Adam left a half hour early to go to his Bar Mitzvah lesson. It wasn't that he was excited about the lesson, he was curious about the homeless man. He wanted to know more about him. He had never met a homeless person before. The idea of being homeless was a surprise to him. He understood that people made different amounts of money and that some people had nicer homes than others. He knew that some people owned their home while others rented. But not having a place to live? That was new to him.
Adam went straight to the Army/Navy store where he met the homeless man last week. He didn't see him. As he waited, he thought that something must have happened to that man for him to become homeless. He didn't remember smelling alcohol on his breath so he guessed that the homeless man wasn't a drunk. He didn't remember him being high so he guessed that he wasn't a drug addict. Something must have happened to him because Adam thought that no one grew up with the ambition to become homeless.
"Any spare change, kid?"
Adam turned around and smiled. "Let me buy you a cup of coffee and then I'll give you a dollar."
"What's your game?"
"Why do you want to buy me a cup of coffee?"
"I want to talk to you?"
"I told the rabbi about you last week. He said that when I gave you a dollar I did a tzedakah."
"A tzedakah. Some people say it means an act of charity. But it really means doing what is right."
"Tzedakah? Rabbi? You look about thirteen. Bar Mitzvah lessons?"
"Yes. Are you Jewish?"
"No. But I had many Jewish friends. Let's get that cup of coffee.
The homeless man ordered a dark, strong coffee while Adam ordered a hot chocolate.
"So what do you want to talk about?" asked the homeless man.
"What's your name?"
"Charles Billings. And yours?"
"Did you grow up here?"
"No. I'm originally from out west, Oregon. College brought me here."
"What did you study?"
Adam thought for a minute. He had to be smart if he went to college and studied law."
"Did you graduate?"
"Yes. I did. I was a lawyer for awhile. I'm guessing you want to know why I'm homeless."
Adam turned red.
"It's OK. You're thinking that a college educated person could not become homeless."
"Yea. People say that homeless people are drunks, drug addicts, or people too lazy to work."
"That's what people think. Some are. Some people are their own worst enemy. I was never lazy. I always stayed late at the office and worked weekends." I had two homes. My apartment and the law office where I spent most of my time."
"Then what happened?"
"I started feeling funny. I got confused. I would be working on a case, got the facts mixed up, introduced things that had nothing to do with the case. Then the voices started."
Adam got nervous.
"I'm fine. The voices never told me to hurt anyone. I was never violent. Sometimes Einstein was speaking to me. John Lennon. Sherlock Holmes. If I were a writer, I might have written a best selling novel, but those voices didn't help me as a lawyer. The voices interfered with my work. I lost some cases and lost the law firm money. Next thing I knew I was fired."
"Why didn't you see a doctor?"
"I did, but not right away. At first I thought it was from all the hours I worked. I rested and for awhile I felt better. Then, the voices came back. I tried to block the voices and block that I was sick. Nobody wants to go to a doctor and tell them that he hears voices. Nobody wants people to think that he's crazy."
"Did you get better?"
"Then why are you homeless?"
"I asked for my old job back. I explained what happened to me but my mental illness scared them. I tried other law firms but the law community is a small world. The firm that fired me wouldn't give me a reference making it just about impossible to get a job."
"What's a reference."
Charles smiled. "A reference is when a co-worker or your boss tells someone else how good your work was. When you apply for a new job, you ask former co-workers to give you a recommendation, to tell the person who may hire you about the quality of the work you did.
Soon I ran out of money and couldn't pay the rent. For awhile I stayed with friends. Soon I was homeless. It's almost impossible to get a job without and address or a phone number."