“I’ve been missing you guys. I need you as a sounding board when stuff comes up.” He sipped his mocha and smiled. We’ve been meeting Robert* for coffee a couple times a month for over two years.
He comes, not for the free coffee, although I know he appreciates it. We invite, not because we feel good about ourselves helping him out, but because we really care about him. Robert has become a friend over the past few years.
Meeting him under the Bridge was a chance thing. We met lots of homeless and less fortunate people when we were serving down there, but there was just something about Robert.
“So you know where I’m camping, right? I moved down the river a little ways. There’s a new girl who moved into Camille’s camp spot there. She’s been hitting the stuff pretty hard. She’s got this big swollen thing on her face and I think it’s infected. I keep telling her she needs to go the hospital, but she won’t do it. Do you think you can help her?”
He looked me square in the eyes, and I knew that even though I didn’t want to, that even though the thought of going into a homeless encampment to help out a meth junkie completely freaked me out, that I’d do it. My husband quickly told him that, of course, we would come down in the morning.
Of course we would.
Robert’s intelligence shines through his eyes and comes out as quick wit. He keeps up with the news. Since he shaved his beard in the spring, he is usually clean shaven, or as close to it as he can manage. Cigarette smoke and body odor, on the other hand, permeate his clothing and ours as we drive him back to his “home” along the river.
Robert is a caring person, “a worrier”, as his friend told me the next day while I cleaned her wound and bandaged it. “I know he’s worried about me and he worries about everybody, even though he’d never admit it.” She’s right, of course. This is part of why we like him so much. He looks after the people who camp near him.
Robert had excitedly shown us around his “new digs” as we made our way up the trail from the main road to where he camps. At one spot, he pointed out sunflowers and zucchini he’d planted. He keeps gallon jugs of river water stashed in the bushes nearby to water them with. Further on he has peas and tomatoes.
He pointed out another man’s camp, another guy we know and are fond of. “He was up for 3 days straight, and his girlfriend has been trying to get him to eat. He’s probably going to be passed out for the next couple days. He was getting pretty crazy. Tweakers!” He shook his head and sighed and led us toward Kim’s camp.
“I don’t understand why people do that to themselves. Women especially! You women, you’re so STRONG, you can handle anything, but y’all get sucked into the worst crap and let it control you. I just don’t get it.”
After seeing Robert’s utilitarian camp setup, Kim’s was downright girlie. She was nervous about having someone she didn’t know come into her camp. She had a throw rug, chairs, and her little bed was set up like a comfy couch with colorful blankets and throw pillows. Shock was the only descriptor I can come up with for my reaction. I honestly don’t know how someone would want to live in a tent in the woods with no power, water, or a way to keep food cool or even cook without risking being seen by the authorities.
And she is a meth addict. She was straight with me about that, at least. “When you do meth as much as I have been lately, I know I’m going to get sores. This one’s really big though. I didn’t pick at it, I swear.” I’m doubtful that is the case but I don’t say anything. I’d never met her before, and my husband and Robert had gone back towards his camp, leaving us alone.
She has had a hard road the past few years; that much is apparent in lines on her face and the dirt under her fingernails. She is younger than me by about ten years. Her face is badly broken out, and the sore needing attention was about the size of a ping-pong ball.
She chatted to me about random things and then suddenly shifted into a weird spiel about microcells that cause infection if you press on them and some other odd delusional things which made no sense to me but I was already on the train with her, so I rode it. Sometimes you just have to do that.
Working with people with traumatic brain injuries or dementia is the same. You get on the train with them–whatever their train of thought happens to be–and you just go along with it. Kim came back around to making sense and we talked about more serious matters as I cleaned her wound and dressed it with some antibiotic ointment and a 2×2 pad with tape. “Make sure you keep it clean, and change the dressing every morning,” I told her as I left.
“Wait!” she said, “I want to give you something.” She opened a shoebox and pulled out a smooth, purple-hued rock. “I don’t have money but I want to thank you for coming to help me out. People just don’t do that. You’re good people. Robert told me that you guys are always helping him.” I had her write her name on the rock for me with a Sharpie marker and told her I’d keep her in my thoughts and prayers.
“People just don’t do that.” Why the hell not?
“The feeling we have here — remember it, take it home and do some good with it. I’ll leave you with this, please, be kind.” ~Mickey Hart.
*Name changed for privacy