“How ya doin’?”
I don’t like ignoring people. I think it’s rude, no matter who they are. So I reply, “Good, you?”
“I’ve been better, but then I’ve been a whole lot fuckin’ worse.” It endears him to me instantly.
This is Jim. He will be 81 years old in a couple of months. He is homeless. He is a little skinny and a little dirty, and he probably could use a once over by a doctor, but he is otherwise in pretty good shape for any man his age. His blue eyes are clear. No drug or alcohol problem here. That is also obvious from the lucid and interesting conversation we have.
I am doing a photoshoot in front of a long closed fire station in downtown Los Angeles when Jim walks by.
“I helped remodel this fire station. Years ago,” he volunteers.
“Really? You were a fireman?”
“For a while…”
There is story here. A painful one from the sound of it. I detect a familiar lilt in his raspy voice, charming still, despite his situation.
“Where are you from?”
“I grew up in Black Mountain, North Carolina. I was a volunteer fireman there. Then I moved to Asheville and worked at the fire station there. Came out here. Wish I’d never come.”
I don’t press him for details. He has tattoos on his fingers and not the kind from a tattoo parlor. More like the kind you would get in prison. Maybe he once did his time for… something or another. We all know a stint behind bars pretty much guarantees you will never easily have fruitful employment again.
I forget how his age comes up, but I exclaim, “No way,” when he says it. I tell him he looks great, and he lists the intersections he walks to every day, essentially making a giant rectangle around the lower part of the city. I try to do a mental calculation while he talks. It has to be at least ten miles. Maybe fifteen. No wonder he’s still mentally and physically agile at 80. He gets at least ten times as much exercise as I do!
He starts to go, but hesitates, the cardboard coffee cup in his hand shaking the slightest bit, more likely from old age and malnutrition than any sort of dependence.
“Listen, I managed to get a cup of coffee, but do you think you could help me get something to eat?”
“Only because you’re from North Carolina.”
I wink. He winks back.
I ask him, almost as an afterthought, “Can I take a picture of you?” I say it partly to let him know he means something to me, as a person; to make him feel the bill I hand him is transactional and not just charity, given reluctantly out of pity. And, partly, it’s because I want to capture the childlike innocence on this worn face. He was, after all, someone’s little boy once.
He brightens a bit. I tell him where to stand, and he makes an offhand remark about being ugly.
“Not to me, you’re not.”
I fire off a few frames, then thank him.
He rattles off all the menu items he’s going to order when he gets to McDonalds. I give him a thumbs up, and he’s on his way.
There is a sweet, sad energy to this man. I return to my photo shoot, but I can’t quite shake the connection I just made. I wish I could hear the rest of his story. I don’t know why people cross our paths on this planet or why we cross theirs, and maybe, in the end, there is no rhyme or reason.
Thank you for the conversation. Thank you for posing for me. Thank you for the beaming optimism you choose to project despite your pain, despite your circumstance. It inspires me to be a better human being, myself. I hope you fill your belly tonight, Jim Sackett from Black Mountain, North Carolina.