Yesterday morning I picked up my friend, Issa Umi, at the suburban train stop. He was wearing a soft hat, mismatched women’s earrings, and a peculiar shirt and vest combination. (He later told me a lady in his new apartment building exclaimed “You look like art!”, as she strolled past him.)
Issa had taken the train down from Chicago in order to pick up some belongings he had left in storage from a previous stay in my NW Indiana town. With a flicker of reluctance in my mind, I offered to help him retrieve the items, which amounted to a few boxes of papers, art materials, some magazines and one of those big green duffel bags that ex-servicemen often use, and then drive him back to Chicago. In the end, it was a wise decision on my part.
Issa Umi is not his real name, more like a stage name he adopted years ago while he was very active in African-American theater, dance and drum circles around Chicago’s South Side. I met Issa about three years ago when a local church network offered him a cheap place to stay until the VA (he’s ex-Navy) found him a place in Chicago, where he has family. He was hugely friendly, bubbling over like a fountain of pop psychology, Eastern wisdom and random crackpottery.
Not long after arriving in town, Issa had begun to offer his freelance counsel to another friend of mine, Rick, but the latter–troubled with depression and delusions–told me he finally had to stop talking to Issa, finding the latter’s constant mental fireworks too exhausting.
So I befriended Issa myself, offering him occasional rides back and forth from the train to Chicago, gradually realizing we were both sixty-somethings, with a similar history of travelling around in search of…spiritual adventure, I suppose.“You know my VA profile says I’m ‘chronically homeless'”, he once told me with a snorting laugh. “Man, I had two or three homes in my life!,” he added, as though he thought the VA was just being myopic.
I once invited Issa to perform at a small fund-raising event after I learned he did a kind of slam poetry-cum-interpretive dance routine in which he played a character called “Dr. Lowdown,” a guy who tells stories for people “who like to go downtown and get the lowdown.” I now wish we had thought to video his performance: indescribable is the only word for it.
As we drove back up to Chicago to his new VA-subsidized South Shore apartment, I was happy to let his life story be the main topic on our drive. Issa described for me his Navy experiences in Japan (“I swear, cab drivers who could stop on a dime and then hand you the ten cents!”), a jaunt to Belize (“a terrible experience: all my money just disappeared”), and the time he caught the Hound (the Greyhound bus) out to Venice Beach to join a drum circle (“I decided to just live out on the beach for a whole month”). His list of past employers includes Catholic Charities (admin jobs in the mental health clinic), the Bronzeville Historical Society (neighborhood arts programs), the Muntu Dance Theatre, and the Vets Art Project.
While none of his sometimes disapproving brothers and sisters chose to follow Issa’s free-spirited path (he has never married), he told me that over the years their mutual relationships had warmed up. “Cause we’re all older now, we’re wise, you know.”
What struck me most about Issa’s story during the drive was his sheer, seemingly inexplicable gratitude for his life. “I’ve met some wonderful people and they’re always put there to make you grow spiritually,” he assured me. By that point I was already convinced he was right.