Every time I stop by the abandoned doorway to see hardcore homeless James, I think, “Well, at least he’s still alive.”
For how long, though?
James is 48, and looks every bit like a man who lives outdoors year round, sleeping on cardboard in a downtown doorway where he rolls his own cigarettes and feeds bread and food scraps to pigeons.
James’ health is a mystery to me. He’s not a large man, but he’s pretty rugged. He made it through a harsh winter bundled up in coats and a sleeping bag. But on one of my recent visits, he was coughing, hacking and spitting ferociously and getting quite upset about it.
I’ve been bringing James sandwiches and returnable bottles and cans about twice a week since Christmas; another man in Syracuse delivers a full breakfast to James and others most mornings, preparing it at his home and delivering it to homeless camps.
James prefers to be alone, so there’s no one to look after him. He says “other dudes” steal his food, returnable bottles and belongings from his shopping cart. That’s why he’s worn the same pair of jeans all winter. He talks of saving enough money to get a place to live, but that prospect seems unlikely.
The other afternoon I brought a sandwich and some empties to James’ doorway, only to find him sound asleep, curled up on his cardboard bed and wrapped up in a coat. It was 2:30 on a pleasant sunny day, with the temperature in the high 70s. His face was red, sunburned from his daily rounds to the bottle return and post office. (James reads newspapers voraciously, tearing out articles to send to a friend in Germany, he says.)
James didn’t stir as I put the items on top of his overflowing cart just a few feet away. A couple of cars were parked near his spot, likely owned by people who work across the street in City Hall or the state office building. Several pedestrians passed by.
James seems to go unnoticed despite his large shopping cart, his cardboard living setup and the mass of cigarette butts and pigeon droppings around his doorway. People tend to steer clear, seemingly reluctant to even look in his direction.
So I wonder … How long can James remain unseen? When will we get a clue that there’s a human being living this way in our midst, a stone’s throw from where our city and state officials go to work each day?
Realistically, here’s when: a few months, maybe a year from now, after James is taken to the Emergency Room and doesn’t come back. Someone will steal his cart, the property owner or the city will remove the cardboard bedding, hose down the doorway.
We’ll walk past, and at some point realize that the cart is gone and the area looks different, cleaned up. We’ll wonder, “Whatever happened to that homeless guy?”
Yes, we’ll notice James after he’s gone.