Saturday, August 17, 2013

Homeless Vet At The Bus Station

I don't remember his name. I'm not certain he ever told me what it was. Years later when I really started to think about him and and a hundred thousand other men just like him, I felt shame. I thought if I could just remember what he called himself, or if I knew for sure I'd cared enough back then to ask, the whole encounter wouldn't live in my head as a metaphor for the false empathy and all too real apathy that defines so many of us.

On an August afternoon in 2000 I bought Mr. Nobody a cheeseburger at the Buffalo bus station.

I was there because I'd just left my in-processing screening for the Air Force a few streets over. I had spent the day  moving from one station to another, hearing tests, drug tests, tests where they groped your balls and tests where some un-funny asshole joked about the guy who just groped your balls.

"Lift this weight. Strip down to your underwear. Put your hands together and touch the floor, I need to check your spine. How many times did you say you smoked marijuana? Sign this. Go wait in that room over there, we'll call your name when it's your turn. Let's talk about what kind of job the Air Force needs you to do."

At the end of the day, those of us who were entering into delayed enlistment took the oath.

"Raise your right hand and repeat after me. I (state your name), do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God."

"Here's your bus ticket, see you in a couple months."

It was thirteen months before a handful of hyper-religious shitheads attacked America. Kids my age were joining so they could go to college, or because they couldn't get into one. They were too poor or too dumb. I was there because I'd had enough of college. When I was there, I never went to class. I drank cheap beer every day and I spent most of my productive time sampling from a suitcase filled with my roommate's seemingly endless supply of hard drugs. So I dropped out and went to work. That wasn't doing it for me either, so strolled into the Air Force recruiter's office and signed myself up.

I joined the Air Force because I was a bored middle-class kid.

That's how I found myself standing outside the Buffalo bus station on an August afternoon listening un-ironically to Rage Against the Machine on my Sony Discman, smoking cigarettes and trying to kill the hour before I could get on a bus and go home.

"You got another one of those?" It was Mr. Nobody.

I looked over and saw an older black man in a wheelchair. Red knit hat, stringy gray beard, faded and thick green jacket, frayed gray and red blanket over his lap hiding legs that ended at the knees. Another man stood behind him with his hands on the wheelchair's handles. The second man wasn't in much better shape, but at least he was standing. Everything is relative, I suppose.

"Yeah," I said, pulling out my pack of Newports, "here."

"You got one for my friend too?"

"Sure, whatever."

I handed a second cigarette to the man behind the chair and leaned against the wall.

"Where you goin', man?"

"Home," I replied. "I just joined the Air Force."

"Ha!" He let out a barking laugh and let it dwindle down to a chuckle. "Motherfuckin' Air Force. You gonna fly them fighter planes?" He stuck his hands out like he was driving a car and made an engine noise with gunfire punctuation. "VRRRrrrRRRrrrrRRRRR...... chchchchchch.... vRRRrrrRRRrrrrRRRRR fuckin' Air Force. Yeah!" He laughed again.

I smiled with him. "Nah, no flying for me. I don't know what my job's gonna be."

"Probably a good thing, man. Fuckin' fighter planes get shot down, crash. I was in the Army, man. Yeah."

"What did you do in the Army?"

"It was Vietnam. I did what every motherfucker in the Army did, man."

I grunted in response and looked down at the empty place where his shins and feet should have been. It was a reflex. I looked away immediately.

I finished my cigarette and turned toward the bus station door, I wanted to get away. Then I heard his voice again.

"Hey, Air Force, you got a dollar maybe?"

"Yeah, maybe," I said. "Depends on what you need it for, I guess."

"Gotta eat, man."

"How about I buy you a cheeseburger instead?" Self-righteous, nineteen year-old me didn't want to give the man money for booze or drugs. Self-righteous, hypocritical, nineteen year-old me.

I walked into the bus station and ordered a couple cheeseburgers, fries and drinks from the short order lunch counter. I felt like I was saving the world. VRRRrrrRRRrrrrRRRRR...... chchchchchch.... vRRRrrrRRRrrrrRRRRR. Modern Christ and Air Force enlistee saving boozehound bums one shitty lunch at a time. Yeah!

I took the bag of food back outside and handed it to Mr. Nobody. He took a burger and a cardboard container of soggy fries and gave the rest to his friend.

"So," I asked, "you live around here?"

"Ha!" That barking laugh again. "Yeah, man, I live around here." He forked a thumb over his shoulder. "I live around there too." He made a circling motion with the hand holding the burger. "I live all around, man. Ha!"

"Well," I replied, "at least it's warm right now." That, to this day and despite heavy competition, remains the stupidest fucking thing that has ever come out of my mouth.

We sat there on the corner of N. Division and Ellicott and made small talk while he and his friend ate. At one point I heard a noise like a dwindling faucet and looked down to see that he'd pissed himself right there in his wheelchair. The urine was dripping steadily from his blanket and puddling on the sidewalk. I pretended not to notice.

Eventually I made my excuses and left to finish waiting for my bus inside the station. The bus came. I got on and rode the thing back home. Just a bored middle-class kid.

I wish I had remembered his name, or even asked for it. There are thousands of Mr. Nobody's in hundreds of cities and towns all over America.

Homeless veterans.

Mr. Nobody was a nineteen year-old kid once, he was a soldier. Somewhere along the way he lost his legs and sometime after that he acquired a blanket to piss into after eating a free cheeseburger and sucking down a soda from a bus station lunch counter.

Kids take the oath every day. They fight the wars of the rich and powerful and we forget about them when they come home. We think of the casualties of war as flag-draped coffins and weeping widows. We put yellow ribbon bumper stickers on our cars because  WE SUPPORT THE TROOPS byChristbyJovebyAmerica.

That is, until the troops actually need our support. Then the flagsucking, warhawk bastards walk away.

VRRRrrrRRRrrrrRRRRR...... chchchchchch.... vRRRrrrRRRrrrrRRRRR... Fuckin' America. Yeah!

Hey, Senator, you got a dollar, maybe?

No comments: