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John Nippolt
There is a man under the bridge
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Times are tough, and the trouble is you donít have to look very far from home to see how bad things really are for many people. The bottom line is, even the poorest get poorer, when everyone is suffering. There is a paved road leading to my house from the main highway. It is about fifty yards to the start of my driveway and that is where the highway connects my side of the stream that fronts my house to the other side where the little store is.
††††††††††The man first appeared up there in front of the store on the other side of the bridge and I could see the fuzzy silhouette of his gray hair against the sky. At that time he was living in the shelter of a small copse of trees and bushes across the highway, which shielded him from the general public.
††††††††††I had no idea he was living in those bushes, and thought he was just another panhandler who would come and go, disappearing much like those before him. When I saw him standing over there by the store, innocent eyes staring out from a deeply tanned and grizzled face, I tried my best to avoid him. I knew the flash of a smile would appear through his generous lips before he asked me for some money.
††††††††††The first few times we saw one another, I didnít like a bum asking a working guy like me for change, (who else can the poor ask?) and I let it be known I wasnít giving up my hard earned pay to help him buy his next smoke or his next bottle.
††††††††††Iíve known men like him from the past and it is always better for me to steer clear of such fellows. He means me no harm and I know he would not try to provoke me into believing it is my fault I refuse to help him. On the contrary it is just the opposite, I feel bad because I canít help him.
††††††††††Early morning will find him over there, alone, in front of the store, reading the daily paper, so I know he stays informed. No matter his dire situation, he always seems to have a smile ready for those persons plodding by on foot in the hot sun or who, riding their bikes past the store, wave cheerily to him. He greets everyone with a laugh or a handshake, all who stop to chat or buy something at the store.
††††††††††He has seen the old and young who live around here greet me with affection, so he acknowledges I am part of the local scene and has even learned my name from hearing me with my friends in front of the store. I am now one of the people who get an automatic handshake from our greeter and from these brief hellos. I have noticed he is missing the first digit on his right hand.
††††††††††We trade one liners now and in between he has told me people give him things. It must be so, because he has a folding chair to sit in, which remains in the shade of the small overhang of the storeís corrugated metal roof. His old guitar in its cloth case is next to him and his cane remains in the shade behind him where it leans against a window smeared with grafittied tobacco and beer ads. That guitar gets played often. If heís not strumming it, he is more than happy to let someone passing by play it,.
††††††††††I get home around 4 in the afternoon and if it is bright out I know the sun has been burning directly at him since around 2, The occasional dog will mosey up to him and lie down for a short snooze. As you might guess, there is an assortment of other homeless people who stop by to drink or chat with him.
††††††††††He has been around since last summer and he seems to be turning into one of those landmark people. You know which ones; every time you go to a certain place there is someone who is always there to welcome you.
††††††††††Now the nights are getting cold with winter upon us and the heavy rains will be here soon. The greeter has had to move his stuff from out of the bushes to under the bridge. Apparently he had been found out by the owner of the property and was told to leave. I have a feeling this is going to turn out bad. The flash floods that rip down the nearby mountains could be fatal.
††††††††††The issue that gives me pause is how he handles the burden of his homelessness. He seems to always have a smoke, and two or three days out of the week he drinks until he has to go under the bridge and lie down. Normally, he remains out in front of the store, appearing out from under the bridge on a daily basis. He has a smile ready for all and never speaks with ill will toward anyone. Through all of this no one seems to notice how much nothing this man has. I canít believe Iím the only one.
††††††††††From what Iíve seen, it takes homeless people quite awhile to shake the cold from their bodies and warm up. It wonít be until the strong heat of the day comes out that my pal up there can take his jacket off. Although he never complains I have seen him up there, alone at night after the store closes and he is not so happy then.
††††††††††On my way home from a late meeting, I stopped at some burrito palace and got some spectacular dish I couldnít finish. I put it in a paper plate and sacked it up to take with me for later snacking.
††††††††††Pulling into my drive, I saw him, head in his hands, crying and I had to stop. I might not give him money but I sure as hell could put some food in his belly. I walked over and handed him the big burrito. I told him I had taken a couple bites but it wouldnít hurt. The look he gave me was one of surprise. He smiled up at me and managed to croak out a few thank yous. The man from under the bridge and I have gained a little more respect for each other. I wonder what his name is.