“THERE BUT FOR THE GRACE OF GOD”

[Author’s Note: At my son’s memorial service, his friend Nadine (not her real name) told the story of how Julian once took a homeless man out to dinner. She didn’t provide many details, but the idea that he was the type of person who would do something like this touched all of us. This story – which is mostly fictional – was inspired by that. It is an example of how memoir can inform fiction. It is also an essay about how those who are struggling with mental illness and/or emotional trauma far too often find themselves among the homeless.]

It was the night of Nadine’s 18th birthday party. The day after Christmas: Wednesday, December 26, 2007. Her mother reserved a room at the Hotel Rex in San Francisco for the night. Julian was invited, along with a dozen of Nadine’s closest friends. They all had their first semester of college under their belts and there were a lot of stories to share. Someone brought a bottle of vodka. They were doing shots and smoking weed. Another combination of college Freshmen might have gotten revoltingly wasted, might even have trashed the place. But this was a well-bred, well-mannered (although entitled) group of kids. And nobody there wanted Nadine to have to explain away any bad behavior to her mother, who had been generous enough to provide this space for an unchaperoned party. Plus it was the first time they’d all been gathered together since going their separate ways to college. It wasn’t only a coming of age party for one of their own; it was a reunion of peers who’d been scattered around the state for the previous four months. After several days of the obligatory family holiday nonsense, this was a refreshing change of scene.

Several colleges were represented in the quaint hotel room: UCLA, UC Santa Cruz, UC Berkeley, Stanford, among others. Most of these Generation Y-ers had managed to stay in California and most of them were attending UCs. Based on the snippets of conversations Julian overheard, he concluded everyone in the room was happy where they’d ended up. He was jealous. Sure, some were having trouble with roommates, or didn’t get all their first choice classes, or were having to adjust in some way to being on such a large campus after having been to small private schools most of their lives. But no one seemed to loathe their college experience the way he already did. Well, except for Nadine. UC Santa Cruz was turning out to be way too much of a party school, and she wanted to get serious about film making. She was considering a transfer to NYU.

Julian wasn’t even sure college was the right path for him, even though he’d been groomed for it since preschool. And everyone he grew up with had been primed for exactly the same thing: the prosperous life. Which, as everyone who is anyone knows, starts with college. Their parents – the Baby Boomers – expected this. They expected this of each other. They expected it of themselves. What were the alternatives, really? The Peace Corps? Trekking through Europe or South America? The Army? Ha! The Army. That was funny.

As the evening progressed, he felt more and more like an outsider. These were his “peeps”, but a vague sense of disappointment in their unwillingness to veer off the beaten path was suffocating. Not that he had veered. His friends all seemed to be contented to swim with the tide. In contrast, one semester had super-charged his impulse to stroke hard in another direction. Something had shifted; he was no longer one of them. When and how had that happened? Was this what growing up and growing apart were? No longer the same goals in common? No longer the same worldview shared? It was depressing him. He needed to clear his head. He didn’t want to be a downer. This was Nadine’s big night.

He said to no one in particular, “I’m going out to get a smoke,” grabbed his jacket, left the hotel room, took the elevator down to the lobby, and stepped out onto Sutter Street. It was almost 11:30 p.m. Kind of a balmy evening for late December in San Francisco. At least it wasn’t raining. It was Wednesday, between Christmas and New Year’s, and it was late, so the street felt lonely and quiet. He spotted a homeless man pushing a shopping cart with all his worldly belongings. “There but for the grace of God…” Julian thought to himself.

When he spent his Junior year of high school in psychiatric residential treatment, when he was dealing with his depression, his cutting and his substance abuse, he recognized that without the help he’d gotten, he could easily become a homeless statistic. Easily. Ever since Reagan, before Julian was even born, the funding for public mental health programs had dwindled to practically nothing, and the very tangible consequences of those policies were real human beings barely surviving on the streets.

The homeless man gestured to Julian, two fingers tapped against his lips; he was asking for a cigarette. Julian fished in his jacket pocket for his Camels, lit one for the man, and handed it to him.

“Thank you, sir. God bless. Merry Christmas.”

“Merry Christmas to you,” Julian responded. They stood on the street together, both staring at the same piece of sidewalk, enjoying their vice.

“If you don’t mind my asking, young man, what are you doin’ out here so late?” Was it so late? Was it so obvious how young Julian was? Was it safe to engage this man in conversation? What the hell. It was Christmas for Christ’s sake. Julian was feeling generous.

“My friend’s having a birthday party upstairs.” Julian pointed to the hotel. The homeless guy looked up.

“Ohhh. That sounds nice.” For a moment, it seemed as if the man had been transported to a pleasant time and place, a sweet memory from his past.

“Yeah. It is. She’s a good friend. She just turned eighteen.”

“Yes, sir. That’s real nice. ‘Whole life ahead of her.” Julian imagined this man had nothing ahead of him. How generous of this stranger to wish his privileged friend such a positive future.

“Yeah. I guess that’s one way to look at it.” Julian studied the man, trying to imagine his story, the journey that had led him to a life on the streets with a shopping cart for cupboard and closet. Julian guessed the man was in his 40s, but it was hard to tell. “Did you feel that way when you were eighteen?”

“Ha! Me? Oh yeah. Life looked full of promise back then. Finished high school. Had a job. A girlfriend. A car. Everything a young man needs. Oh yeah. Full o’ promise.”

“What’s your name?” Julian asked. As if he were meeting someone at a college mixer.

