Bob was a homeless guy in my college neighborhood who seemed to be protected by God. I know how that sounds – I’m not the type to see God in everything, but my time with Bob was meaningful in so many ways, and there were so many coincidences, I can’t explain it a better way. Knowing Bob (maybe “experiencing” is a better verb) was like one of those Old Testament stories about angels who walk among us in disguise. Except Bob was an ornery, dirty, sodden heap of a man who could say the meanest things one moment and the sweetest things the next. He was no angel.
Bob had the face of a prize fighter who took too many beatings. During the course of ten years that I knew him, I saw him with bruises and abrasions more times than I can count. Blackened eyes. Busted lips. Nasty cuts. A permanent dent ran across the bridge of his nose – a nose lumpy like a garlic bulb and riddled with broken capillaries. Heavy brows sprouted wild hairs, half-concealing his eyes. Dark gray hair, oily and thick, barely hinted at the rich brown it once was.
I first heard about Bob when he was referred to as “Vietnam Dave” by people in the neighborhood, known by that name because he was a Vietnam vet, two combat tours in the Marines, and it summed up why he lived on the streets. His full name is David Robert Willis. He called himself The Duke and liked to imitate John Wayne – his shtick Whenever Bob pulled out The Duke imitation, his next play was for the change in your pocket. It worked on me many times.
That’s how we met. Bob did his impression, maybe told a raunchy joke, and asked for some change. I fished in my pocket and gave him what I had.
Bob lived in the great wide open concrete jungle surrounding the University of Cincinnati, an area peppered with fast food joints, bars, shops and convenience stores. I’d find him asleep on bus stop benches, sidewalks, door stoops. He peed wherever he wanted, whenever he wanted, though unless he was staggering drunk he’d usually find a private corner. He sometimes reeked of urine. A few times I noticed long wet stains on his jeans. And more than a few times I saw him taken away in a police car. He’d disappear for weeks, sometimes months, but always returned to the fertile ground where the city and the university met.
Despite all his misfortune Bob was the luckiest man alive, if you count being alive as lucky. He walked with the Grim Reaper always at his side checking the time and saying, “For crying out loud, how many times can one person dodge me?” Bob would down a few half-pints of Wild Irish Rose – called “shorties” in street lingo – he’d buy with the change he panhandled, then go careening through multiple lanes of traffic. One memorable time I witnessed him buy a shorty, down it in one swig, smash the glass bottle on the sidewalk right next to a trash can, then hurl himself across the street through heavy traffic – and somehow find a seam between moving vehicles. We’re talking about one of the busiest roads in the city, rush hour, in front of a bus stop where buses passed twenty times an hour and impatient drivers barreled through traffic.
The convenience store clerk who sold Bob the wine told me she had seen him heedlessly part traffic like that so many times, she was convinced an angel watched over him. That day she’d sold him 20 shorties and finally cut him off. That’s why he busted the bottle: he was mad about being told no. He staggered down the street to the next convenience store.
Bob was a willful person. He didn’t have to live on the streets – he had a veteran’s pension, maybe collected disability – but chose it as part of his lifestyle. He drank away his pension checks within days after they arrived at a tavern he used as a mailing address, then the rest of the month he relied on handouts. I remember hearing about homeless guys in Paris who made the same choice to live on the streets. They could get an apartment paid for by the government. They chose not to, like Bob.
His willful dark side popped out when Bob had been drinking a lot, and Bob always drank a lot – except when he couldn’t afford it. There were plenty of rainy days and holidays when the streets were mostly empty and the people tighter with their pocket change. I’d see him wandering the streets like a plastic bag blowing in the wind, looking for someone to hit up. One day I encountered him stalking a man on the street who had refused his request for money, cursing, “Come back here you fucking nigger!” I heard him from a distance and quickly closed in.
“Bob!” I said forcefully, “what the hell do you think you are doing? Get out of here. Go!” I pointed down the street, away from the man he cursed at, a well-dressed administrator from the university on his lunch break. Probably an assistant dean. Late 20s. Athletic. Dark-skinned. Bob shambled off in the direction I pointed, and the young man, accompanied by an attractive woman his age, was happy to escape the crazy homeless dude.
I followed them from a distance as they headed back to campus, an uneasy feeling in my gut. The guy suddenly turned around to go find Bob, presumably. He’d had enough time to process the incident and get pissed off. Maybe having the young lady with him made it especially galling to be harassed by a street person. I said to him, “I saw what happened back there and think you did the right thing by walking away. Beating him up won’t do any good.”
The guy fumed, “What right does he have to say that to me? He wants money? Here, I got money!” He pulled his wallet out from his suit pants and grabbed some singles. “I’ll stuff it down his fucking pie hole!”
“You did the right thing,” I said sort of meekly. “Don’t mess it up now.” Realizing that his lunch hour was almost over, the guy put his wallet away and hurried across the street with his girl before the traffic light changed.
