I was walking in downtown Stockton, nearby the waterfront, as my mind was swirling with ideas of how I could make my upcoming art show better than all my previous. A ways ahead of me, on the sidewalk, was a bundled-up man walking his bike, which had loads of stuff rigged and tied to it. It's a fairly common thing to see in this city, so I didn't think much of it, but as I got closer, I heard an endless mumbling coming from the man. Again, this still seemed like a normal thing to me, so I continued minding my own business, just going on my way trying to come up with good ideas.
"Hey," came from the man the instant I entered his peripheral sight. Oh, he's talking to me now, I wonder how this is going to go, I thought to myself. "Hello," I replied simply. "Whatr'yu doin?" he asked in a weathered and raspy voice. I still couldn't quite see his face through all his bundles of tangled hair, scarves, and layers of jackets. "I'm just walking along," I replied, sounding as casual as I could. I looked at him and guessed that he didn't have a house to call home, it seemed like he was wearing all the clothes he owned, and strapped to his bicycle were sleeping bags, tarps, blankets, plastic bags, and a few buckets full of knick-knacks. "I'm walking too," he said, "not going anywhere." I nodded my head while humming an acknowledgement, and kept on as I was. He matched my speed, so by that point we were walking together as we passed by Banner Island Ballpark, adjacent to the waterfront.
"What do you do?" he asked. Honestly, I don't mind talking to strangers, I just don't like being latched onto and having my attention hijacked for too long, but I also didn't want to be rude. "I like to create art," I answered. "Well, all forms of creativity, I can't get enough of all that." He frowned slightly, "What do you mean?" "At the moment, I'm getting ready for an art show that is actually going to happen right here, in the Stockton Arena," I pointed up towards the massive building as it came into view, "It's gonna be huge, like 30,000 people are going to be there, so I'm only gonna bring my best stuff." He looked up towards the big round building, laced with countless windows, "How do you do that?" he asked. I was quite liking the conversation actually, because I don't often get asked about the prep work. "So, there's a lot of behind-the-scenes work that needs to take place in order to make the front end look good, for everything involved with the show, but right now I'm working on this picture called Jaaz 10K. It's a sort of celebration for me finally reaching 10,000 hours of work strictly as a visual artist. But overall, I just try to find great ideas that I believe in and then manifest them in a way that I can share them with others." I wasn't sure if he was still listening by that point, he had a blank face staring forward as he passively mumbled, "That's interesting."
It then became silent between us as we continued on, passing by the the old white stone Stockton Symphony Association building that was covered in tagging and graffiti. I put his same question to him, "What do you do?" I asked. "I'm unemployed and I live on the street," he said quickly, almost robotically, like he's recited it a hundred times. I wasn't sure what to say to that, so I remained quiet. "I used to be in the Navy," he started, "for 'bout...fifteen years." "Did you like it?" I asked. "Hell yeah," he said and his old voice came more to life, "it was the best time of my life." "Really? What kind of stuff did you do?" His face began to get brighter as he spoke, "I was traveling all the time and spent a lot of time at sea, me and my buddies." "Wow, I've always wanted to cross the sea," I said, "and there's something I've always wondered: How clear is the sky at night when you're out there? Was everything more vivid and colorful than what we see here?" He nodded his head with a smile on his face, "Yeah, it was more clear. The stars shined so bright when all you can see below you was the black choppy water, the Pacific. When we weren't busy working, it was nice out there." "Wow, that sounds amazing," I said and we both became silent again, I was trying to imagine it, and I think he was doing the same. "Yeah, it really was. I even got to bring my wife and kids on the ship a few times, so they could see what I did."
I looked at the state of him and knew a lot had happened since his time at sea. "Why are you here?" I asked without really thinking about it. He looked at me in a peculiar way, like no one had ever asked him that before. Perhaps no one had. "I had this dental problem one time, it was a type of calcification build-up on the roots of my teeth. Here, take a look," he said and quickly leaned in close to me with his mouth as wide as an alligator's. With my eyes wide, I subtly leaned far back, but still caught a glimpse down into his dark malnourished mouth. It was a graveyard.
After the interaction had become a bit awkward, he eventually returned to a normal distance from me and said, "It never got completely fixed, so I got discharged from the Navy." I wish I knew what he wanted to hear, but the best I could come up with was, "Oh, that doesn't sound very good," and continued my silence. "As a civilian, I couldn't afford the bill I got from the dentist and because of that one single bill, one thing led to another, and eventually me and my family became poor," he said and shrugged as if he didn't care, "so my wife left me," he continued. "And as for my kids, they grew up and started their own lives. They don't talk to me anymore."
This is a true story. It's not to poke fun or evoke pity, but a reminder to myself and to all of you: just because someone is in a bad situation, it doesn't make them a bad person. Likewise, having everything doesn't make you better than others.