My Friend Rick
As the New Year comes closer, I am reminded of an experience with My Friend Rick that taught me that things don’t always unfold the way I think that they should.
Some years ago in connection with my work as the Youth Advocate in town, I was called to the Town Clerk’s Office to “meet” a young man who obviously, in addition to being chronically homeless, was also suffering from some form of mental illness. It seems he had migrated from the nearby small city of New Bedford to Dartmouth, and had been seen going through people’s trash and sleeping in their sheds behind their dwellings. Apparently some of the “out-buildings” in our town, in addition to keeping out wind and rain, are also warmer then the outside elements and this young homeless person was making full use of that fact.
I invited him to my office where we talked about this and that, and how I could best help him find more suitable places to sleep. Turns out that Rick was 28 years old and has been on the streets on and off since he was 18. I contacted his family, who under no uncertain terms let me know that “Rick” could not go there or to any other relative’s house for that matter. Rick was not surprised, either. Turns out that Rick has stayed at the shelter on numerous occasions in the past until he moved to the ‘burbs’ in Dartmouth a few months ago. After I bought Rick lunch, and a new jacket, he expressed a willingness to sleep at the shelter downtown. I drove him there in time to sign in and get a bed for the night. The shelter volunteer informed me that Rick was indeed well-known to them and efforts to get him off the street had not yet proved successful.
Months later he returned to my office in Town Hall saying that he was just walking by and decided to stop in. Since our building is barely two miles from downtown, and knowing how far Rick and other homeless folks walk in a day, it was likely he did walk all the way here, though I suspected he intentionally stopped in on purpose.
This time Rick was carrying a cut-down cardboard box with several items of clothing and personal items inside it. He also walked in an awkward way with the box directly in front of him and not tucked under his arm the way most people would carry such an item. As luck would have it, a town resident had stopped by weeks earlier and gave me a brand new L.L. Bean backpack, thinking I would find a suitable home for it with a needy teenager, etc. Seeing Rick’s tattered cardboard box with his possessions in plain sight, I offered the backpack to him. He jammed everything, clothes and cardboard box included, into the expandable backpack, swung it over his shoulder and said he had to go.
About a month later I ran into Rick walking downtown. To my surprise, he was walking with the same old cardboard box directly under his chin, this time with the backpack I gave him in the box. When I asked him why he wasn’t wearing it on his back, he told me that he couldn’t see it back there and was afraid that someone would try to steal his stuff. I couldn’t convince him that his possessions would be safe in the pack. But he was quick to say that he liked the backpack very much before heading on his way.
And all this time I thought I had done a small but good deed for this troubled soul, when it seems like all I did was give him something else to carry.
Text by K. Lee