Some Lines of Feeling 

“Autumnthat season of peculiar and inexhaustible influence on the mind of taste and tendernessthat season which has drawn from every poet worthy of being read some attempt at description, or some lines of feeling.”

― Jane Austen, Persuasion

 

The oppressive, heavy, humid heat of another climate change Ohio Valley River summer makes way for fall. Makes way for winds that blow away lingering dew drops in the morning grass. Makes way for skies that do not lighten until I’m almost home from working the night shift. This is my favorite time of year, the time of year that makes me stop and think, pause and reflect on change as green leaves turn fiery before drying up and blowing away. As the wind blows goosebumps along the patches of skin left bare between my scarf and cardigan, and as pumpkins and Indian corn overtake berries and peaches at the farmer’s market down the street, I always think of the past—how different things are now, how many people are missing from my life. More than anything, fall makes me think about academia. As wool and double-knit takes the place of summer dresses in my wardrobe, I think about dry leaves crunching underfoot as I make my way along sidewalks between classes. This is my new year, much more than January 1.

And most of all, I think about Ralph.

In my early twenties, after a failed first attempt at college and several years spent aimlessly drifting from job to job, I enrolled at a community college in downtown Louisville. The buildings housing the classrooms where gifted professors rekindled my love for literature and creative writing—and kindled my love for philosophy and social justice—were sandwiched between high rises, fast food joints, and subtly-labeled services for the invisible: homeless shelters, rehab centers, food closets, and soup kitchens. Their clientele stood on the sidewalks between the main campus building and the languages building four blocks away, men and women who had seen better days and who now spent their days asking for spare change. I gave what I could, but didn’t often carry cash.

I spent most of my lunch breaks at the Taco Bell across Broadway from the liberal arts building. Fast, cheap, and convenient, it was the perfect college meal. Taco Bell is where I met Ralph.

Weathered, beaten down, clad in so many layers of ripped and soiled jackets and pants that he could have weighed anywhere from 150 to 450 pounds, Ralph towered over my 5’1 frame. With his dusky skin darkened even more by car exhaust and street soil, he was like any number of the homeless I passed during my school days; except he wasn’t a number, he was Ralph.

I still can’t tell you how we clicked, the homeless Army vet alcoholic and the drifting, artsy-district dwelling, nerdy white girl. Maybe we were both drifting. Maybe we were both seeking what we’d lost—him to napalm and bomb-wired boys blowing themselves apart in Vietnam and protesters spitting in his face when he got back home, me to years under a lover’s controlling fists—but we did. Maybe it was the softness in his gaze under his wind-hardened face. But whatever it was, instead of walking past him with an “I’m sorry, I don’t carry cash” explanation when he asked for “just enough change for a taco, please, ma’am,” I gestured with my head to the door, saying “I have extra on my card. C’mon. I’ll buy you some lunch.”

It was awkward at first. I didn’t know how to eat without a book in front of me, and he hadn’t really eaten anywhere but soup kitchens and church basements in “Oh, ‘bout twenty years,” but we found ourselves in a booth by the window, a tray of tacos between us. He tried to grab a taco and leave, but I asked him to stay. I don’t know what spawned that—I don’t like eating with other people; I never know what to do with my hands if they don’t have a book in them, and can never figure out how many bites it’s polite to take in between words, but it seemed right. Not “right” as in “Oh, the right thing to do” charity line, but right as in “the right thing to do at the moment.”

“Do you go to that college?” he asked.

I nodded.

“Whatya studying?”

“Everything,” I shrugged. “I’m an English major, but I keep taking classes I don’t need. Philosophy and the History of Rock ‘n’ Roll, mostly.”

He laughed, bits of lettuce falling in his lap from the taco. “I wanted to go to college. Thought I’d teach math.”

“I’m awful at math!”

“Well, I am now, too.” He pointed to a scar under the tight gray curls along his temple. “Uncle Sam took learning from me. I can’t remember much no more, can’t read no more, either.” He took a bite, chewed, and swallowed. “Do you want to teach? Or write your own books like them you’re carrying in that heavy backpack?” he asked, pointing.

“I want to teach, yes, but more than anything, I want to write. Seeing my name on the spine of a book in the library—that would be heaven.”

