The first time I saw him he was sitting on the sidewalk, his face hidden in his hands. The sign leaning against his knees said “I feel invisible just for asking.” I never give money though, so I kept walking, but his message stuck with me. After that I started noticing him around and I began to wonder. Who was he? What happened to leave him on the street? He carries this massive backpack around all the time—was he traveling? I think it’s odd that we can live in the same city, walk the same streets, yet live in worlds that are so far apart. All the details that make my life recognizable—his life has none of these details. So I resolve to talk to him. To follow my curiosity. But as soon as I decide to talk to him of course I can’t find him anymore. I see him once but when I follow him around a corner he disappears. Weeks go by where I walk up and down streets on lunch and after work to no avail. Then, finally, he finds me. Well, sort of.
I come around the corner, coffee in hand, late to work, and there he is. He’s sitting on the steps of my office building. After all this searching I run into him by chance. I walk up to the steps and he gets up, moving out of my way. I say hello. He looks at me. I say that I was going to offer to buy him a cup of coffee but that he already has one. I gesture at what I assume is a cup of iced coffee in his hand. He tells me he could go for another so I take him to the nearest coffee shop. I can feel people staring at us. He orders an iced mocha and we go outside, sit in the late Autumn sunshine, and talk. I try not to bombard him with my curiosity and he tells me that he’s a traveling musician. He plays guitar on the street for tips, at least he did until his guitar was stolen. He’s trying to get to Portland, because he has a friend there with a spare guitar he can have. He just needs money for a bus ticket.
I have ten thousand questions and no time. I tell him I have to go to work but ask if I can buy him dinner sometime and ask him about his life. To my giddy excitement and relief (I’ve been looking for him for so long) he seems eager to talk to me . He’s a writer, or wants to be. Like me. We agree to talk sometime soon. He gives me a contact number and we part ways for the day. I text him the next week. We set a time and a day for Thai food: Thursday, 6:00pm.
I meet him up the street from the restaurant. He leaves his pack and bags in my car. It’s a little moment of trust between us, two people who don’t know each other at all. The restaurant is this little hole in the wall. It’s mostly a lunch spot; I didn’t even know they were open for dinner. There’s only one other customer the whole time we’re there and he leaves just after we arrive. We sit in plastic chairs and order. He says it’s been years since he had Thai. I try to let him eat before I start interviewing him. I make small talk and eat. The food is surprisingly spicy and I worry that he doesn’t like it. I do manage to let him finish though, and then I start asking questions.
He grew up in Louisiana. He says it was a good place to grow up. He was close with his brother, his family, and part of the community. It was in college that things started to unravel. Like many college students he lost connection with his family. I was the same way. Absorbed in college life he stopped talking to them, something he thinks had an especially deep impact on his brother. He switched majors a few times, not sure what he wanted to do, going from journalism to education to creative writing.
But then he started getting into drugs. First weed, then heroin. He gets into trouble. His family finds out. Then they find out that his brother is getting into drugs too. He tried to reconnect with his brother around this time, trying to repair the relationship. He wanted to be an older brother to him again, to be there for him. But he says that his brother wouldn’t talk to him, avoided him, and completely shut him out. For a while they were both in and out of their parents house, sometimes living at home, sometimes getting apartments. He said at some point he ended up in jail for possession. Possession of drugs in Louisiana is not like it is here. In Washington if you get arrested for having drugs you’ll likely be out of jail in a few days with a summons for your court date (unless they have some reason to hold you). In Louisiana he sat in jail for months waiting for a hearing. It was during this time that he called his family on Christmas Eve. He talked to his parents then, before he hung up, they said his brother wanted to speak to him. They hadn’t spoken in months. All he said was “I love you.” January 4th he was called in to the Chaplain’s office. His brother had hung himself earlier that day.
The waitress has brought us carry out boxes. As he talks about his brother he picks his up and starts picking at the lid. I can’t convey the violence of this gesture, the tension in the air. The stress comes off of him in waves and sitting across the table from him I can feel my heart thumping in my chest. I’m sure I feel a pale shadow of the grief he does. He says after that he needed to leave. He needed to get away from a place where everything reminded him of the addiction he had left behind. Where his parents blamed him for his brother getting into drugs. And more than that he felt that, if his brother were still alive, he would want him to follow his passion. So he left—to travel and to write. He filled up stacks of cheap composition books and mailed them to his parents, filled with stories of his travels, of the people he met. He’s been through Boston, New York, Charleston, Portland, Seattle, and a couple cities in California. He’s been traveling three years now. He plays guitar on the street to support himself, or he did until his guitar was stolen along with all of his possessions. He’s had everything he owns stolen three times since he came to Seattle. Now he’s stuck panhandling, trying to earn enough for a guitar. That’s where he was when I first saw him.
I tell him that it was his sign that caught my attention, that it’s why we’re sitting here talking now. I ask if he minds if I ask about it, why he wrote it, because I always wonder about the signs people have. He says it was just after his guitar had been stolen. He hadn’t panhandled in a long time and hated going back to it. He spent two days trying with two signs, one that said “Homeless, broke, and hungry” and another that said “traveling, broke, and hungry.” The first day he only had two dollars after an entire day. At the end of the second he didn’t have a single penny. People walked past but no one gave a single cent. So instead, he wrote down what he he felt. He felt invisible just for asking. Suddenly people started to notice him. They started to see him.
I see him now too.