Yesterday I saw Robert. He managed to make his way into Britts, a fish-and-chip place I sometimes go to for lunch. I hadn’t noticed him until I heard his voice—an unmistakable rasp—telling the waitress he wanted some fish to take out. Then he made his way to the counter by the window where I was sitting.
From years of solvent and alcohol abuse Robert doesn’t so much walk as he does a slow stiff-legged side-to-side lurch. He walks better when he’s a bit primed. And yesterday he was a bit primed. Still, it was surprising and pleasing to see him even though his level of hygiene made it a bit difficult for me to attend to my lunch.
Robert, noticing me, and by way of greeting and affection turns to me, breaks a grin, and says, "You!" There was a time when he could recall my name. But no longer. "You" is good enough for me.
I’ve know Robert for 17 years. I got to know him when I was a manager of Hope Mission’s men’s shelter. Over the years there’s been light and dark in Robert’s life, on balance, mostly hardship.
I finish my fish and chips and half-way help him outside. I get the door for him. His cart (might as well be his walker) is parked right by the door. It’s full of bottles and bags with cans and there’s a coat and blanket thrown over the lot. Everything he has is in the grocery cart. He balances his order of fish on top of all this and braces himself on the handle and we talk.
I do nothing for Robert except give money once in awhile. Back in the 90’s I used to give him money for art supplies. I have one of his totemic ink paintings. Those days he was still able to hold a pen. He made beautiful, exquisite, intricate art.
I go upstairs and take a picture…Robert O. 1992…