It feels like just yesterday that I attended the SuperComputing trade show and conference in Austin, Texas, 2008. That week I met Luciano, a man without a home for whom I provided a hotel for two nights in order that he could get off the streets. I flew back to Austin two months later to capture his story on film. I spent two nights on the streets with Luciano and his friends, his life unfolding for the camera.
While walking from my hotel to the convention center yesterday afternoon, a tall (much taller than me) man approached from my left side, I assumed homeless by his tattered apparel and streetwise stride, hunched, favoring one side a little more than the other.
He shouted while coming across the street, “Hey! Hold up man.” A bit winded, he moved faster to close in, “Hey, God bless you man,” pausing while he caught up, “Man, you some kinda business guy! Look at you, you look like the mayor of Seattle!” referring to my new pleated pants, dress shoes, and Puma jacket (which passes for business casual on a good day).
I laughed, “Thank you. But no, I am not much of a business guy, at least not like that,” I responded.
“Hey, I ain’t want’n to bother you or noth’n, but it’s been a hard week and I was just wonder’n if you could help me get a bite to eat?”
“I won’t give you any money, but I will gladly buy you dinner.”
“Really? Hey, that sounds great.” He was walking along side me then.
“Where do you want to eat?”
“Hey man, I don’t want to change your plans. So, where you head’d?”
“To the convention center. You know where it’s at?”
“Oh yes sir, just up this here hill. I’ll take you there and right next door is a Subway shop.”
“Sounds great. I’ll buy you a sandwich.”
He reached out and shook my hand, “My name is Myron.”
“I am Kai.”
“Kai? What kind of name is that?”
“A short one,” I smiled.
“Man, I like you. You’re all right.”
“Thank you. I like you too.” As I said this, and we neared the business district, I could feel eyes watching, people trying to understand the relationship between this man and me. I made a point of making eye contact with him as we walked and allowing our shoulders to bump every now and again as though we were best friends. I did not want, in any way, for him to feel ashamed or unclean.
Myron pointed to his shoes and said, “You know, if I take off these shoes, my socks would just plain fall apart. There ain’t much left to even call them socks. Know what I mean?”
“Yes, I had a pair of socks that were like that.”
“Well, if you can spare some change, maybe I could buy a new pair of socks.”
“Socks. Not drugs. Right?
“Yeah man, I promise. Socks.”
He refused the twenty and so I gave him ten dollars in cash. We talked about where he lived and how we moved through the world. He was polite, funny, and a great conversationalist. We arrived in front of the convention center and I remembered being there before for the 2005 or 2006 SuperComputing tradeshow.
We walked up to the Subway shop, it’s outdoor counter facing the street. Myron looked at the options and at the request of the sandwich artist, ordered a foot-long meatball sub. He asked if it was ok to get a drink, chips, and a cookie. I said he could get whatever he wanted.
While we waited for the sandwich to be made, interrupted by the usual questions for type of bread, cheese, veggies, and sauce, the conversation unfolded something like this.
“Ain’t you gonna get something Kai?”
“No, there will be food at the trade show in just about an hour.”
“You want a bite of mine?”
“Thanks man, but I am vegetarian. For twenty three years.”
“Twenty three– What? Twenty three years without eat’n meat!? Maaaan, you is crazy. No one can live like that! I am SO sorry for YOU!”
I laughed out loud, the woman at the counter turning to smile at us both, “Well, I seem to be do’n ok.”
“No man, that just ain’t healthy.”
“I ran forty two miles last week and do one hundred sit-ups every day!”
Myron just shook his head, looked at his worn, cracked fingers and long nails. Under his breath, “Twenty three years … you know what, I bet when you let one go,” and at that he bent forward to make it clear what he was referring to, “I bet it don’t stink at all!”
I laughed so hard I nearly fell over. He bent over and stood up a few times, just to get the most of the humor. Then he took a step forward and leaned on the counter, “Fellas. See this guy over here,” pointing at me, “he ain’t eat’n no meat for twenty three years! You think that’s ok? And when he farts, man, it don’t smell!”
The younger of the two said, “Yeah man, it’s ok.” The other just laughed.
Myron turned back to me, just as the sandwich was nearly done, “Kai. You mind if I say a prayer for you?”
“No, not at all.”
He put his hand on my shoulder and bowed his head, his shoulders still resting at a height taller than all of me combined. “Lord, thank you for bringing me to this man. I know now I’m gonna make it one more day. Amen.”
We exchanged a few hand-jive maneuvers, something I love about my many encounters with the homeless in so many cities. Each has a special ending, a flutter, a set of wings, a wiggle, or an explosion of fingers, some just ending in fist bumps. We walked back down the street along the front of the convention center. Dozens of geeks, some I recognized from over a decade of attending this family reunion walked past and through the glass doors.
“I don’t live too far away, just down there on First and Cedar.”
“First and Cedar,” I repeated.
“Yeah. So, you know, keep an eye out for me, ok? My place ain’t so fancy. It’s low income housing.”
“But you have a place of your own. That’s doing ok. You’re better off than some.” He nodded. I continued, “You know, I’ve been living out of my car and a tent for over a month.” I looked up to see what he might say.
He stopped walking. I thought he might be offended, “You put’n me on?!”
“No. I’m being honest. I left my home in Colorado two months ago and have been living a pretty simple life since. Like you said, low income housing. Now, I am a carpenter in a mountain village not far from here. I’m not say’n my life is like yours, but you know, we share something in common. A simple life.”
“I’ll look for you Myron. Maybe we can have lunch together later this week.”
“Yeah. Yea man, that’d be nice. See ya around.”
“I hope so. First and Cedar, right?”
He nodded and waved, opening the Subway shop bag.
I turned to enter the convention center.
The first person I saw, at the top of the three step landing was Steve Poole, the infamous “bomb boy” from Los Alamos who once invoked a perfectly timed, one finger salute from a Sr. Manager of Business Development for Motorola for interrupting a PowerPoint presentation with an accusatory question. “Is that– is that an Intel laptop you are using!?”
But he was more commonly known for his introduction to his work when one visited the Los Alamos booth at SuperComputing, “Bombs. We make bombs. Better bombs. Bigger bombs … F-r-i-e-n-d-l-i-e-r bombs,” his crazy white hair giving him the appearance of a modern day Einstein. He’s likely just as smart.
“Steve! How are you?” extending my hand.
Grinning, “Kai, it’s been a few years.”
“Yeah, needed a vacation from this place. Hey, I emailed you a few weeks ago, but it bounced. You still at Oak Ridge?”
“Yeah, that email doesn’t always work. You know, I just work here and there now.”
“You got a new email?”
“Uh. Mind if I have it?”
“Yes,” smiling as only Steve can.
“Got it. Never mind. I’ll look for you on the show floor,” smiling back.
Two hours later, I got a call from Luciano, the man in Austin whose story I captured on film two years ago. He was returning my call to his sister a few days earlier. He is doing well. He is in rehab, has a girlfriend, email, and even a Facebook account. He sounded really good and asked when I was coming back to Austin to visit. I told him I hoped it would be soon.
The transition from Holden to Seattle, from stoking fires at midnight to SuperComputing 2011 was a stark contrast, but the unfolding of this day was exactly what I had asked for.
I was home, even in the big city, for at least a few days.