Invisible in plain sight

March 1, 2009

Homelessness and mental illness often go hand-in-hand.

Key Points

"I wanted a pair of those boots once, but I thought they were too expensive. Nice boots."

"They're waterproof," he said. "Good for when it rains. My feet are never wet." He yawned and looked away dismissively.

He gave me a glare that made me take a step back. "Yes, I'm hungry."

"Can I buy you breakfast?" I handed him a five-dollar bill. There is a McDonald's right across Seawall Boulevard from Walgreens. Galveston doesn't roust the homeless unless they disturb the peace. It is to the point that people don't see them. Invisible in plain sight.

He managed to hold onto an appearance of dignity when he took the bill. He thanked me and tucked the money into his breast pocket. Then he said, "Who are you?" He extracted the bill from his pocket. "I know who you are. You are from them, the family." He spat out the word "family" like it was poison.

"I'm from no one," I said. "You missed your meds, didn't you?" He had been missing his meds for a long time.

"Who are you?" He looked alarmed. "I know who you are."

"I'm just a pharmacist," I said, "I am not from your family."

People are very uncomfortable around disturbed individuals. They are unpredictable. This guy could do anything. I wondered if I was acting in a provocative manner, but still I said, "It sounds to me like you haven't been taking your drugs."

"Who the hell are you? You from that shrink?"

I stepped back a safe distance. "Your meds. You missed them."

"I haven't taken one pill since I left the family. The drugs made me slow and fat and gave me the shakes." He put the five-dollar bill into his pocket for the second time. His eyes bored into me. "What do you want?"

"You tell me how a homeless man can afford Asolo hiking boots and I'll go into the store and leave you alone." I was standing beside him now, leaning against the building. If my legs hadn't been so damaged after so many years of working on my feet, I'd have squatted beside him. I learned from Body Language, Julius Fast's 1970 best seller, that it is never a good idea to stand over someone if you want them to feel comfortable.

"I'm an attorney!" He spelled it out: "L-A-W-Y-E-R." He reached down and brushed some imaginary dust off the boots. "I passed the bar exam in five states." He looked up. "I could hide in any one of them and practice." He stared at me. "Who are you?"