I’ve been seeing him for months now.
But the first time he really registered was this summer.
He stands outside Canyon Market, a white Styrofoam cup in his hand. Sometimes it’s a Starbuck’s cup. The kind that is compostable.
He’s tall, angular. He wears horn rimmed glasses and sandals over white sweat socks.
His chin whiskers are grey, but the rest of his face is shaved, which tells me he has access to a razor.
Mark Twain supposedly said, “The coldest winter I ever spent is a summer in San Francisco.”
Glen Park was chilly this June.
On one of the days I passed the man on Diamond Street, he’d cocooned himself in a puffy coat, which kept him warm. The coat was black, and it straddled his waist and inched across a pair of blue jeans.
As a neighbor strode by he held out his cup. A few coins jingled as he shook it.
The passerby put some spare change into the cup. It struck a chord with the lonesome coins.
“Thank you, my friend,” he told the woman.
I continued walking, but as I did I heard him say.
“I could sure use a warm hat.”
He wore a white baseball cap with a red bill.
A breeze buffeted it, and he pulled the rim over his forehead.
I walked to Bird & Beckett and laid down $1.09 for a copy of the Anderson Valley Advertiser. Jenna Littlejohn, a clerk, stood behind the counter.
“I passed the man in front of the Canyon Market,” I told Jenna. “The guy could sure use a warm hat.”
“Wait a minute,” she said. “Someone left this.”
She rummaged through a shelf and came up with a watch cap, the sort merchant seamen wear to keep the Pacific winds at bay.
I took the beanie, which is what we called it when I was a kid in the Sunset District.
I walked down Chenery, but I’d spent too much time in the bookstore and he was gone.
Days went by. I kept the beanie in my backpack, thinking he’d reappear and I could hand it over.
But he didn’t.
Then he showed, standing in front of a bike rack, his orange bicycle chained to it.
I walked over to him.
“A few days ago I heard you say you needed a warmer hat,” I said, fishing the beanie from my day pack.
He took it and at first said nothing.
“Thank you, man” he finally said.
“It’s from the bookstore around the corner,” I said. “I overheard you say you needed a cap. There’s a nice young woman there, and she remembered a customer had left it and never came back for it.”
He removed his baseball cap and tried on the beanie.
I’ve never known a beanie not to fit.
His front teeth were pretty much gone.
“You mind if I ask where you’re from?”
“Richmond,” I said. “I played high school baseball against Cornell Green and his brother back in the late Fifties.”
“I knew Cornell,” he said, about Green, who went on to play defensive half back for the Dallas Cowboys only a few years later. “We called him Corn and he was a great basketball player.”
“The brothers were a battery, pitcher and catcher, at DeAnza High School,” I said. “I struck out against them four times.”
“Nah,” he said. “Corn didn’t play for DeAnza, he played at El Cerrito.”
I wasn’t about to disagree.
“Do you sleep in a shelter?
“Never,” he replied. “It isn’t safe. I don’t like people walking around me when I sleep.”
“So where do you sleep?”
“Restaurant doorways,” he replied. “I can get food there, too.”
I took a longer look.
“When were you born?
A year before me, which tugged more than a little.
He looked ten years older.
“What did you do before this?”
“I was a youth counselor and a welder.”
“Can I ask your name?
He told me, but I’m not going to reveal it.
He wanted his privacy, which I suppose I’m abrogating by penning our encounter.
I have photos, as well, but I think I’ll hold them back, too.
My editor may object, but so be it. (she didn’t)
We parted then, after I told him I wished him well.
Several months went by and he went missing again, which happens with men and women in his straits.
I missed seeing him and kept wondering if he were safe.
Yesterday afternoon, on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, I saw him again.
He was stationed in his usual spot, but before I could get to him he walked across the street to Buddies Market.
He shuffled more than walked, like he was in pain.
It was warmer on the Buddies side of Chenery.
He sat on the ledge outside the corner market, sunning himself.
He still wore the beanie Jenna from Bird & Beckett had given him.
I went up to the bookstore, listened to some Sunday music, then bought my copy of the Anderson Valley Advertiser.
I made my way back to Diamond Street in time to watch him totter back across the street, wearing the same sandals he had in June but now without socks.
His cup of choice was again Styrofoam.
I rifled through my wallet and pulled out three remaining dollar bills, thinking this was far too little, especially on the day before the Jewish New Year.
“How you doing,” I asked. “Looks like your feet hurt.”
“Calluses,” he said.
I stuffed the money into his cup where it could keep company with the few quarters and dimes already there.
“You still have your bike,” I asked.
“Nah. It got stolen.”
I decided to forgo evening services at my synagogue, which would bring in the High Holy Days. I wanted to write this instead.
There’s a Jewish mitzvot, probably the most important of the 613.
Tzedakah, it’s called, our obligation to establish justice through compassion, caring and helping others.
Our sages teach such charity is equal to all the other commandments combined.
I’ll sit in temple later this morning and hear about Tzedakah, as my people have for millennium.
I’ll sit in a pew, as I do each year, and listen to the rabbi say,
On Rosh Hashanah it is written,
on Yom Kippur it is sealed:
How many shall pass on, how many shall come to be;
who shall live and who shall die;
who shall see ripe age and who shall not.
I’ll sit in shul, knowing that the man holding his disposable cup in front of Canyon Market is past ripe age. I’ll sit in my place of worship and think about Tikkun olam, a Jewish tenet that has us repair the world with acts of kindness.
The man outside Canyon, three quarters of a century along, is long past ripe old age.
Whether he is past a charitable helping hand.
Well, that is up to us.