He nodded. “You will. And I’ll buy it. You seem like a smart young lady. Stay in school. Don’t be like me. These streets—they’ll kill ya.”

I smiled. “I will.”

He stood up. “Gotta run. Places to go, ya know.” He winked. “Thank ya for lunch. It’s nice to be seen.”

I nodded. “I know.”

He stood up. “Gotta run. Places to go, ya know.” He winked. “Thank ya for lunch. It’s nice to be seen.”

I don’t think either of us expected it to, but that lunch became routine. Once or twice a week—any time I got sick of packing sandwiches from home—I crossed the street to Taco Bell, and, more often than not, he’d be outside. “The manager, he’s a good man,” he told me. “He lets me sit out here, so long as I don’t bother nobody.” Over tacos, we exchanged stories. He told me about growing up in a coal mining town in Eastern Kentucky and going to school in a one-room schoolhouse, and how he “never could read past kid books, but numbers—man oh man, I loved me some numbers. They was the most beautiful thing.” He dropped out, though, because he couldn’t pass English. He told me how a boy who’d never gotten in so much as a fist fight—Mama, she’d’ve kilt me”—could still be drafted to Vietnam, and how that same boy could watch his buddies get blown apart by bombs wired to the local boy who’d visited them every day for weeks. That blast, he told me, “shot something into my skull. I don’t know what, but I ain’t been right since.” After recuperating in a field hospital, he was flown home where he was greeted by protesters spitting in his face and the news that his high school sweetheart had married someone else. I told him about growing up an honor’s student who passed math because my little sister did my homework, and being in love with language and words, and being diagnosed with dyscalculia and A.D.D. in college, and about dropping out to take care of a man who wound up abusing me. There was a lot of head shaking over both stories.

Some weeks, I didn’t make it, especially during exams, but any time I did, Ralph was waiting for me. The last week before winter break, we ordered, same as always—ten soft tacos, four without lettuce for me, and two large sodas—but before I could dig my wallet out of my backpack to pay, he stopped me. “I been saving the change I get,” he said. “For Christmas.” The cashier rolled her eyes at the mound of quarters and dimes he plunked down, but to me the change sparkled like new snow. When I thanked him, he shrugged. “I always wanted a little girl. If I’d’ve had one, she’d be about your age.”

 

Louisville comes alive during Derby. Something about horseracing and bourbon brings in celebrities and inspires local women to dress in outrageous hats and fancy dresses. I’ve never understood the draw—in fact, I spend most Derbies passing out leaflets about the horses who didn’t run fast enough to qualify and wound up glue or dog food—but after meeting Ralph, the horses stopped seeming like the biggest casualty.

Derby brings in celebrities, like I said, and celebrities bring in glitz and glamour. Louisville rolls out the red carpet—trash-lined streets are suddenly swept clean, empty lots are planted with flowers, and artists are commissioned to turn horse statues into works of art. The homeless—of which we have nearly 10,000—are not sparkly, and so shelters are paid extra to put out more beds, and churches line their basements with cots, all to get the homeless out of sight and out of mind. I used to think this was a good thing; regardless of the motivation, any extra beds were a blessing. That is, until I realized that there are some people, like Ralph, who don’t want a borrowed bed.

Before that Derby, Ralph had never told me where or how he lived, just saying “I get by, same as everybody else.” On one of our lunches, Ralph was unusually quiet, mumbling short answers and looking at his lap and not at me.

“Is something wrong?”

“I ain’t got my home,” he responded.

I looked at him, trying to figure out a polite way to say “I know you’re homeless,” when he continued.

“The cops, they didn’t think tent city was the right place for us to sleep. So they took their bowie knives, like the one I used in the army, and sliced up the tents. They said we needed to sleep inside at the shelter for our own health.”

I touched his hand, not knowing what to say.

“So, I’m at a shelter. But it ain’t home.”

I don’t remember what else we talked about that day. I wish I did because it was our last lunch.

 

Who we are comes from what we do in a crisis. Do we remain calm and collected, or do we panic and freak out? Or, shamefully, do we run away and hide? If this is true, I don’t like who I am. Or at least, I don’t like who I was then. The moment I should have stood strong, I backed down and ran the other way.

