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John Nippolt
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FINGERS
      When I last saw him, he was in pretty bad shape. Winter was on us, which meant colder weather, seasonal storms, heavy rains and a strong chance of flooding. Because he lived under the bridge, I worried. I wrote a story how I'd come to know him during his first days around here. We saw each other often in the following weeks that turned into months, and then, he disappeared. Poof! He was gone.
      Sometime after the new year, I began to wonder about him. In what seemed like a reasonably short period of time, he had established himself as a novelty landmark on our local scene. Now that he was gone, I thought I would ask the owner of the store on the other side of the stream if he knew anything about the guy who used to sit in front of his place.
      "Oh, you mean, Fingers?"
      So, that was his name. I immediately recalled that he had one or two missing or partially missing digits when we shook hands the first time, I wrote about his outstretched hand not all there. I made a mental note of it because I worked in the trades as a framing carpenter, so I notice things like that. I never got around to asking him about those missing appendages but I know from working with heavy duty saws and machines, how fast something can go wrong. One had better be on the alert; fingers and hands are important!
      "Yeah, Fingers. So what ever became of him?"
      "You didn't see all the church people?"
      The story had it that some visiting members from a Big Island church congregation were hailed over by him out in front of the market. As he did to everyone who passed by, or, who were on their way to the store, he acknowledged them. They took a shine to his outgoing, personable, charismatic, yet obviously alcoholic demeanor. He liked to talk about anything and everything with anybody and everybody. It was cool with him to share a little religion in the heat of the day. I had heard him praise God on many occasions, or "God bless you, brother," in a word of thanks for whatever he may have hustled from you. He was never ashamed to throw in a plea for spare cash while he rambled on. "Amen, brother, get dollah?"
      I learned that those church folks came back a second time, leaving more enamored by him than the first go around. After a third visit by two elders from the church, it was declared that the man who lived under the bridge could be renovated. He was thought to be salvageable by their church. On their last visit with him under the bridge, they openly discussed the merits of his traveling with them to the Big Island of Hawaii, all expenses paid; he could clean himself up and repent.
       All this right under my nose! I hadn't realized that those were church people hanging out with him before he left. I remembered seeing some guys talking with him once, clean and dressed better than the normal group of lost souls that he seemed to attract.
       Fingers disappearance was the kind of news that usually travels by word of mouth in our neighborhood. Perhaps you've heard of the coconut wireless? I wouldn't have found out the circumstances about how he up and went unless I asked.
      The homeless man from under the bridge received a new lease on life. He seized the opportunity for change, and I was happy for him. But, to tell you the truth, I had my doubts.
      I would stop and listen whenever I heard some locals in the know talk story about Fingers. I was not surprised to learn that he was from this neck of the woods, but I was flabbergasted to find out that he moved in with his brother to live in a house I built!
      Due to his alcoholism the brother kicked him out. After that, he spent a couple of years sitting in front of a different liquor store in another town a few miles south of here. Although it was a much more urban setting, there happened to be a bridge nearby that store too. When I heard that, everything clicked. This was his M.O.! His tools of trade consisted of a chair and a guitar. He would use them to put himself onstage in front of small liquor stores. His job description: getting drunk while engaging the public at large, greeting one and all with song and laughter.
      I had yet to develop the full picture of the man who lived under the bridge. I once wrote that upon first sight of this fellow I didn't want to extend myself to him in any way because there was something that rubbed me wrong about him. He was always there at the store, so, I changed my mind and decided to at least be civil with him. It drew me in to everyday meaningless exchanges up to the point where I was not interested in having them anymore. Then he went to the Big Island, to clean himself up.
      What bothered me most was he left all his trash as well as some of his belongings under the bridge. Did this validate my original sense of distaste for the man's situation? Even though he was homeless, I thought that he did not have the right to trash the area, leaving broken bottles and plastic buckets full of who knows what under there. No effort would be made to clean up after him, especially not from the City and County highway crews, nor the crews from the State Department of Transportation.
      When I was younger, I kept this side of the stream that runs along the property edge, spotless. I removed trash, vegetation, and weeds that sprouted up in the stream and scrubbed off the wall that protects us from high water. I did this for twenty-five years, clearing out rubbish to the middle of the stream simply because it was my "kuleana"; my responsibility, as the person who lives next to the water way.
      I still have to whack the tall California grass that grows in the stream near the bridge, to see on-coming traffic in order to drive out of here safely, but I no longer clean the stream, I'm too old for that. With that in mind, how come the man under the bridge doesn't bother to clean up after himself? Does being homeless mean you don't have to be responsible to social convention?
      Underneath the highway sits his trash, his dirty mattress, an old sleeping bag, all of which I can see, every time I walk to the store, or when I go up to get our mail. There is the smell too, and I become angry about this. There was a sense of permanence about all that "stuff" of his that I couldn't shake. No one around here wants to go under the bridge and clean up after him, especially me.
      "Some things never change" is a phrase we have all heard before. It can be applied to an infinite list of things, one of which, I'm sad to report is this drunk, who goes by the moniker, "Fingers". The conversion didn't take.
It is middle May and Fingers has returned. He sits up at his old spot in front of the store on the other side of the stream, and, of course, he has taken up his quarters under the bridge again. He sleeps on that filthy mattress under the dirty sleeping bag, in the middle of all the trash that he left behind. I don't bother to talk to him anymore.