I’m fond of bums. In recent years the word bum has been downgraded to homeless person, but it’s not homeless people that I’m fond of. You could be homeless because typhoon Tina has swept your house up the street, but that doesn’t qualify you as a bum. A bum, as I use the word, is someone who’s deliberately doing nothing, someone who has chosen inaction as a way of life after serious consideration of all the other options. Such bums are not the kind who took a shortcut using drugs. Those bums are just wasted. The bums I like are coherent and talkative. They’re often homeless, but that’s just what they got for their passive defiance of the world and the way things are. Maybe that’s what I like.
The first bum I liked was Henry. Henry staggered up our street every now and then, like an off-duty town crier, speculating loudly about the possibility of a sandwich and the existence of money. His face was ruddy and lined with the cold and the sun and years of drinking.
“Where’s your house?” I asked while my mother fetched him something to eat.
Henry stood at the front door and looked past me into the house. He scratched in his beard and described a circle with his other hand.
“Everywhere,” he rasped and winked.
“But where do you sleep?”
He laughed and coughed.
“Wherever I want,” he whispered.
I was beset with the novel notion that Henry was secretly rich beyond our means, that he owned the whole world and was free to come and go as he pleased within it. I was too young then to know that freedom was merely a door, something you passed through, and it didn’t occur to me that Henry had always stood outside this door. To me, his unhurried existence was the antithesis of everything I knew. In particular, Henry was the opposite of my father. If work was a continuum between doing absolutely nothing whatever and doing so much that you got nothing done, my father was a bum of sorts at the busy end of the spectrum. On Sundays he rested by working in the garden, and Henry liked to come and watch. He sometimes brought a wooden box so he’d have something to sit on as he followed my father around.
“That won’t work,” he snorted from where he sat on his box.
This irritated my father, but once the habit of Henry’s visits had set in there was little my father could do but entertain it. He jabbed with a spade at mounds of earth and tried to ignore Henry.
“You mustn’t work so hard,” Henry remarked.
My father ignored him a little more and worked a little harder.
“You’ve moved that heap twice now,” Henry noted after a few minutes.
My father, who knew the ritual, straightened and wiped his brow with his sleeve. This was Henry’s cue.
“I’m short a few cents,” he confided and stared at his empty hand.
“You saving for something?” my father asked and adjusted his glasses.
Henry continued to stare at his hand as though something had inexplicably disappeared from it.
“Just a few cents,” he added.
“You could help me here,” my father suggested.
Henry dropped his hand and looked with unmasked disgust at the evidence of work that surrounded my father.
“I’ll pay you well,” my father said.
“I’m long done with work,” Henry mumbled and waved a dismissive hand. “There’s no time for that.”
My father leaned on the spade and regarded him.
“Is there somewhere you have to be?” he asked.
“It’s difficult to explain,” Henry muttered.
One Sunday my father convinced him to get cleaned up. Henry took a long shower in the changing room by our pool and my mother got him some of my father’s old clothes. He looked more dirty once he was clean, his pink face poking from my father’s collar. We drove him to a shelter where they helped those who were down and out to get up and in again. But the next weekend Henry was back.
“They’re all bums at that place,” he declared.
The ability of bums to denounce other bums surpasses conventional understanding. They see themselves as bystanders, it appears, sitting out for this round of the game, while the other bums are clearly losers who will remain so for the rest of time. In my twenties I befriended four bums who lived in a park near my apartment. After months of gentle persuasion they agreed to let me join them for a weekend. As it happened, I spent the Easter weekend with them, sleeping where they slept, doing everything they did, but begging didn’t work out. No one gave me anything.
“What good are you?” one of them asked when I came away empty-handed.
By the end of the weekend it was clear that they saw me as a burden and a failure. In the years since then I’ve often returned to that moment as a source of wonder and a humbling reminder of my place in the world.
Recently I met a bum who sat on a T of bricks at an entrance to the I5 interstate, holding a small cardboard sign that read ANYONE HIRING ASSHOLES? I was in my car and couldn’t stop, but I walked there the next day. He sat on the same bricks, holding the same sign, smoking a flat, wet cigarette.
“You an asshole?” I asked.
He squinted up at me from where he sat.
“Everyone’s an asshole,” he said. “You hirin?”
I had half expected him to hold out his hand like Henry had.
“No,” I replied sheepishly, “I’m not.”
“That’s a relief,” he muttered. “Last thing I need’s another do-gooder.”
Standing there, not quite knowing what to do next, I was suddenly reminded of the time when I tried to save a mouse from our cat and was bitten by both of them.
“What’s the sign for?” I asked.
The bum considered his sign, squinted at me again and then motioned at another bum on the opposite side of the street. This one clutched a piece of cardboard that said something about three children and the blessings of God.