“Beau Charles.”

“B-O, Bo? Or B-E-A-U, Beau?”

“The French way.”

“You’re French?”

“Cajun. N’Orlins.” Julian wondered if Beau Charles was a casualty of Hurricane Katrina, which had drowned the entire city of New Orleans only two years earlier.

“Well, I’m a California man myself. Born on the east coast, but I was a baby when we moved out here. California’s been my home ever since. My name’s Julian.” He extended his hand to Beau Charles. The man hesitated. “When’s the last time someone who wasn’t homeless extended a hand to this man?” Julian wondered. He kept his arm extended. Beau Charles eventually took Julian’s hand, and they shook.

“Well, thanks for the smoke, Julian.” Beau Charles started to walk back to his shopping cart.

“Hey, listen. ‘You want a bite to eat?” Stupid question, Julian thought to himself. Of course he wants something to eat. It’s probably the first thought he has when he wakes up and the last thought he has before going to sleep: where is the next meal going to come from? Shit. He probably dreams about food. “There’s an all-night diner not far from here. I could use some coffee, and I wouldn’t mind the company.” Julian noticed Beau Charles’ hesitation. You live on instinct when you live on the streets. “He’s sizing me up, wondering if he can trust me. For all he knows, I want to surgically remove a vital organ,” Julian speculated. The idea made him laugh, but he recognized the risks this man had to navigate day in and day out.

“I don’t know. I don’t look right. How ’bout a bar?” Julian didn’t want to feed the man’s addiction, if that was what Mr. Charles had in mind. Besides, Julian wasn’t old enough to get them into a bar.

“Tell you what. I’ll lend you my jacket.”

“What will you wear?”

“I’m good.” And with that, Julian pulled his jacket off and handed it to Beau Charles, who promptly put it on. It wasn’t about the alcohol after all. It was about the man’s pride, not wanting to look like he lived on the streets. He walked with Julian, pushing his shopping cart down the few blocks to the diner, chained it to a lamp post, brushed himself off, ran his fingers through his hair, and looked at Julian as if to ask, “Do I look OK?” They stepped inside and found a booth.

Julian ordered coffee. He invited his guest to choose anything on the menu. Beau Charles ordered steak and eggs. They talked about New Orleans. Yes, Katrina was the big bad wolf that had blown his house down. Mother Nature did the damage, but the way Beau Charles told it, “the government only made a bad situation worse.”

But it was Beau Charles’ terrible, personal losses that had undone him and unraveled his life. He and his wife were on the roof of their home with their 3-year old daughter. Both parents had turned away from the young girl for an instant. Two or three seconds; that’s all it took for her to step away from them, slip, and slide off the roof into murky, churning water. Mr. Charles and his wife could only watch in horror, or become victims themselves. His wife went into a catatonic state. Didn’t talk. Didn’t even make eye contact any more. “It’s like she’s already dead.”

He lost everything he owned and everyone he loved. He couldn’t bear to stay in the only city he’d ever known. Everywhere he looked was a reminder of what he’d lost. He didn’t even stick around to get the paltry amount of assistance that was his due. He hitchhiked to California and did odd jobs on the way, making just enough money to keep going one more day. By the time he arrived in San Francisco, he was so depressed and exhausted, he simply wanted to drink himself to death. He had come close. Every now and then he’d sober up, but another unanticipated wave of grief always got the better of him.

When the food arrived, Beau Charles bent his head in prayer. Julian marveled at the man’s faith, considering how badly God had treated him. Then with both hands flat on the table, one at either side of his plate, Mr. Charles took in a deep whiff of the meal’s aroma. “Ahhh. You know, half the pleasure of eating comes from this right here,” he pointed to his nose. “And this here smells mighty fine, Julian. One day late, but I’m gonna pretend this here is my Christmas dinner. Lord have mercy. You’re a fine young man, Mr. Julian. Oh yes.”

“You just take your time Mr. Charles and enjoy that steak.” Julian expected Beau Charles to devour the food on the plate before him, but he savored every bite with “mmm-mmm”s and “oh my”s. Julian felt humbled by the man sitting across from him. How he managed to find joy in a greasy, inferior cut of meat. How he could be genuinely grateful for a meager meal after everything that mattered had been snatched from him by a goddamn fluke of nature. A man who had been “full of promise” and was now homeless. Who could blame him for wanting to obliterate his memories with whatever drug happened to be handy? The real miracle was that Beau Charles could still stand up and be counted. “This could happen to me,” Julian admitted to himself. “I could so easily drown in my own self-inflicted misery. A natural disaster, and the death of my family, and losing everything wouldn’t even be necessary.” He had deep respect for Mr. Beau Charles.

They shook hands again outside the diner. Julian gave him the rest of his smokes and a book of matches. He knew it wasn’t the healthiest thing he could do for the man, but he also knew Beau Charles would see the gesture for what it was: a simple act of kindness. He told his dinner companion to keep the jacket, a Christmas gift. Christ, the man needed the jacket more than he did. And Julian imagined this was probably the closest Mr. Charles was going to get to “celebrating” Christmas. Beau Charles beamed. Julian watched him unlock his shopping cart and head north on Geary.

He returned to Nadine’s party in the hotel room. “Where the hell have you been?” she asked. “I was beginning to worry about you.”

“You’ll never believe what I just did.”

“Uh-oh. Do I want to hear this? Am I going to have to keep another one of your secrets?”

“No. You’ll wanna hear this. You’re gonna love this story.”

He was right. She did.

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