At the foot of my exit, there stands a man with red hair and a bad back. He’s there most every evening with his sign imploring me to protect him in the cold, wet or hot days. Though I’ve passed him countless times, I don’t know his real identity so, for this story, I’ll call him August West.
I first saw August in the oppressive heat of sun in July, 2011. He was dressed in clothes more suited for early spring than summer; baggy jeans, tattered hoodie zip-up and leather work boots. July’s sweltering heat was only amplified by the tarmac and, as the month melted into August, I drove by the nameless face daily. I came to expect him at the bottom of the Keystone and 465 exit each evening, and I began to wonder why he was there; what circumstances had brought him to that point in time? Each time I saw August at his post, I played a different story in my head of mental illness, addiction or tragic loss. Each red light brought an extended story and a new realization that something had destroyed this man who could have been a father; could have been a husband; could have been a friend.
Summer lead to autumn, autumn to winter and winter to spring. As spring sprung in 2012, August still looked straight and strong. His posture was good and gait was quick. As summer’s intense sun scorched the concrete landscape that surrounded him and 100 degree days consumed blocks of summer, the weight of his daily routine began to wear on him as his back became hunched and his step slowed. On days when I pulled to the bottom of the exit and he wasn’t there, I started to wonder if he would be there the next. Had August succumb to the elements, an illness, addiction or other tragedy? His ultimate fate, once decided, would never be known to me or the thousands that passed him ever day.
With exception of a few scant dollars and a sub shop gift card, my windows usually stayed up and we didn’t meet eye contact. Each time I saw August, I questioned my response to his ever changing cardboard signs. Was his face the face of Christ testing my compassion for His children or that of a man who would be further driven towards his addiction with each dollar I gave? Was I turning away from His love or refusing to contribute to his demise?
I’ve never been brave enough to stop a talk to August. My day is always too busy to do anything but to watch him and think about the nature of his existence for the 45 seconds until the traffic signal says I can leave. My compassion has never been strong enough to overcome my fear.
It’s been a while since I’ve seen him but it’s winter and …
Here’s the original story of August. It’s a song I’ve loved for years so I don’t know which came first; did the song influence my story about him or I just see the similarities. The song is narrated by a man who was brave enough to sit down and hear August’s story. It’s a story that does dive into why he has found the streets as his home but it also leaves much to the imagination. Its protagonist probably lies somewhere between reality, fiction and history as names used in the song are historically significant in context to the story while opening much interpretation to the meanings.
Here’s a tune that was played live 393 times between 1971 and 1995 but never recorded in the studio …
Old man down, way down down, down by the docks of the city.
Blind and dirty, asked me for a dime, a dime for a cup of coffee.
I got no dime but I got some time to hear his story.
My name is August West, and I love my Pearly Baker best more than my wine.
More than my wine – more than my maker, though he’s no friend of mine.
Everyone said, I’d come to no good, I knew I would Pearly, believe them.
Half of my life, I spent doin’ time for some other fucker’s crime,
The other half found me stumbling ’round drunk on Burgundy wine.
But I’ll get back on my feet again someday,
The good Lord willin’, if He says I may.
I know that the life i’m livin’s no good,
I’ll get a new start, live the life I should.
I’ll get up and fly away, I’ll get up and fly away, fly away.
Pearly’s been true, true to me, true to my dyin’ day he said,
I said to him, I said to him, “I’m sure she’s been.”
I said to him, “I’m sure she’s been tru to you.”
Got up and wandered, wandered downtown, nowhere to go but just hang around.
I’ve got a girl, named Bonnie Lee, I know that girl’s been true to me.
I know she’s been, I’m sure she’s been true to me.
Wharf Rat – The Grateful Dead (Robert Hunter)