Another odd encounter with Bob took place on the morning of a final exam. I walked through a slim sidewalk that shortcut between rows of four-story buildings to get to campus for the exam, and heard noises back in an area where one of the businesses kept trash. There, on a smelly, shadowy, debris-strewn stretch of sidewalk, Bob swept up the mess with a broom. It was early December, a bright, cold morning when at 7:30 the sunlight still has a brittle, blue quality and your breath turns instantly to ice crystals. Why Bob swept the mess, I don’t know. Maybe he was clearing a space to sleep, or a local business hired him to do odd jobs. I think he just felt like doing a good deed.
Another time with Bob I’m pretty sure I was used by his Maker to look out for him. I gave him money sometimes but didn’t always have it to spare. My pockets were empty that day. I walk down a sidewalk across from the university and see Bob reclined on some steps against the emergency exit of a local business. He looks bad. Deep scrapes score his face. His eye resembles a bruised cherry. His head hung between his knees. He looks up at me as I walk nearby and asks if I can spare some change. I look down at the sidewalk and, kid you not, saw a wad of one-dollar bills. People walked by, avoiding the dirty, drunk man with a face like a scary mask. A strong breeze blew through the busy city street. And there was a wad of money.
I handed it to Bob. I’ll never forget his gratitude – to him I was a savior. He grabbed my hand and pulled me in close, creating a bit of an awkward moment, but I’d seen Bob around enough by that time to be receptive to him instead of afraid or disgusted. As our faces came close together I saw he’d been crying. With misery and tenderness he asked me:
“Do you think God hates me because I’m a fag?”
I’d never seen Bob act remotely homosexual, but as soon as he asked, it made sense. Bob had his demons, and his devils, and his shame. Too many thoughts crowded my mind simultaneously for me to say exactly what was in my heart, but I managed a reply. “God doesn’t hate anyone, Bob. You are made exactly as you are supposed to be.”
I found out more about Bob’s background as the years went by and my encounters with him piled up. One night while walking home from a grocery store I saw him sitting on a park bench. With nowhere in particular to be, I plopped down next to him and gave him a cigarette. It was one of those nights when the stars can be seen through the city lights and it feels like the sky is trying to say something profound. Seeing Bob on that bench at that moment just made sense. He started talking like I was meant to be there to hear him. I know I was meant to be there.
“I helped build that building,” he told me, pointing to one of the older university buildings. “Worked on the construction crew that built it. This was after I got back from ‘Nam. Made good money. Had benefits. The school gave my daughter free tuition because I worked for them. Then during Christmas break she was driving home to where our family is from. She stayed over at a motel, and someone raped and murdered her in her room.” Bob’s voice broke like his heart when he lost his daughter. I heard his pain. Hell, I felt it too. Tears moistened his eyes. “I was never the same after that. Why bother?”
Bob lost the will to live after his daughter died. David Robert Willis became Vietnam Dave, another casualty of the war at home. He blamed himself for his daughter’s death because he reasoned that she wouldn’t have been in the situation that led to her murder if she wasn’t attending the university where he got her free tuition. After he was done talking I gave him a dollar and had to hurry home before my frozen goods melted.
One encounter with Bob sticks out among all of them. The time when he followed me into a laundromat. Sometimes Bob would see me on the street and join me like nobody’s business, just two old pals sharing a laugh. He always wanted something, and I didn’t mind. I was comfortable telling him no, or yes.
On this day what Bob was after was heat. The sauna-like warmth of the laundromat contrasted starkly with the fall chill outside. When the clerk saw Bob with me, the ‘get the hell out of here’ look froze on her face. Bob followed me over to the washers, small-talking, and spotted his paradise: an empty row of plastic chairs where he could recline against a dryer and heat up his old bones. He walked over there and noticed a bulletin board plastered with faded pictures – most of them three decades old – of patrons of the laundromat. He said excitedly, “Hey, that’s me!”
He reached for a picture and pulled it out from among the hundreds of faces. It showed a young man with deep brown wavy hair swooped up off his forehead, a ready smile, happiness in his eyes. I couldn’t believe at first it was Bob because the guy in the picture looked nothing like him, but thirty years of living on the streets had chiseled him down a layer at a time. The more I looked at the eyes of the guy in the picture, though, the more I saw Bob.
It’s how I choose to remember him. I wish I still had that picture – kept it for many years and lost it, but I still remember the smiling face of a young man with his life ahead of him, and wonder might have been different if he hadn’t known hell, first in the jungles of Vietnam, then in the jungles of America. Knowing Bob, aka The Duke, made me see the world differently. We are all just people. Appearances don’t change what we are inside. Everyone deserves our sympathy, our kindness.
Bob is the homeless guy who changed me. God bless him.