I spent Labor Day weekend 2017, which also happened to mark my 50th birthday, in my hometown of Roanoke in southwestern Virginia, from which I’d bolted some 30 years previous at the age of 19 to put myself through college in New York City.
One nostalgic evening during my visit home last month, I Ubered downtown to see my old friend Adam playing classic rock covers on electric guitar at a joint called the Wall Street Tavern. He was outdoors under a covered patio. I sat squarely in front of him, alone at a table for two as the old song goes, sipping a Dewar’s and soda.
A homeless man approached and stood on the sidewalk trying to get my attention. I spotted him out of the corner of my eye. He plainly knew he wasn’t allowed inside but I waved him in anyway to better hear him over the loud, lilting chords. He hesitated for a moment as though blocked by a force field, but finally pushed through it and crept over to me. He asked if I had a cigarette. I shook my head, said, “Sorry, buddy,” and turned my attention back to the music.
He kept standing there. “Can you buy me something to eat?”
I shrugged and said, “Absolutely,” and told him to have a seat. I introduced myself; he said his name was Morris. The waitress came immediately. I suspected her manager had sent her over to make Morris leave and stop harassing their customer, so I immediately smiled at her, stuck up my hand in a friendly wave and said, “This is my friend Morris, give him whatever he wants.” The most expensive thing on the menu was $12 so I wasn’t too worried. He ordered a steak sandwich with parmesan fries, and I told him to take his time, stick around and enjoy the music. I asked if he wanted a drink. He said he’d have whatever I was having and I gave the waitress the order.
When she returned with the scotch and soda, she kindly asked Morris if he’d also like a water to go with it. He screwed up his face and shook his head at the both of us. “Man, all I do is drink water all day long!” The three of us laughed and she told him no problem.
Morris was enthralled by Adam’s virtuoso guitar playing. He kept watching Adam and then turning back to me smiling. He asked me if Adam knew any Jimi Hendrix. I said, “You bet he does,” and called out, “Adam! Play some Hendrix?”
Adam nodded at Morris. “Slow Hendrix or fast Hendrix?”
Adam launched right into Foxy Lady and Morris grinned at me from ear to ear. We grooved and fist-bumped together through Crosstown Traffic and The Wind Cries Mary. I asked Morris if he’d mind if I took his picture with Adam in the background and he said sure. The result looked like a mug shot, his image unflattering and his face hardened. He asked to see it and I handed him my phone. He scowled and said, “That don’t look like me.” Sadly it did. I wondered to myself how many years it had been since he’d seen his own picture; how long since anyone had wanted to take his picture.
I said, “Smile, Morris. You need to try smiling.” He cocked his head to one side and grinned ever so slightly, and it made all the difference in the final shot. I asked if I could send it to him but he has no phone, no computer and no email address. How ghostly must it feel to be so disconnected from humanity in this day and age, I thought.
He finished half of his meal and asked self-consciously if he could be allowed to take the other half with him. It dawned on me that he simply had no clue how modern restaurants work. “Of course you can,” I told him, and asked the waitress to box it up for him. She happily took his plate.
After she walked away, Morris shifted his eyes about nervously, leaned over to me and whispered, “Man, I never get to eat in nice restaurants like this,” which to me was surprising because I hadn’t thought of it as a particularly nice place before that moment. Seeing it through another set of eyes was a refreshing reminder, not only of my own specific privilege, but of our mostly slick and glitzy day-to-day USA in which even a corner pub can seem to many like an off limits five-star restaurant.
Morris rocked out a little longer to Adam’s masterful guitar work. Finally he stood, took his tidily boxed up food and stood facing me. “You’re alright,” he said, eyes twinkling, and gave me a final fist bump.
The fist bump became a handshake and I said, “You’re alright, too, Morris.” He walked away into the warm summer night leaving me to my lonesomeness.
Adam later told his mom about this episode, and when I ran into her a few days later she told me she wept for the first time in years after hearing about it. Then she took my hand and said to me, “You know what you did for that man? You didn’t buy him a meal. You gave him back his humanity.”
I cringe and blush at that hyperbole but I have to say that aside from my six-year-old son’s homemade gift that weekend, my encounter with Morris was the best 50th birthday present I could have imagined.
You see, Morris never knew it but he had done me a favor by keeping me company and cheering me up that evening. I was going through a severe family crisis and was in no mood to celebrate a milestone birthday. I appreciated his kindness and patience, his eagerness to just hang there in that space, in that moment, with me, riding the sweet-sounding croon and electric rhythms cocooning us, speaking to each other as little as possible and jointly abandoning our worlds-apart troubles for a shared instant on our harshly finite, briefly intersecting timelines.
If you’re ever in downtown Roanoke near the old City Market building and you run into Morris, please bump his fist for me. Slip him a few bucks, or, if you have a moment, buy him a steak sandwich, would you?