Charlies day started much today as it had yesterday and probably would tomorrow. In the dim light of the morning, made darker by a threatening sky, he slowly dressed. Torn blue jeans pulled on, followed by a faded sweatshirt that had seen it’s better days. Their only redeeming factor was that they were clean. Charlie didn’t have much left but pride and that pride showed in his grooming. Each day here at the shelter Charlie would shower, shave, and comb his long hair. He didn’t particularly like the way his hair looked, but haircuts cost money. What little he had needed to be spent frugally and selectively.
Stepping out into the day onto the cracked sidewalk, Charlie surveyed his surroundings. As with most shelters, it was tucked away in a not so desirable part of town where the rents were cheap and the public did not frequent. It was like a prison, he mused. Although bereft of bars, it none the less isolated the homeless and held sway over the lives of the people that collected here. Boundaries were invisible, more felt then seen.
Life moved differently here. A lack of urgency prevailed. There were no schedules or deadlines as there had been just a couple of years ago. “A couple of years” he thought. It didn’t seem possible it had been that long since he had been a member of ‘that other life’. Back when each day had purpose and held promise. Back when respect came easy and was taken for granted. Back when he was still called Mr.
As was his habit, Charlie turned uptown, where he would spend the morning walking among ‘the others’ as he liked to call them. People who still had jobs and opportunities to occupy their lives. A place where futures still held promise and rejection was just another word. He had lived there once. He could relate to the pace and tenor that surrounded them. Each ensconced in their own individual environment, seeking those things that secured their worth and value, each believing that tomorrow would be as good as or better then today. And, deep down, he longed for those days.
His demise had come quickly. After twelve years of working for the same company, quietly and efficiently doing his job, he had been laid off. Downsizing they called it. It is not like Charlie had not seen the signs. Vacant positions going unfilled. Production reduced. Cost tightening more pronounced. He had been an accountant and the accounting department was not considered a profit center. Like the training department, staffing was strictly an expense to the bottom line and one of the first places management looked to cut costs. But yet, it had been unexpected. In retrospect, he had become comfortable and complacent. Too important to the company to be let go. Then came the call to the bosses office where he was assured that he was a valued employee and the move was nothing personal but they were automating several functions and there was no longer a place for him. He hardly remembered walking out of the office and cleaning out his desk. How his mind had raced. Nothing made sense. He was totally unprepared for dismissal. It couldn’t be happening, not to him, but it was.
For the first few months, Charlie looked for other accounting positions and even got a couple of interviews, but nothing came of them. He knew he was competing with younger applicants that were much more well versed in technology then he was. And, as time went on, he also battled the feelings of hopelessness that had started to creep in. He began answering ads for just about anything to make a buck and, with the exception of a couple of temporary jobs, was mostly without employment. He sold his townhouse and his furniture until there was nothing left. And here he was today. His whole material life carried in a backpack which had been donated. It was hard to fight off the depression he felt.
As he walked, he welcomed the warm breezes that were beginning to insinuate themselves on the city as spring approached. The streets were coming alive again with street vendors and shoppers. He had always liked spring the best, perhaps because he saw it as a new beginning. The world was again becoming new around him. As meager as it was, it was something to look forward to.
His daily trip took him past a nursery, which was currently overflowing with all manner of flowers and vegetable plants, bushes and shrubs. Next to the street were flats of marigold, pansies, petunias, and his favorite, begonias. He liked them best because they were so beautiful yet fragile. He always made a point to stop and enjoy them. When he had his own place, he had grown them on his patio. They required attention and responded nicely to it. Today, he reached out and plucked off a few dead leaves and spent blossoms, and then a few more, losing himself in the moment.
“You obviously love flowers” the woman’s voice said. Startled, he turned to see a young lady in an apron and gloves watching him.
“I’m sorry” he said. “I used to grow these and, well, just wanted to touch them. I meant no harm”.
“It’s not a problem”. I’ve seen you pass by before and you always stop and appreciate the flowers. Why did you stop growing them yourself”? Immediately upon asking the question, she could see that her query had embarrassed him and was sorry she had been so forward.
“I’m, uh, between jobs” Charlie finally said. “Haven’t been able to find anything and, well, just don’t have time” he stammered.
“What kind of a job are you looking for”? she asked.
“I’m an accountant by training, but that hasn’t panned out. As of now, I’m looking for anything steady that will get me out of the shelter”.
“You’re homeless” she said, surprise reflected in her voice. He certainly was not what came to mind when she thought of homeless.
Charlie just nodded. This was not going at all as he would wish. His pride was taking a beating and he decided it was best to move on. “Well, I must be going” he said.
“Where” she asked.
Charlie stood there in silence. Partly because he had not expected the question, and partly because he was unable to answer it. Where was he going? What was so pressing that he had to leave.
She saw the consternation on his face. “Look” she said. “I could use a hand here. A lot of lifting and long hours. Dirty work. And I can’t pay a lot, but I can offer you a place to stay. Nothing much, but it’s clean. Would you be interested”?
Charlie stood as if nailed to the sidewalk. What did she say? Did he hear her right. Was she offering to give him a hand? Finally finding his voice, he mumbled “But you don’t know me”.
“I think I do” she replied, “or at least enough to believe we could help each other. I’m not offering handouts. You will have to work hard for your keep. What do you say”?
“Yes. Yes, I can do that. I can start today if you like”.
“Don’t you want to know what it pays” she said laughing.
“Why don’t you just let me try and you can pay me what you think that’s worth” he said, returning her smile.
“Fair enough. Follow me and we’ll get you settled and started”.
As he entered the garden center, walking between all the plants and flowers, he reveled in his good fortune and thought of a saying he had heard once. “Don’t wait for someone to bring you flowers. Plant your own garden. And now, both literally and figuratively, he had done just that.