If this was a movie, some feel-good Lifetime movie of the week, I’d end this telling you about how Ralph grew to like the shelter, got sober, and went back to school. There, he’d have a Good Will Hunting worthy moment where untapped gifts were brought to light, and he’d go on to MIT or Harvard. But this is real life, where happy endings are not guaranteed.

Around the same time tent city was being sliced up, Taco Bell went through a management change. The old manager, who let Ralph sit outside, quit. The new manager, a younger, hipper guy who wanted the restaurant to draw more students, papered the entrance door with event fliers and signs, offered a student discount…and put up a “No Loitering” sign. I don’t think he was malicious; I’m sure he thought he was doing the right thing.

I don’t remember what else we talked about that day. I wish I did because it was our last lunch.

The week before Derby, I was walking across the street to meet Ralph. I only had a week left of classes before I transferred to a four-year university across the river in New Albany, and had a parting gift—a new jacket—in my bag for Ralph. The wind was warm, promising summer, and my feet skipped as I neared the Taco Bell. Just as I was about to wave hello, a cop car pulled in and rolled to a stop next to Ralph. Ralph looked up, expressionless, as two officers exited the cruiser. The younger put his hand on his gun when he realized how tall Ralph was, then pulled out his cuffs. “You have the right to remain silent…”

“What’d I do?” Ralph asked.

“Loitering. You can’t sit here. It ain’t safe.” In my memory, the officer sneered this, but I’m not certain if it’s my own rage darkening the exchange or if he was that callous.

“Excuse me, sir,” I said, hurrying over. “He wasn’t loitering. He was waiting for me.”

“For you?” He looked me up and down, taking in my skirt and sweater, probably wondering why a clean-cut, obviously nerdy college girl was hanging out with a homeless man who smelled of yesterday’s booze and the desperation of the shelter.

“Yes.” I tried to ignore the trembling in my voice. “We eat lunch together every week.”

“Well, the manager, he called, said he’s been out here every day for hours.”

“He sits here all the time.”

The second officer walked over. “Welp, not anymore. See that sign? It says ‘No Loitering,’ so I’m going to need you to step away and let us do our job.”

“I can’t read that, sir,” Ralph said.

“Why? You blind?”

Ralph shook his head, defeated.

“He can’t read. That isn’t a crime,” I said.

“Look,” the first officer said, “you can either walk away or be arrested, too.”

“For what?”

“For being an accessory to a crime.”

“An accessory to loitering?” I asked in disbelief.

I wish I could say I stood my ground, that I was cuffed and put in the back seat behind that metal grille with Ralph, that I’d been with him as he was taken downtown. I wish I’d raised a fuss, called the media. But I didn’t. Ralph shook his head at me and got in the car. I raised a hand in farewell, but I don’t know if he saw me. I hope he did. I wish I didn’t remember how defeated he looked, a big man reduced to a scared little boy.

 

I never saw Ralph again. A soldier haunted by brain damage and the ghosts of alcoholism and long-dead friends, a man who saved his change to buy me lunch for Christmas because he always wanted a little girl, was reduced to a number, another victim of a system that measures success in beds filled and ignores lives lost.

I used to ache every spring at the memory of my friend in the backseat of that cruiser, but I stopped letting myself remember. Now, though, it’s fall, and like every fall, the leaves crisp and change colors, and I remember Ralph. Not the goodbye, but the “hello,” the budding of a new friendship and all the missed chances and opportunities.

“Write a book,” he told me when I told him I wanted to be a writer. “And I’ll buy it, and have someone read it to me.”

It isn’t a book, my friend, but a memory. Wherever you are, I hope you know I remember.

Karyl Anne GearyKaryl Anne Geary is an adjunct instructor at Ivy Tech Community College and works on a children’s psychiatric unit. She is the founder of the Rojong Yoin Writing Community in Louisville and is working towards an MFA in Creative Nonfiction at Spalding University. Her essays and poetry have been published in Lunch Ticket, Sweet, New Southerner, so to speak, Stonecoast Review, IUSoutheast Review, and Barbaric Yawp. She is currently working on a collection of essays about growing up in Kentucky, and a segmented memoir about healing from personal trauma while simultaneously working with child trauma victims, and blogs at karylannewrites.wordpress.com.