usual bus stop bench, to the grocery store where he usually paced in front of, and I drove up and down University in search of him. I wanted to make his day.
Just when I was about to give up and offer it to a strange homeless man, he walked around the corner, in his usual slow trodden way.
I parked in the first spot I could land, then grabbed my basket and headed to give it to him. I stood in front of him, extended my arm and said, “Merry Christmas.” He looked at me with a quizzical glance, and said, “For me?” I nodded, yes. He then took the basket from me, walked away without saying a word to a bench nearby and began to rummage through his loot. I walked over to him and asked, “Ever heard of Ernest Hemingway? I think you look like him.” He didn’t respond just kept looking at his new stuff, putting some things into his plastic grocery bags, and keeping other things in the basket.
He looked up at me with icy eyes and said with a soft almost inaudible voice, “Thank you. Merry Christmas,” then walked away without looking back.
I’m not sure where my Ernest ended up. I can only speculate. After the holidays, he seemed to disappear altogether. I saw him less, and wondered about him more. I took comfort in seeing him. Somehow, seeing him let me know he was all right, not seeing him made me wonder about his wellbeing.
Had he worn his sweater, did the blanket make it to the underpass, did he give some of the things away to friends on the street? I didn’t know his name, how to ask the police if he was okay, especially since so many homeless occupy San Diego.
But months later, I saw him outside a coffee shop in a rich part of San Diego, in the same shoes, jacket, and sweater, with grocery bags in tow, sipping on something hot. He didn’t recognize me, but I did feel comfort in knowing he was still around and just had made his way to a more affluent neighboring town.
I suppose the homeless move on just like we all do—or maybe they’re pushed out by authorities, or by other homeless, I don’t know. And even though I don’t live in California anymore, as I prepare to move downtown in a few weeks, where there will be homeless, I find myself thinking about “Ernest.”
By now I’m sure he’s transitioned onto another life, he was old back then.
I ponder the idea of making a Christmas basket again. And as I do I also remember the practice of non-attachment, how we truly can’t hold onto anything, that everything is changing, moving, evolving,and how a homeless man, one that looked much like Ernest Hemingway, taught a yogini how to let go.
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Ed: Bryonie Wise