“See that idiot?” he said. “I do this so people will leave me alone.”
He regarded me for a moment.
“It doesn’t always work,” he added.
“So you don’t want money?” I asked as I stacked myself a T of bricks like his.
“Step into my office,” he remarked and cracked a yellow smile. “Take a seat.”
“Is it OK?” I hesitated.
“Sure,” he sighed. “I last had an office before the internet.”
I marvelled at this but before I could ask about his office he answered my previous question.
“Of course I want money,” he said. “Who doesn’t? But wantin it don’t make you good at gettin it. What I’m good at is sittin, sittin and thinkin.”
He laughed a wheezy laugh.
“I should be workin like that idiot, but I’m goofin off.”
I’d never thought of beggary as a profession, but he had a point. It was a job like any other, something you did most of the time, something you didn’t particularly like.
“What did you do,” I asked, “when you had an office?”
“Call me Rip,” he said.
When I frowned he continued, “Like in van Winkel, on account of a line I read in that story, back when I had books.”
“What line?” I asked, baffled at the thought of a bum sitting on a brick, talking about Washington Irving.
“It said,” Rip quoted, holding up a dirty finger, “The great error in Rip’s composition was an insuperable aversion to all kinds of profitable labor.”
He said insuperable with pouty lips, the way the British do, in-syoo-pruble.
“Is that how you ended up here?”
Rip glanced at the bum across the street who had just received a dollar from someone in a passing car.
“I worked in a bank,” he snorted. “Jesus Christ. Can you believe that?”
“I suppose you had an aversion to banking?”
He dug an oily pouch from the pocket of his coat.
“Are you kiddin me,” he sighed. “Who wouldn’t?”
I pictured myself working in a bank and then I toyed for a second with the thought that there wasn’t much difference between that and what I actually did. It was about as interesting. One small step in the wrong direction, two months without pay, and I’d be out here with him.
“What happened?” I asked. “One day your were banking and the next you were—what?—here?”
Rip unfolded the pouch to reveal cigarette butts he’d collected.
“You’re not from these parts,” he said as he picked through them. “I can tell. You sound funny.”
“I know. So do you.”
“That’s true,” he said. “All the same, I’m against assholes who come here from outa state—”
He indicated the bum across the street.
“—like him. He’s from Chicago. Couldn’t handle the winters,” he chuckled. “I came here before I was an asshole. If you’re gonna go to pot, do it elsewhere.”
He began to roll a butt between his fingers to release the remaining tobacco from it.
“But how did you end up here?” I insisted. “You know, on the street.”
Rip tossed aside the empty butt and picked at another. Then he levelled his gaze at me.
“I haven’t ended up here,” he replied.
When I said nothing he continued.
“My girlfriend got killed on this highway many years ago,” he said. “Right there.”
He pointed to where the onramp entered the I5 and then looked away for a moment.
“It was a Friday night, at the end of the summer, and she was on her way to a party in Shoreline.”
He flicked the empty butt aside and poked at the others in his pouch.
“Funny thing is,” he said, “I’d gone ahead. Couldn’t wait for her.”
“And then?” I asked and cleared my throat.
“That Monday I didn’t go to work. I never did again. Later I moved in with this asshole Kevin, and when he got busted sellin dope I moved out, so to speak.”
“Onto the streets?”
A man beckoned from the window of a car waiting at the intersection.
“You gettin that?” Rip asked and selected another butt to roll out.
In a daze I got up. The man looked me up and down and hesitantly handed me a one-dollar bill. When I sat down again, Rip leant over and took the bill from me.
“It’s money I don’t got,” he said. “But I got time. I haven’t ended up here. I’m just passin through.”
As we talked some more and Rip smoked a smelly cigarette, I imagined us as seen from across the street, framed in a photo viewed by a boy a century later. Would he tell us apart? Would he know that it was a Saturday afternoon in October? Or would he marvel briefly at these long-gone men, torn from time, sitting on their bricks at the very intersection his apartment now stood?
As I got up to leave, Rip said, “I lied about my girlfriend.”
“She didn’t die?”
He shifted on his T of bricks.
“I never had one.”
“I tell that shit to people coz that’s what they wanna hear.”
“You didn’t have to—” I began.
“I know,” Rip said and squinted up at me. “The truth is, nobody died. Nothin happened. Like Rip in the story, I was just ready to attend to anybody’s business but my own. That’s why I’m here.”
I walked home along 125th street so I could kick through the piles of leaves near the library. This man had asked nothing of me, I thought, and yet he had given me something I had never had. Instead of standing in the doorways of freedom, I was always passing through. Rip would have wasted away at the bank. Instead, as Steinbeck once wrote of another bum, he had chosen a difficult and crowded field and he was a success in it.