I was taking my dog on her morning walk when I first saw him. “Look at that bum,” I said to my dog. Then more loudly as I passed, I said “bum” while looking directly at him. This startled him. He looked as if it was the first time anyone had ever noticed him. He squished his wrinkled dirt streaked face into a quizzical look. I thought he would turn and scurry away like most bums do, uncomfortable to be noticed. Instead, he straightened himself and stared back at me with steely gray eyes. He gave me the most menacing face he could muster, but it fell short of the mark. I laughed. He spat into the ground by my feet. I laughed again and continued on my walk, ending my first encounter with the bum.
He was little, both short and thin. I’m about average height and I was almost a full head taller than him. He was of an indeterminate age – somewhere between early middle age and early old age, it was difficult to tell with the layers of grime on him. Dirt was ground into his skin, accentuating the wrinkles and the beard stubble. He had a full head of long greasy hair that would probably be black if it were washed but was closer to gray with the dirt and dust from the street. His long sleeve shirt had been light blue at one time but was now stained with dirt and food and sweat. Most of the buttons were missing, his ribs sticking out from his chest, and the sleeves were rolled up many times to allow his hands to stick out the end. His dark work pants were held up by a bungee cord wrapped around his waist in place of a belt. He was barefoot. He stank of sweat and booze. You would think a man dressed this way would stand out, but his outfit somehow worked as camouflage, blending him into the city’s urban landscape. Even when you looked right at him and tried to see him, he was barely there, barely visible.
He had set up residence on the corner one block from my apartment, which bothered me. I started carrying a folding knife – only a 3-inch blade, but enough to do some damage if necessary.
He wandered the neighborhood daily. He would look at me out of the corner of his eyes, pretending not to look. It was comical dance: seeing each other while pretending not to look, avoiding each other while pretending the other wasn’t there.
He gave himself the job of picking scrap items off the side of the road and placing them in a large sack he carried slung over his shoulder. He took this job most seriously, and could be seen scouring the street all day.
There was an empty lot at the edge of the neighborhood where he sorted the contents of his sack into different piles. One time while walking my dog, I passed the lot when the bum wasn’t there. I walked over and inspected the various piles. One was made up of glass bottles, another aluminum cans, another copper wire, another discarded electronics. I wondered why the bum had taken so much time collecting this junk and carefully sorting them into different piles. When my dog was finished taking a crap, I continued my walk, the mystery of the piles lingering in the back of my head.
This bum was different from all the others I had seen in the city. He had an intelligence – I saw it in his eyes that first day. It made me wonder how he had gotten to where he was in life. What mistakes had he made? What had caused him to be where he was? If I were honest with myself, he was little different than myself. Save for the random outcome of a few events in my life, I too could be living in the streets, and, at the core, that is what bothered me about him. He reminded me too much of myself and the randomness of life.
One morning I took a steaming cup of coffee with me on my walk and left it on the sidewalk a few feet from the bum’s camp. Looking back, I’m still not sure why I did it. My ego would say it was compassion. My id knew better. It was closer to fear and guilt. That afternoon I found the empty washed coffee mug sitting where I had placed it that morning. The bum was nowhere in sight.
The coffee became a morning ritual. I would place the coffee cup in the same spot. He would sit on his old blanket looking the other way. I began leaving other things for the bum, almost like the offerings to the gods that Brazilians occasionally placed on street corners.
His camp was one door down from an Italian restaurant that I ate at about once a week. I started to ask for part of my meal to be wrapped to go, and would leave it for the bum in the same spot I left the coffee.
One night I took a pair of pants, a couple shirts, and an old pair of running shoes from the back of my closet and left them on the make shift altar on my way to the bar. On my way back from the bar I noticed the bum sitting in his camp. I had a half drank bottle of beer in my hand. I knelt down and placed it on the sidewalk for him. My female companion asked what I was doing. “An offering to the gods” I drunkenly joked. She turned toward the bum, lifted her shirt and flashed her tits. Laughing, we went back to my apartment. Next morning the clothes were gone, the beer remained untouched.
Over the next few weeks, the bum’s attitude began to change. I noticed a change in his gait as he walked. He was more erect, more confident. The morning coffee ritual was changing. At first, the bum went from ignoring me to staring directly at me while I knelt down and placed the coffee on the sidewalk. Then he began standing and looking down on me while I placed the coffee on the ground. Finally, he stepped forward while I was placing the coffee so that his feet were right next to the coffee. A passerby to the scene would think I was bowing down in worship. That was the last day I brought him coffee.
The next day he relocated his camp to the empty lot and spent all his time building something from the piles of junk. I was uncertain which was more curious – the structure being created, or that nobody else noticed the construction process. The empty lot was on a busy street with cars and buses going by at all hours and people walking past on the sidewalk, but nobody, except for me, even noticed the bum or his creation.
The following Sunday was an extremely hot summer-like day, even though it was late August. The sky was clear, and the heat rippled off the side walk. You could feel the electricity in the air from a coming storm. At dusk the heat hadn’t lessened when I took my dog for a walk. The lightning and thunder started to rumble in the distant sky. It quickly moved closer and intensified until it was right on top of the neighborhood. I changed direction and jogged back towards my apartment. My dog was scared by the storm and pulled on the leash.
It was dark as I passed the empty lot. The streaks of lightening lit the sky. I could see the silhouette of the bum standing in front of the structure. The bolts of lightning began hitting the ground closer and closer to the structure. The bum didn’t move, neither did I. I was fascinated by the sheer power of the lightning and the apparent fearlessness of the bum. For a moment I wondered if the bum wanted to die, wanted a bolt to hit him and end his life. The bolts were hitting the ground all around the bum until they converged on the structure. Not just a single strike, but bolt after bolt hit the structure in a continuous blaze of electricity. The bum stood tall before the altar of lightning. He raised his hands, and I heard him yell out to the night sky, “I am Raijin, I am Thor, I am Zeus.” He stepped forward and was consumed by the lightning as I stood in shocked silence.
The next morning as I walked my dog, I saw his charred body doubled over in front of the altar, unnoticed by the rush hour traffic.
Here is a link to the published version: The Nameless Man at the Forgotten Altar