|Written by Wendy Doscher-Smith -- BT Contributor|
A beachcombing expedition leads to an unexpected encounter with a homeless man
I frequently beachcomb next to a causeway, in between Miami and Miami Beach. It is out of the way and somewhat isolated.
When I go, I put on my rain boots, make sure I have water, my phone and camera, and bags for shells, sea glass, and any other items I might come across or trip over -- a list that so far includes old cell phones, bones, a piece of a Judas Priest cassette tape, and pottery shards. Perhaps most important, I also bring a bat, so I can club the hell out of anyone who tries to do me harm.
(I have learned that just lugging around a bat does the trick. That, combined with wearing my penguin-shaped hat. Works every time. I emerge from the brush and people run from me.)
A week ago I found something -- someone -- who was more important than ocean-tumbled glass (even if it is the rare red kind), and even more important than the animals I routinely encounter on the beach, like sea slugs, mummified fish, and horseshoe crabs. I found Jimmy.
But perhaps it is more accurate to say Jimmy found me.
I had just spent a few hours collecting debris that travels from who-knows-where to the ocean and then into Biscayne Bay. I had taken the low tide by the mucky teats and milked it dry. My legs and butt were sore. My pockets and bags brimmed with tidal treasure. My hair was salty.
I had loaded my stuff into my car, along with my bat, when I decided to take one last glance along the seawall. Poised in The Crouch -- one of my beachcombing positions -- I was just about to inspect a light green piece of glass when I heard a voice behind me.
“Excuse me, ma’am.”
Now, I’m not a screamer. I’m a freezer. I’m half-convinced that, if I ever find myself in a dire situation, I will stand there mortified and gawking. The screamers… well, I needn’t explain them.
This voice startled me into a scelp -- half scream, half yelp. I think this is because when I’m on the comb (similar to being on the hunt) and immersed in fine details, I tune out the world. This is part of what makes the comb so fun and therapeutic.
It also makes it dangerous, as you should always be aware of your surroundings. I am usually very good at maintaining perked ears and detecting the slightest noise -- usually wind moving through the trees, which does, in fact, sound like voices. (Just in case you thought that was a load of crap.)
Well, I had let my guard down. I cursed myself for letting the beach lull me into a false sense of security, and for leaving my trusty bat behind. Without my bat, I was just some freak in a penguin hat, which, while frightening enough, was not likely to deter a bad man looking to do me in.
Whipping around, I hoped, in my vulnerable and bat-less state, for a hint of the crazy in my eyes, to make up for that sissy scelp, and saw an older man straddling a bicycle.
“Oh, I’m very sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to scare you.”
He was tall and very skinny, wearing a short-sleeve work shirt and slacks. Sober. Not strung out.
Let the panhandling begin, I thought.
But Jimmy didn’t want my money.
“Ma’am, please, if you have any food at all, and you can spare it, I would greatly appreciate it,” he said. “I’m hungry.”
I said I would check.
“Please. Anything. You know how you always hear that people go hungry in America? Well, I’m it.” Pause. “This is the face of hunger.”
That line resonated. I realized Jimmy wasn’t just naturally skinny. He was, indeed, hungry. Perhaps even starving.
I found some mixed nuts and offered Jimmy the can, but he just shook his head and pointed at his mouth: “I can’t chew them.” Oh. Jimmy was missing his bottom teeth, but was able to get some of my peanut butter crackers down.
As he gummed the crackers, Jimmy told me about how he was on his way to Mount Sinai Hospital for his diabetes medicine. He had been under the bridge for two days, because he was too weak to leave, but he was out of time.
Jimmy told me that his full name was James Jackson. He’s originally from Alabama, but had lived in the Northeast. He had a degree in engineering from Antioch University. His wife, Margaret, died a few years ago. He had no children or relatives. And his benefits had run out. For the past 90 days he had been on the streets.
Jimmy said he didn’t understand why the homeless (although he preferred “residentially challenged”) took money for drugs or alcohol. He found the city to be pretty rough. He tried shelters, but preferred living in the shadow of the causeway, even though it was less convenient food-wise, because at least he wasn’t far from the hospital. He learned to forage for food out of Dumpsters at night, since people were less likely to chase him away then.
“There used to be a raccoon, and he tried to forage off me until he realized that did no good,” Jimmy said.
At some point in his story he started wheezing, but said he was “just dehydrated.”
I fetched my water bottle and gave it to him. I remembered the two bags of candy I recently bought, but figured it would be useless. Sure enough, he just shook his head and said sadly, “I can’t believe it. Two bags of groceries and I can’t accept them.”
I decided to get Jimmy real food. “Will you come back?” he asked me, adding, “Do you have anything to read? I miss reading books.”
I bought $50 in groceries and returned. Jimmy’s face lit up.
“You came back!” he said, tearing up. “This will feed me for a week! You got two loaves of bread -- and the big-size potato salad!”
We sat and discussed politics, philosophy, religion, and current events. He worried about an oncoming storm. I reached in my car and gave Jimmy my rain boots, clothing, bags, an umbrella, and curtains he could use for bedding.
“Are you a bag lady?” he wanted to know.
Before I left, he asked me to throw his trash in a garbage can for him; he didn’t want to litter. Jimmy assured me he’d be okay.
Of all the treasures I’ve found on that beach, Jimmy is by far my best discovery.
Volume 12, Issue 8. October 2014
The Smithsonian honors a local documentary photographer
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