I thought I would forever regret not having asked his name, until I rolled into the same McDonalds a week later. There he was, just like before, food spread across the table and belongings spilling from an overflowing backpack. He wore the same over-sized Carpenter’s jeans, faded brown T-shirt, and velveteen hoodie with the nap worn down to nothing. When he glanced up I was again I was struck by the twinkling eyes, ruddy cheeks, and grizzled beard that put me in mind of Santa Claus.
“Hello again,” I said. His momentary blank expression turned to a wide smile.
“Well hello, darlin’! You’re back. Didn’t recognize you at first.”
“I don’t think I introduced myself last time. My name is Barbara,”
“Rudy,” he replied, enfolding my soft, manicured hand in his rough calloused paw.
He extricated himself from his pile of belongings and joined me.
We had chatted briefly the previous week about being on the street but now I asked the question that haunts me, where the homeless are concerned. Why?
“Because I travel.” He looked down at the table for a moment, lost in thought. “Folks don’t realize that homeless are same as anyone else. Most of us have had jobs, apartments, been married and had kids – at one time. But I really don’t want to give my money to some landlord. So I sleep in cuts and under bridges. It’s cold sometimes, but I’m from Colorado so it’s not too bad. I wake up shivering, but as soon as sun comes up I’m OK. I’m tough.”
“Do you worry about being mugged?” I asked, recalling recent incidents where homeless were beaten and murdered in the Tampa area.
“Oh yeah. You gotta be willing to use this and this,” he said, making fists and throwing imaginary punches in the air.
“But how do you earn money? Do you take day jobs?”
He looked at me hard for a few seconds, then seemed to make up his mind. “Well, darlin’, I’m gonna tell you because I like you. I panhandle for a livin’.” He pulled out his wallet, scrabbled around an inside flap and pulled out a wad of bills. “I started out this morning’ with three dollars and look what I’ve got. I’m good at it! It’s all I need. I like to sleep, like to eat, like to watch a little TV – and I won’t kid you, I like a beer or two. How about you?”
“No alcohol for me any more,” I said.
“How long you been sober?”
“Nearly 14 years.”
He grew quiet for a few moments, then shook his head and replied: “I’m not ready to stop.”
“You gotta be ready, nobody can make you stop.”
His traveling buddy appeared then; he was a bit taller and thinner, perhaps a bit younger, but he wore the same gnarled look. Rudy gathered up his belongings and hefted the swollen backpack over his shoulder with practiced ease.
“You want a little nip before we head out?” Rudy asked his buddy.
“Nah, we got a long way to go.”
“You be good darlin’, we gotta get on the road,” he flung back at me as they walked out the plate glass door. I smiled and waved, watched them for a moment, then bent to my Filet ‘o Fish and fries. When I looked up they had vanished – back to being nameless, faceless, invisible.
Though I am traveling on this Thanksgiving day, I am filled with gratitude. Loving family and friends enfold me like a warm blanket, in good times and in bad. I am clean and sober. I love being a writer and photographer. And when I travel, I sleep in a bed.
Many thanks to the Heading There travel blog for featuring this post in their recent Thanksgiving carnival. Check out this week’s Heading There blog to read some other inspirational posts from some of the world’s best travel writers.