Pete’s pants are wrapped in a white plastic bag and sitting in our garage. They are soiled, but I’ll wash them in the morning and return them to him. He pulled them off slowly while sitting on the bench outside the grocery store tonight. I was worried he was going to get arrested, stripping down that way in front of one of the store clerks and a young boy on a bike, who did a double-take when he realized that Pete wasn’t wearing any underwear.
If the police had come I would have had to intervene. I would have told them it was all my fault that Pete was nude from the waist down, save for his mismatched socks.
I first saw Pete yesterday, walking away from the Wal-Mart parking lot, grasping a forest green blanket as if he was Superman and his cape was about to blow away. He moved hunched over his belly, like he was battling a bitter wind, and I suppose that’s exactly what he has done for much of his adult life.
I saw him again, today, walking along Highway 395, south of Starbucks. The sun was shining bright but he was still hugging that ratty blanket. A new homeless man in town? Or just one I haven’t noticed before? I said a quick prayer for him, but in my rush, kept on driving.
Then hours later, in the aisle between the deli and the yogurt, he walked past me, his green cape trailing. I turned, touched his shoulder and said, “Hey buddy, are you okay?”
A generous smile pleated his mouth, his dark eyes.
“Oh, yes,” he replied. “This keeps me warm.” He patted his cape.
“Do you have a place to stay? Someplace warm to sleep?”
“Yes,” he replied. “My father has a place. I stay there at night but he’s in Mexico right now. I don’ t like to stay there by myself.”
I didn’t think it odd that he preferred being on the streets to staying in his father’s house but I did wonder, briefly, why I didn’t think that strange.
“I saw you yesterday,” I said. “I was worried about you. I prayed for you.”
“Oh, that’s sweet,” he said. “So sweet.”
Shoppers passed behind us, giving me that look, thinking, I imagine, that this man had approached me first, perhaps looking for a handout.
“I’m sorry,” he said, pulling back the blanket. “I had seizures last night and soiled myself.” Stale urine saturated the air between us.
“You need clean clothes. Do you know about the Agape House?”
“No,” he said, shaking his head.
“It’s behind Home Depot. Go there tomorrow. They have clothes, food, blankets. They can help you.”
“Thank you, thank you,” he said, bowing his head.
“Pete,” he said, taking my hand into his.
“Nice to meet you, Pete.”
“My family helps me,” he said. “I get a check and they help me but I’m low on funds right now. I could call and get help tomorrow but if you have something. Can you help me out?”
“I don’t have cash on me,” I said truthfully. “But we need to get you some clean clothes.” My mind raced, trying to think of who I could call at 7:30 p.m. for help.
“Yes. That would be nice. If I could get out of these pants. They’ve been soiled all day. Those seizures.”
I looked at his jeans and noticed his shoes. On the left foot was a hiking boot. On the right foot was a tennis shoe, a tag still attached to it.
“Pete, I have to finish getting the groceries but as soon as I’m done I can go to the store next-door, get you some clean clothes. You’ll have to wait for me. Can you wait for me?”
“This is fine,” he said, pulling on the front of his dirty black sweatshirt. “But…” he looked down at his faded jeans.“I’ll get you some pants,” I said. “But you have to wait for me.”
“I will,” he said. “Out there.” He pointed to the far east corner of the store.
“Yes, wait for me.”
“That’s sweet,” he said. “That’s very sweet.”
I grabbed the last few items from the shelves and found the shortest line. Pete was walking down another aisle as I pushed the cart out the door.
At the discount store next-door, a clerk helped me find Pete a pair of black fleece sweats. “This are really warm,” she said. For good measure I picked up a pack of cleansing wipes, the kind soldiers in the desert covet.
I hurried about the task, then went in search of Pete.
He wasn’t in the parking lot. Not anywhere. I went back to the grocery, past the cereal and candy aisles, the deli and the produce. Cashiers nodded, asked if they could help me find anything. I didn’t feel safe enough asking if they’d seen the man in the green Superman cape and soiled pants.
I went to the car, drove past the discount store, past the bank, and did a loop around and around the grocery store. Still no Pete. The warm fleece sat on the front seat in a white plastic bag. Where did he go? I pulled out onto Highway 395, drove slowly, searching the dark corners, the shadows between the alleyways. I envisioned a disoriented Pete, looking for me.
I was tired. It had been a long day of teaching, a hectic trip to Washington and back in the late afternoon. It was going on 8 p.m. and I hadn’t even gotten supper underway. I wanted to go home, curl up, rest, but I kept think of Pete trying to sleep in those soiled pants. I turned off the highway, and called my daughter Shelby. I told her about Pete, about his pants, about how I couldn’t find him.
“Dear Jesus,” she prayed, “help Mama find this man.”
“Oh, there he is!” I said, interrupting her Amen. I was crossing back over the highway, headed back to the grocery. Pete was sitting on the bench in the far east corner, just as he promised.
“Hey, Pete!” I said, pulling the car in front of the bench. I rolled down the window and handed him a clean pair of pants and the body wipes.
“Thank you,” Pete said, taking the bag, and nodding again and again, “thank you.”
“If you give me those jeans, I’ll take them home and wash them and bring them back to you tomorrow,” I said.
“Okay,” Pete said. “I’ll pay you. I can do work for you.”
“No need for that,” I said. “But do you have a place to change?”
“I’ll just go over here,” Pete said, tilting his head. I thought perhaps there was a restroom outside the store. Or that he would go behind the building, into the darkness.
Pete sat on that bench, untied those mis-matched shoes and wiggled out of those acid-stench jeans. He moved slowly, like Jennifer Grey enjoying the spot light. Whatever modicum of modesty he once possessed has long been lost along with the dignity that independence affords.
“These are great,” he said rubbing his one hand over the fleece and handing me the bag with the soiled pants in the other.
“I’ll wash these and meet you back here tomorrow.”
“Okay, thank you.”
I hope Pete sleeps better tonight than last.
“You are starting a revolution,” Miz Shelby said.
“Revolutions always start with the storytellers and artists,” my daughter explained.
I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not. Too often revolutions only trade one manner of chaos for another. Besides, I’m not sure the homeless need a revolution as much as they just need a place to wash off the stench of despair and desperation.
Restoring a person’s dignity starts with a hot shower and a set of freshly-laundered clothes.