Sunday, February 21, 2016

The Wandering Homeless of Fort Lauderdale

When I worked the Las Olas Bridge as a bridge tender, I had some time on my hands. I tried to use the time to write, to study Spanish and such while I listened for boats on the marine radio, but self-improvement only went so far. Especially self-motivated self improvement. What I ended up doing was looking out the windows a lot. One thing about being in a fixed position like they (the bridge house) was that you saw the repetition of the world, of human activity, rather acutely. An example of that was the people who walked over the bridge on a daily basis. Sure, there were tourists and visitors but there were also a lot of regulars who came over and back on the bridge, headed to and from the beach across the Intracoastal. And of those, the most regular were the homeless.

Evidently, as homeless people, they had to keep moving. I don't know if the police kept them going or this was just something to do or it helped with their survival on the streets but it didn't take long for me to see the pattern. To recognize these men (and a few women) as they did their daily trudging. And then I'd see them other places as well, when I was driving the kids to school or out running errands, I'd recognize these people. At times I was astonished to see them quite far away from the bridge, to understand that their route was much bigger and wider than I would have imagined. I was both kind of appalled that this was their life yet also held a certain admiration that they had the strength and willingness to do it.

Now, of the three I recall most vividly--all men--I think their mental stability had a great deal to do with their homelessness. One guy who walked across my bridge daily--sometimes more than once or twice a day, was an older guy with a severe hunchback. He was stooped, he had a more than obvious hump--bent, face down, one slim bag slung over his better shoulder, this guy would march soundlessly around town. Of course I felt sorry for him. He never spoke and I never spoke to him. Another guy was younger, African-American, who I would often see on US1 standing on a corner and talking to himself. He came across the bridge often, nervous and skittish looking, aware of his surroundings, trying--it seemed to me--to be invisible, or at least to look "normal" and fit in with society. Or hide his affliction. But he talked to himself all the time, not loud, but you could see his lips move, hear him faintly if you were close enough. The third guy I'm thinking of I thought of as The Professor. He was middle-aged and always wore a tweedy sport jacket. He never wore shorts or short sleeves--always the proper jacket--and he pushed a cart. He had glasses and bed-head longish hair. he appeared pretty oblivious to the world about him and made his rounds pushing his shopping cart, maybe mumbling, doing his rounds. I did talk to him once--in fact, he made me angry. I was trying to put the bridge up for a sport fishing boat, I had the cars stopped, the gates down, lights flashing, warnings blare-beeping and dinging, and The Professor walks right past all the warnings with his cart and onto the bridge. I had to call the captain and explain why the bridge was not going up (and the cars had to wait) and he said he saw the guy. I stood outside the bridge house as the guy came across and admonished him. I said: "You're supposed to wait behind the gate. You understand that much, don't you?" or some such. He looked at me, almost astonished, breaking from his inner world to acknowledge that someone was actually addressing him. He didn't say anything, but he had a quick and brief look of guilt in his eyes and expression (though I'm not sure about that). But he kept ambling across, back to oblivion I guess. Yeah. I felt kind of bad. I men, I'm sure he heard worse on a daily basis, but not from me.

Even after I quit that job and went back to teaching, I'd see those people around. I felt like I knew them, in a way. Even after we moved away from Fort Lauderdale and I'd return to visit, I'd see them--a few--and it gave me a certain, I don't know, satisfaction (if that's the best way to state it) while still holding on to my sympathy for them. But, not anymore. No, not the lack of sympathy. They aren't there anymore. At least to the best of my knowledge--I've been back many times but I've never seen those guys. Are they still there? I know I'm not.

No comments: