I first met Willie in January. He was sitting in his motorized wheelchair outside of the Ralph’s grocery store in mid-town. I was very pleased when I saw him today in his same old spot almost exactly six months later.
Willie lives on Skid Row and he gets on the city bus— it can lower its steps to the ground to accommodate his chair —and he comes to Ralph’s and quietly asks for change. He must go other places too since I hadn’t seen him outside of Ralph’s since our first meeting.
I walked up to him, said, “Hey Willie! You probably don’t remember me.” And he didn’t. He thought my name was Barbara and that I’d given him a book. I told him my name again and, as if he were committing it to memory, he used it at the end of almost every sentence of our conversation.
I asked him how he was doing since I’d last seen him. He said alright, but he was having trouble with his knee. He’d gotten a cortisone shot in it recently, one of three he gets a year. He’d had arthroscopic surgery on it in 1985 and it had never really healed.
Willie had on a cap with the 101st Airborne embroidered on it. I asked if that had been his division. He said yes it had. He’d been based at Ft. Campbell, Ky. starting in 1972, just barely missing having to go to Vietnam. He remembered the year clearly because it was the year his daughter was born. She’d had to have a pacemaker put in as an infant. She was 41 now and she’d been in the hospital again recently, but she was doing OK, he said. She had scars all over her chest from that pacemaker and its replacement, but otherwise she was fine.
I asked him where he got his medical care and he said the Veteran’s Administration hospital on the West Side. He takes the bus there. I gave money to another vet in May, who lived in VA housing. I asked Willie if that was a possibility, but he shook his head no. He couldn’t leave his wife.
He’d told me about his wife when I’d talked to him in January. She was a younger woman and after they’d become homeless four years ago, she’d turned to drugs and then prostitution to support her drug habit. “She’s skin and bones now, but I love her,” he said. “She comes up and she hugs me and she smells good.”
I asked him her name and he said, “I call her baby.” I pressed him a little and he said, “Chris,” which didn’t sound at all familiar to me. I think he felt like I was judging him for giving up the possibility of VA housing so he could still be with her, even though she was turning tricks and an addict. He said he thought he might be going to hell. He said so twice. I’m not sure why he thought that. I told him that I didn’t think God worked that way. But then what do I know? I don’t know why God would let all kinds of suffering happen here on Earth so I certainly can’t claim any knowledge on the afterlife... although it would seem to me that Willie’s going through hell now.
I went into the store, bought Willie some food and water and gave it to him plus my daily $10 in hopes he could find a bed to sleep in for the night. I vowed not to give to causes more than once, but to see Willie and to not give him money in order to obey some arbitrary rule I made felt cruel, almost like a sin.
I came home and looked back at the story I first wrote about Willie in January. At that time, his wife’s name was Annabelle, so who know what’s going there. He talked about her with the same wistfulness and bittersweet tone, so it was clearly the same woman, but maybe he was making up a name in a misguided attempt to protect her or maybe she doesn’t exist except in Willie’s mind. Either way, he calls her baby.
July 20: Willie
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