By Gerri Graves

Gerri Graves is an artist and writer currently experiencing homelessness in Boise. She regularly contributes stories documenting her experiences in the unhoused community to Word on the Street.

Word on the Street Issue 32, June 2023

It’s easy to look at someone rough around the edges and let our assumptions grant us permission into giving them a wide berth.

Maybe they don’t shower as much as you, yourself, do. Clothes are rumpled and dirty. Hair is unkempt. Disposition snarly and defensive.

Best to stay away from folks like that, right?

I know ‘I’ have been semi judgmental in my life. I have a true phobia about germs and other people’s presence in my invisible circle that I envelop myself in. Come within my personal boundary, without invitation, and I’ll give you a tongue lashing.

It’s a bubble I’ve built to keep myself from being hurt. Many of us that snarl now, were once naive and trusting. We use this defense mechanism to let everyone know from the onset, “dont f*ck with me”.

Truth is, I just can’t take any more heartbreak. My soft bits are still beneath my ribcage, but no one is invited in anymore.

I used to worry myself into a frenzy, trying to make everyone happy, and ignored the pounds of my own flesh I was gifting to everyone I emotionally bled for. It left me feeling inadequate and never enough. Suicidal. Like I didn’t belong in this world.

I stay away now. Keep to myself. If I have something to say, I journal. Which is basically all you’ve ever read from me: a journal entry.

There’s still parts of me that come out when no one is looking, though. Like how I still wish on stars. I have full conversations with squirrels, birds, cats and dogs. My phone is filled with pictures of flowers. I love the rain and the quietness around the river when others have run for their cars. Good books, good plots and movies that make me cry. Music is still magic that people make – perfect harmonies give me butterflies every time.

I still want to save the world. I do. I don’t tell anyone because it seems all too impossible and impractical, but I still have a wee pilot light inside that hopes for it.

The neat thing about keeping in touch with your gentle side: we recognize our kin. We see ourselves in others.

I’m drawn to people like me, no matter what package they come in. It’s a sort of…silent understanding. An invisible handshake. The secret club no one really wants to belong to.

Too soft for this mean ol’ world, so we surround ourselves with vitriol and brash puffery. Purely for self-preservation.

We know from experience that we break too easily.

That’s how I noticed him. I recognized me in him. He comes off as gruff and standoffish, but I saw right through it.

I approached him softly, with a bit of trepidation. Like a wild rabbit who pays you no mind during his garden feast until you get too close. Pew!

I made him coffee every morning and started with small conversation. It took months for our friendship to go beyond that small talk beginning that most move past within a few days. I used patience that I don’t actually possess. It was important to me to be a friend to him.

Like I said, he was kin. He just didn’t know it yet.

His eyes are that of Paul Newman, lady killer blue. Piercing, like a javelin straight through your middle, or playful when he lets you see that part of him. They almost waltz when you amuse him.

His face kind, but wary. He has that leathered look of a seaman from years on the street. His hair, Einstein chic. And I imagine every well-earned wrinkle, a lash on his face from someone that hurt him. That he wears his internal scars.

He likes his conversations short and to the point. Doesn’t play up bull****. I’ve learned he doesn’t like fussing, which is kinda my love language. I love taking care of those I love.

He has let me care for him a few times. I insisted on applying sunblock to his skin that was so burned it was blistered. I’ve covered him up at night with an extra blanket. I’ve brought him things to eat, or McDonald’s coffee – 6 and 6. Little things he lets me do.

I’ve pushed him in his wheelchair to a doctor’s appointment after someone had stolen his walker. He needed a doctor to prescribe a new one. He wanted me to come in with him. He’s not well. I won’t go into particulars, because of his privacy, but he’s not doing so good.

He drinks too much and he knows he does. He doesn’t suffer people nagging at him to stop. I can’t speak for him, but I sometimes get the feeling that he might think it’s too little too late to feign caring. He doesn’t want your sympathy, fake niceties or pretend concern, he just wants to get through another day.

Again, I can’t speak for him, but it feels like he has given up.

He’s a vet. A Vietnam vet. A helicopter pilot. His dad was a military pilot too, he likes to remind me.

His chest is a road map of deep scars. He took three bullets for our country. He was responsible for getting our boys out, it seems to him a necessary evil. Justified.

There are days he is angry about it. I can’t pretend I know what the anger is about. He doesn’t like prying.

Our men and boys witnessed unimaginable horrors over there. They came back forever changed.  It plays like a horror film in their minds, over and over. Unable to talk about it, unable to let it go. They were raised in a generation where boys were spanked or beaten for acting weak. Weeping is for sissies. War is men’s work.

Can’t cry over it. Can’t live with it, and yet, unable to stop reliving it.

I have my own opinions about war, but they don’t belong here. Being a vet is a source of pride for him and I will not undermine that.

He rallied himself when he returned stateside. Went to college. Became a child psychologist. Married. Had children. Tried to make a go of it.

But, as things often do, it took a turn for the worse.

He lost a patient that deeply affected him. A little girl. Gone at the hands of her mother.

It tortured him. He feels like he let her down. He feels responsible for her death.

It’s one of two times I’ve seen this tough ol’ guy break down. This tall, tough veteran trusted me with his vulnerable side. I listened in silence until he was through.

I know from my own experience that no one genuinely listens anymore…and the one thing us softies crave is to be heard. Really heard.

He walked away from his profession not long after, and from there, he spiraled down.

He lost his grandchild from complications due to COVID last year and his mother a few months after.

He’s in and out of the VA hospital. I get worried every time he goes missing. I’m afraid something will happen to him and I’ll not know about it. That he’ll leave, quietly. Unknown. Unmourned.

Our heroes, anymore, are chosen from an exclusive popularity list. We place on pedestals those who have wooed us with their beauty, talent or wit. Superficial.

However, true heroes won’t let you call them that. They move silently among the masses. They make small changes, for the betterment of mankind, quietly. Anonymously. They keep their hearts masked, their deeds uncelebrated. They don’t require your envy and worship…nor do they covet it.

Real heroes live among us but we don’t see them anymore. We don’t recognize them. We don’t seek them out.

But he’s there. Sitting in his walker on a street corner near the liquor store. Disheveled. Abrasive. Gruff. Sparkling blue eyes. Holding a sign, asking for spare change.

A real life hero. My friend Paul.

. . .