A friend of mine worried that some day, years after we had drifted apart, she'd find me crumpled against a building somewhere, lost to life.
It wasn't that she questioned my sanity, my work ethic, or my sobriety (although presumably all three were up for debate in my twenties). Rather, her concern stemmed from what she perceived as my twisted fascination with street people.
For me, speaking with and engaging people who found themselves at "that end" of society was just what you did. People are people, aren't they? If we refused to engage rubbies, as homeless street people were sometimes called, what did that say about our own lack of time or compassion?
Ron was the first rubby I got to know and the only one, I'm sad to say, whose name I remember. I doubted the stories my boss at the delicatessan told me about how Ron was some kind of a hot shot scientist who'd lost his way in the bottle. Who'd believe that about a man whose eyes weren't so much red as they were dark creamy slits? Whose voice was a steady rumble two octaves lower than most men could achieve. Whose grey woolen coat reeked of the alleys in which he slept.
And yet the stories were true.
I inteviewed Ron as part of a high-school project and, later, saw his picture, and his story, in the pages of our local paper. I think he was a nuclear physicist. If not, it was something equally impressive. And he loved the bottle. More than life, in the end.
He'd get clean every so often. Not so clean as to be straight. Just enough to have a conversation that consisted of more than him counting out forty-seven cents and negotiating his way into free cream cheese on his day-old bagel or maybe a half-price coffee.
The bench outside the deli was his home most evenings. He'd hold forth, sweeping his arm wide at the decent people hurrying to dinner and kids in homes like the one he'd once enjoyed. Some who knew him would toss him a few coins. More ignored him. His good humour rarely wavered, his anger reserved for those times when he fought over a bottle with one or another of his pals from the street.
We fed him coffee and bagels and donuts that were destined for the trash bin at the end of the night.
And he fed us nickels and dimes and a smoke-stained thank you in that voice from hell that echoes in my head thirty years since I last shook Ron's hand.