Regardless of death, life finds it way.
He was standing on a concrete wall that holds a slope of failing ivy dividing India Street from the 5. I waved back.
He called to me. I paused.
He motioned for me to cross the street because he'd found something. He was agitated. He may have been slightly high.
He yelled, 'I found a body.'
I took a breath. It was early. The sun was low in the sky. I listened to a voice in my head asking, 'do we need to see a body?'
I crossed the street. I asked Hazelnut to stay on the sidewalk while I tried to scale the wall.
'Wait,' said the young man.
He hopped down and dragged a stepladder from some weeds down the sidewalk. Here was a hidden treasure of functionality disguised as freeway debris. Hazelnut wanted to follow me. The young man soothed her and climbed up behind me. We stood together, surveying. Hazelnut whimpered.
Wild parrots flew over head, shrieking louder than traffic. At our feet, more than 100 feet of tents and plastic bags, half-buried blankets and indiscernible rubbish lined the ditch along the concrete. This community of living quarters wouldn't be seen from the street below or the freeway above.
The young man asked me, 'can you smell him?'
When we realize the fact of our mortality, we remember that our feet are firmly rooted on that common ground. Yours, mine, and everyone we know.
Finally, I share because all of us, often nameless, live among nameless others. In our hustle, we forget how we all have our journeys to pursue. We may not be able to identify our own purpose, much less the reason for the existence of others. And we may not always realize that the journeys of others are as worthy of respect and appreciation as our own and every other being who captures our attention.
And I invite you to see what I saw. But I warn you as well. If you feel you can't, please say a simple prayer for a soul's passage and the family of a lost man. If you feel you're able to share his memory with me, please read on.
The smell caught me at the throat. I turned my head to breathe and then I turned back. Just to my left, a man's body rested in a fetal position, loosely covered by a torn sleeping bag and mud. Whatever clothes he had on were indistinguishable from the belongings piled beneath and around him. Whatever made up his bed was indistinguishable from a trash pile. This was where this man came to sleep and die.
I don't know more about his circumstances than what I saw. The skin on his face was weathered, yellow, taut, and pulling away from his jaw. His parted lips pulled away from a cavern of teeth and tongue. His form was a story of pulling away. Whoever he once was had retreated and these remnants were taking their slow leave.
His face was hollowing. His skull shined through thinning tissues. In the space of his eyes -- neither open nor closed -- just shadows. Just empty memorials of someone who once saw, as we see. His gnarled hands tucked into his chest. Not like he was praying; more like the cold preyed on him. His cheeks, his chest, his stomach were sinking, earth returning to earth.
We stayed for awhile, the young man and me. The young man stepped lightly around the body, wondering.
'How did he die, do you think?' he asked. 'How long has he been here?'
I stood. In either direction, it was just trash and trash. Up the hill, I heard the grumble of a truck. Across the street, I saw the Meals-on-Wheels staff preparing their day's delivery. On the sidewalk beside the non-profit, two men slept separately, one still gripping his bagged beer. The other, another body resting under a blue tarp. The morning was still cold.
I asked, 'What should we call him?'
The young man said, 'I'm going to call him Bill.' He leaned over the face and asked, loudly like it might help, 'how did you die, Bill?'
Under the sparkling sun, we both laughed. A relief. I sighed. I wiped away tears. The young man said, 'part of me wants to take his skull but I know that's not right.'
We laughed again, weakly. I don't think it was because of the absurdity of souvenirs that we laughed. I think it was because that was the best way to hug each other in that stink, with all that freeway noise, and the trash beneath our feet. To laugh was a comfort.
I said, 'do you pray?'
The young man said, 'I can.'
'Then let's,' I said. 'For Bill, who is showing me something I've never seen before.' We stayed quiet together for a little bit. I thought of Bill's family, and the heavy hole one or two of them may feel without knowing why.
The young man said, 'you're actually really pretty.'
We laughed one more time and climbed down the wall. Hazalnut met us, as ecstatic as ever. She rolled onto her back to make us both feel better. The young man gave her all the love she expected.
I said, 'I'll call the police when I get home.' My phone was there. I was happy for that. That I could walk slowly home, feeling my own vital body and every emotion moving through it before calling attention to Bill.
The young man said, 'I can call too.'
He said, 'Bill needs a lift.'
That was our last joke together. I crossed the street and looked back to see him on his phone.
On the way home, I cried again. I thought of every job I've had that attempted to keep men and women off the street if they didn't want to be there. I remembered the job I had that respected the fact that many of the men and women on the street prefer to stay there. I thought of the structures of humanity that persistently fail to remember that we all spend our lives fulfilling the same purpose in different ways. And how that failure is such a big reason that no one remembers their purpose.
I felt anger rise. I let it move me up the hill. I felt anger fall and I cried again, for all of us who remain nameless in our suffering and may not always remember there's a way out of it.
I prayed as I walked that I may, in some way, contribute the structures of spirit to the structures of humanity. I prayed that I might share love with someone here and there who would convert it, in their profession, to the benefit of someone in need of shelter, food, medical care, protection. I prayed that the walls that keep us nameless to each other would fall and we might see each other more clearly-- as fellow travelers, as friends, as family. And all of us might take a moment to remember how precious it is that we exist together.
Let's love each other more.