“We got a visitor…” read the text message.
I was a minute away from home so writing back was pointless. I entered the apartment complex and started walking through the courtyard towards the corridor connecting to the courtyard at the back. Our house door opens to this passage between yards that was enclosed by two heavy doors that are in constant use late into the night by our active neighbours. We are used to the sound of the doors shutting which didn’t disturb our sleep anymore.
Before I reached the vestibule I knew he was there; I was shocked by the force of his smell that must have filled the space. Lying on cardboards, a shopping cart standing next to him, he was covered by dirty rags and could not be seen. I thought this must be how we have smelled before civilization, announcing our presence in the jungles, giving our prey a fair chance to start running. It felt viscerally right and extremely foul at the same time.
I held my breath and quickly went into the house and closed the door behind me before I breathed again. He was slowly permeating through the holes of the door and into our ground floor. I saw my girlfriend’s frown perched on top of the stairs; a perturbed mother bird protecting her nest. What are we going to do? Call the police? And say what? Sir, he offended us with his smell? She didn’t want to get involved. Calling the police and pointing fingers felt too hostile towards a person who was already troubled and in need of help instead. Someone would surely call the police anyway. That made me remember the story of a woman being attacked in the middle of the street while all the neighbours watched and waited for someone else to do the calling. What if no one called? What if he started living here next to our doorstep and became a part of our apartment complex, making it more complicated? We decided to wait. He didn’t move. No one showed up.
I woke up in the middle of the night and sleepily walked the well memorised path to the bathroom. On my way back to bed I stopped in the darkness and listened. No sound. Smelled. Nothing. I didn’t know how I knew but I knew he was there. We would’ve heard if he had left. I realised I didn’t feel our security was threatened, although it was a violation of our courtyard’s privacy. Instead I wondered where he was before. Was he cast out of another courtyard? How can he sleep out in the open, trusting the passersby? If I had so many health problems living a comfortable mainstream life, he must be either in torment or completely numb. In any case, his health problems were probably beyond repair. Bad teeth, bad joints, stiff muscles, sore bones, failing kidneys… With your health and energy declining fast, your hopes of returning to society as a functioning person would slip away. Only a state of survival. Even thoughts could become a luxury.
Morning came. I checked through the peephole. He was there. Lying still in the same shape. Was he dead? A kid and his mother passed. “Why is the man sleeping on the ground?” The kid asked. “Because he doesn’t have a home to go to.” she said matter of factly. And with that, another child came face to face with the possibility of ending up in a hallway if he didn’t play the game right. Half an hour later, two policemen and a police woman were standing around him in the formation the German police are trained to engage. Always an impressive sight. I heard a loud and clear “Guten Morgen!” beyond the door. I had to stop watching and join our daily team standup call.
As we were talking about today’s tasks and yesterday’s struggles to deploy a service, outside the door, only a few metres away I could hear the shuffle and imagine him sorting his things, things that are useful to him somehow. Everything we were trying to achieve as a team, as a company, trying to sell products, to optimise processes, increase our quality and margins and prevent incidents and all our other audacious goals seemed trivial, useless, vanity games compared to the real life, hard cold immediate life outside the door. I talked as little as required.
He appeared out of the hallway. I rushed upstairs to observe him from the balcony. He was pushing his shopping cart, escorted by a policeman in front and two behind. An old man, taking small ailing steps. It took a minute for him to reach the street door. The policeman opened the door for him. As he walked towards the bright sunlight, for a fleeting moment, I was terrified that he would turn back and look at me. Whose face would I see? My father’s? Mumbling his poems forever, trying to find a verse that would fit the moment, that would rhyme with the officer’s uniform, dorm, warm. Or my own face? Still hopeful about turning my miserable life into a worthy story, if only I had a pen and paper and a cup of hot soup to clear the fog out of my mind.
And then he wasn’t there anymore.
Loved reading this
A heart-warming reflection on the perspective of homelessness and the human condition.
The Survivalist Prepper