I was running an errand when my attention was drawn to the familiar figure heading toward the underpass. I had seen this particular homeless man walking aimlessly through our small town many times and often wondered about his story. He always wore a tattered white T-shirt, no matter the weather. For some reason, this man ignited my curiosity. His face was tanned from perpetual sun exposure and topped with long, unkempt hair. He had an Old Testament Jesus look about him, complete with a beard. He looked about forty-years-old, but I am sure he was much younger. He certainly carried himself as if he was a younger man. Despite being homeless, he had this monk-like calmness about him.
I followed him with my car, trying to catch his fleeing image, but the heat from my car mixing with the cold breeze outside blurred my vision. Darkness gathered as day lost its last light to winter evening. Trees swayed about in the wind as the storm took a turn for the worst. I rolled down my window and caught a glimpse of the man, dressed for summer weather as usual, as he took refuge under the belly of the bridge. A swarm of guilt hit me.
“Kah,” I said, unable to find an English word to express my pain. Only phrases in my mother tongue could convey the emotion of the moment. I sat with my mouth agape until the car behind me crept closer and honked, causing me to curse under my breath as I gave way.
The homeless man settled deep under the cover of the bridge, finding a perfect dry patch. That gave me hope, despite the unforgiving cold. Who are you and what is the path that led you to be here, alone and shivering? Where is the family who once celebrated the birth of your arrival?
I hushed my racing mind and rushed home to find him a jacket. Like a nomad on the move for greener pastures, he was gone before I returned. I had failed him. I prayed he would survive the winter’s wrathful winds.
The following summer I was halted at a red light, several cars back from the crosswalk, when I spotted the same homeless man. He was with another homeless man and was crossing the wide street in front of me. I was elated to see that he was well and appeared to be thriving. My motherly nursing bulb lit up. I quickly scanned him – all systems looked stable. He wore that same ragged white T-shirt with an over-extended neck. I wondered if he got into a fight and someone had pulled on it. His companion looked older than him and wore a jean jacket with the kind of holes that most people consider stylish. I was hauled from my reverie when they got closer to my car. I opened the window and craned my neck. I wanted to know what they were talking about. I could not hear much, other than “ I know” as the T-shirt man agreed with something his friend said, but it struck me that they spoke with respect and friendship, completely relaxed in each other’s presence. My eyes followed them all the way across the street to the other sidewalk before the light turned green and I pressed on the gas. I drove away, still full of questions.
One year later, I stood in my driveway ready to run errands. Out of the corner of my eye, without the slightest warning, I saw a figure in a ragged white T-shirt approaching from my right. In shock and without hesitation, I ran into my house and grabbed a few apples.
“Hi! Hello!” I called to the homeless man who had once captured my imagination. I waved frantically trying to gain his attention, not worrying about what my neighbors might think. He crossed to my side and stood in front of my house respectfully and waited on me.
“I am sorry to bother you, but would it be ok to give you an apple?”
He smiled, and my heart smiled too. He opened both his hands, bowed slightly, and took the apples. Being married to an Ethiopian man, I know taking food in that way is a sign of respect and gratitude. But what he did next blew my mind – he gave one apple back and said “Keep one for your family.” Then he added, “Shukran.” Shukran is an Arabic word meaning thank you, and it’s the inspiration for my name, Shukri. My father, who was also an Arabic teacher, gave us all Arabic names.
After hearing him say “shukran”, my mysterious homeless man became more mystifying than ever. He still wore the T-shirt, it was more torn and ruined than I remembered. I looked at him and thought, WHO ARE YOU? I wanted to sit with him and ask him more about his life. I wanted to invite him in, make him chai and malawah (Somali crepes ) like I do for my friends and ask him for his story. Was he a professor gone mad? Was he someone whose altruism made him poor? Was he a mad genius? I can tell you one thing, he did not look like an alcoholic. We nurses can spot even those who try to hide it. I wondered how many languages he spoke and what his life was like when he was young. No ordinary man just says “shukran”.
He was the most respectful homeless man I have ever met in the streets of Santa Rosa. I had infinite questions, but I knew I could not stall him any longer. I thanked him and wished him well as he continued along his path. He disappeared around the corner, taking all his enigma with him.
I am the author of upcoming memoir with Algonquin books: The Last Nomad.
Photo by Kaelin Hall