I guess I’ll just start writing, because I honestly don’t know where to go with this one. I met a guy named Ray, and he changed my life. I don’t know how. I don’t really know why. I just know that he added something to my thought, to my sense of humanity, and to my understanding and view of the world that can never be taken away. You’re probably guessing that Ray is a child with a terminal illness, or an inspirational war veteran, or a close family friend who has dealt with loss in his life. Maybe even some person who has been on the news for some great deed.
Nope, Ray is a homeless man in Portland, Maine, living each day as an angel on Earth. Ray served in the Navy for years and has returned to Maine, planning by the tides, smelling the ocean, and following the sun. He builds picnic tables and other wooden furniture and sells them out of his cousin’s house in a nearby town. He has a daughter who lives in Florida whom he hasn’t seen in years. I don’t know much more about him than that. And I don’t waste my time trying to fill in gaps in his life timeline. Rather, I am appreciative that he came into my life.
Happenstance is a funny thing. Ray and I came into each other’s lives for no apparent reason. I know for 100% sure that God intended our lives to collide, and for him to add something to mine. I know that even though it hasn’t been revealed to me yet and even though I can’t wrap my brain around my reactions to our encounter, there is a greater purpose for this event in my life. So significant in fact, that I cannot go a day without thinking about that day on the pier when I met him for the first time.
The August sun was hot but the ocean mist was cooling my face and the side of my arm as I leaned on the flanks of the pier. Two of my dear friends, twins actually, (Kacy and Kylie), were sitting there admiring all that Portland has to offer, making fun of tourists, and chatting about how fast summer was flying by.
It was impossible for us to ignore the show that was happening nearby though. Three homeless men – invisible to the uncaring eye – were sitting on the bench under the lookout eye machine and laughing about who knows what. One of them, a handicapped and crusty old ginger in his 50’s or 60’s, sitting in his wheelchair – was babbling on about the shiny tanned man standing next to him. And the third was an unshaven lug who donned a navy blue sweatshirt and too much stubble for noontime. The limp to his step would make some people walk briskly away from the apparent drunk, but his story goes much deeper than that. I just didn’t realize how deep.
Of the three, the shiny tanned man was the one who I took note of. He was standing there, hands in his pockets, grinning and beaming, occasionally laughing at what the wheelchaired man was saying through a mouth of a lonely few teeth. I heard him tease the guy “I’m dealing with the freaking geriatric ward over here, ain’t I? Gosh, lucky me.” Their conversation was better than any sitcom I’ve seen or any dialogue I could come up with, yet it was purely real and innocent.
We couldn’t help but start laughing when we continued to hear this banter that was going on only a few steps from us. Finally, our giggles were noticed and the shiny tanned man came over with a big smile on his face and apologized for the “stupid stuff his friends were saying” – yet an apology was the last thing we wanted.
As conversation with this man continued, we came to know that his name is Ray, and he is homeless, living each day on the streets of Portland as best he can. I was in awe of his genuine gentleness and care, not only towards us but also for his friends. As he said, “we might be nasty old things – and they are annoying as hell, trust me – but we take care of each other, we look out for each other.”
I knew things would be interesting in a moment when I noticed a middle-aged couple walking towards us on the pier, clearly scorning at Ray speaking to us. They didn’t need to say what they were thinking, for their eyes enunciated their disapproval right away. But as they walked by, we heard a murmur of “common sense” come from the couple. Instead of responding how I expected, Ray simply looked at them as they were walking away, looked back at us girls, and then said “common sense ain’t so common anymore.”
With lots of other funny sayings, such as “holey scamoley” and his general poking fun at his friends, “Red” and “the Vet,” I knew he had changed my way of thinking.
And that was before we found out why “the Vet” had a limp. Nope, it wasn’t because he was a drunken bum….He earned a Purple Heart in Vietnam. What do you think about that?
I wanted to run up to the couple who had looked at us with such disdain and tell them that “the Vet” deserved a salute rather than a scornful look. But my heart told me that I didn’t even want to share that piece of remarkable knowledge. A man of such honor and dedication shouldn’t be homeless. A man who served our country should not live in fear of where his next meal is coming from. But yet, no one should.
Not only did this experience and these men make me think about the necessity for better health care and benefits for homeless people, it forced me to contemplate about where true happiness and contentment lies. These three guys were essentially just shooting the breeze, yet they were happier doing that than most people are on any given day with their loved ones, a home, and friends close at their side. On paper, these guys had nothing. But in my eyes, they possess it all.
Ray holds a special place in my heart, and he always will. Maybe it’s because of what he added to my life, and perhaps it is because he told me that he will never forget me. I saw him three more times after that first encounter. The first time, he was asleep under a tree next to the pier. Kacy, Kylie and I went into the ferry terminal, bought him a drink, some snacks, and left him a note about how much he made our day and how we thoroughly enjoyed our conversation with him. (We didn’t mention that none of us had ever held conversation for 45 minutes with a homeless man…) I wrote that I had never valued a day so much as I did after I met him, and that he will always be in my prayers. The next time, I was near moved to tears when I ran into him again, same place as before, near the tree. He saw me, his eyes lit up, and he fished into his bag to find something. Out came the note I left him. Crumpled, but there. He told me that it was the nicest thing that anybody had ever done for him, and that he was going to keep it forever. He even told me that it was going in his scrapbook that he keeps at his cousin’s house. And the last time that I’ve seen him until now when I had to return to school, was on my last night in Portland. I told him that I would like nothing more than to see him again when I would be home for Christmas. He looked at me with a smile as he held my hand and said “of course I’ll be here, you just come down around here, and you’ll find me. I won’t leave.”
What I realized right then is that I never really left. A part of my heart remains at the pier with Ray, and his zest for life permeates my being. Though I do plan to see him again, he has added more to my life than I ever thought possible. And to think that “common sense” would tell me I should stay away. What do I say to that? “Common sense ain’t so common anymore.”