After several minutes of shifting and negotiating various levels of discomfort, I settled at fetal position. Laying there with my hands sandwiched between knees, I was determined to get some rest. It would not come easily under these circumstances. I would have to ignore the aching of my body against the asphalt, and somehow find a way to disregard the occasional Texas sized cockroach wandering my periphery. I sunk into my sleeping bag, zipped it over my head, and fantasized about the cozy pillow top mattress that was a given just one night ago.
The day had begun like any other Saturday. Significantly better actually, like some poetic cliché of a perfect weekend. I awoke early with an inexplicable surge of energy that would contribute an extra half mile to my sunrise jog around Lady Bird Lake. The shower that followed showcased my vocals on a Pandora accompanied solo mashup that would end only on account of an abrupt surge of cold water - a cunning technique, I am convinced, crafted by the city's water board to keep unruly residents like myself compliant with the standards of Travis County’s drought restrictions.
I quickly dressed, threw a journal, a pen, and a book into my sling bag, and walked to my favorite coffee shop, Dominican Joe’s, where I had the rare fate of finding the coveted red hammock on the back patio unoccupied. I slowly shifted my body onto the hammock and gently lay back to savor every moment of this personal triumph. After a long week of 4 a.m. flights, facilitating employee round-tables, implementing action plans, and responding to hotline calls, this was my day to be completely and unapologetically self-indulgent.
Just as I began to quiet my mind, a text vibrated my bag. I cringed at the possibility of some urgent work issue requiring immediate action. I reached my phone relieved to find a message from my cousin, Dominique, inviting me to join Mobile Loaves & Fishes on their annual “Street Retreat.” She had mentioned it before. The non-profit agency she worked for provided periodic opportunities for city residents to camp out for a night and experience what life is like for Austin’s growing homeless population. Without hesitation, I replied, “YES!”
That “yes," all-caps, exclamation point, landed me here in this parking lot fully zipped into a borrowed sleeping bag making life decisions. What’s more important, breathing or avoiding this overly athletic mutant breed of insect? Insect avoidance was taking a strong first place when I heard heavy breathing and clumsy footsteps hastily approaching. I unzipped to my nose to find an elderly man walking in my direction. He plopped his gear down in front of me and said with a raspy smoker’s drawl, “I usually have this spot to myself." Before I could muster a response to what was clearly an invitation to explain our presence, he continued,
"Got me a spot on South Lamar today.”
“Oh, Yeah?” I replied,as he proudly patted his pocket.
“Yep, it was a good day.”
He was a cherub of a man with a sunburned face and friendly eyes. I was struck in that moment by the realization that South Lamar, a prime intersection for soliciting cash, was his equivalent to my red hammock. There was no difference in the sense of joy we felt in our morning conquest at opposite ends of the city.
I sat up and watched as he loosened the drawstring of his duffel bag and, one-by-one, began pulling out the cleverest array of items: a canteen, a pair of cargo pants with the tag still on them, a small pillow. He’s Mary Poppins, I thought.
“My buddy wanted to get some liquor but I ain’t drank in two days,” he said with a satisfaction that let me know this was a long stretch by his standards.
“He’s a wimp anyways. Wouldn’t even come over with me when he saw ya’ll camped out.”
“Yeah, my bad,” I interjected, not to miss another opportunity to explain our invasion on, what was clearly, his turf. “We didn’t realize this was anyone’s spot.”
“Hmm,” he grunted, “What’s your name?”
“Naomi,” I responded, “What’s yours?”
“Vern” he said. “What you doing out here, Naomi?”
“Camping out, for the night, with an organization that provides services to the homeless.”
“Yeah, I knew you wasn’t for real,” he said more to himself than me.
“You know why we sleep in this church parking lot?”
“Police can’t mess with you on church property. It’s against the law.”
“Really?” I replied. “Do they mess with you otherwise?”
“You just got to know where to be. They’re not bad in Austin but Dallas on the other hand…”
Vern talked into the night about everything in no particular order. I learned that he suffered from PTSD and self-medicated with alcohol, a habit he was trying to kick. He had gotten his “survival bag” from the Veterans Affairs (V.A.) Hospital. He left home on his own at the age of thirteen to escape an abusive father. Vern had a “real good woman” once. She loved him but he "screwed it up."
He told me how some “jerk in a pick-up truck” had cursed at him earlier in the day. “Told me to get a job!” Vern said, his voice trailing off as if reliving the incident in his mind. “You see this?” he asked, shaking a large zip bag full of prescription meds. He cataloged for me one by one, every medication and what it treated. “This one here is a new prescription for a brand new diagnosis,” he said, squeezing between his fingers a large pill bottle. “You ever seen a want ad for an old messed up Vet?” His conversation lingered there for a while. Vern was clearly upset, stung by the words of a stranger.
He was a man with a lot of pride. He was proud of his military service, too proud to carry a sign for solicitations. He spread his pallet with pride, neatly laying his flannel blanket over a yoga mat and a sheet of cardboard. He had his reasons for being out here, reasons that the “jerk in the pick-up truck” didn’t care to understand. Vern didn’t want to be dismissed or labeled or judged. I understood that. “I’m sorry, Vern. Some people are just cruel,” I said. He responded with silence for the first time since our introduction.
“Would you mind if I write about you?” I asked.
He smiled as I pulled my journal from my backpack.
“You a writer?”
“Yes,” I replied.
“Well, I got some stories,” he said, as he got up from his pallet. I watched him walk behind the dumpster at the corner of the parking lot and return with a cardboard box. He ripped the box at the seams, and stretched it flat in front of me. “Lay on this,” he said. I wiggled myself onto the cardboard surprised to find that the thin barrier between my body and the asphalt made a world of difference.
“Oh, my gosh, Vern. Thank you!”
He smirked, “Don’t worry about anything out here. I’ll protect you.”
He was asleep within minutes of this pledge.
I awoke the next morning and he was gone. Our group of missionaries, seminary students, and social workers were already up and shuffling around. Someone brought in a coffee urn and my cousin was in line with two paper cups. She had already rolled her sleeping bag and packed up for the three mile walk back to my apartment.
I kept an eye out for Vern, over the next several months, looking for him on park benches and bus stops. I stashed a few dollars in my car in case I ran into him at some intersection on my drive home from work. I never saw him again but I am thankful for the timing and set of circumstances that united us in that church parking lot over a year ago. I needed to see Vern just as much as he needed to be seen.
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