There are faces on the streets of this town that make me want to whip out a camera and take them home with me: not the people — but always their faces, like yellowing Polaroids in my back pocket. Every day, I drive by them, on routes that must lead to my dreams — or at least to survival in between the dreams’ happening — and I fight the urge to leap out of the car, leave the engine running, and steal a shot or two, preferably unnoticed by my subject.
But if they do see me, I hope they aren’t offended much.
“You’re beautiful,” I’d probably say, shielding myself with kindness, as if they were my lovers telling me of their final decision to depart.
(I’m such a fucking hippie. Forgive me.)
There is a homeless man, in one of my regularly visited parking lots, who always reads a pamphlet, in a plastic chair by that neighborhood’s laundromat. He rests here, maybe even lives, with his cart parked right around the corner.
Keith. This is his spot.
The truth about Keith: He is homeless — not a pauper (and you better know the difference). He’s made that aggressively clear by the cleanness of his clothes and the presentable look of his laced-up shoes. I had tried giving him money before: I might as well have slapped Keith’s tired face with a wet towel full of sand. But food, he’ll take food. He’ll nod, humbly; thank you, and pack it away, so methodically and slow, it breaks your heart. Because if ever you have known poverty yourself, you comprehend the deficit of dignity in it. Organization and routine become your only saving graces. And that’s exactly how you get by: sweeping off crumbs of dignity from the kitchen table and into your hand; and methodically storing them away — for later.
Well, Keith’s got his dignity in spades. I can tell it by his face with carved out wrinkles and his not so poorly groomed beard. In a striking juxtaposition to his African features, a pair of lime-green eyes overlooks from above. Sometimes they freeze in a gaze of departure; and even though I’ve wondered a few times about where Keith goes when he goes like that, his eyes give out no hints. I don’t trip out about that too much though: Because the ownership of his story — is one of the few things a man should be allowed to possess.
His right eyebrow gathers into a poignant awning. Not much of a frown, it ever so slightly changes the man’s face from solemnity to something grievous. Just like that: a little shift and the departure of his lime-green eyes — and the man’s face becomes a story.
“You’re beautiful,” I’d probably say.
Another man — another story — lives just a few blocks away from my street. I am never sure where he sleeps, or where he stores his things. But he is impossible not to notice as I run to the subway station, always late and always immediately embarrassed, when I notice him.
On a cold day, the man stands underneath an electronics store sign long closed down for sale. In heat, he looms in the shadow of a bus stop nearby. The accidental passengers waiting on metallic benches seem to not mind him more than they mind the exhaust fumes from the never-ending traffic. Years ago, when I first moved here, the man used to ask them for money, while shifting on his feet. But now, he just sways there, in silence, waiting for dumb charity by someone with a guilty conscience, like my own. But mostly, he lets his life waste him away with the corrosive elements attacking his skin behind this bus stop.
Painfully thin, he sways too much when shifting on his feet, as if at any moment he can tip over and break into a thousand shards of something irreparable. But whenever I can get past my embarrassment and actually look at the man’s face, I realize it belongs to someone long departed. He seems calm, surrendered; almost smiling, with his eyes. And if he can feel the scratch of my dollars in his palm, dried up to chalky whiteness, he shivers his head a little. Those aren’t nods, but a dozen of little ones — like shivers.
Another story — another ghost — trails in the footsteps of a local woman that always sits by one of this town’s guilds. She’s irate: There ain’t no bloody surrender in her face.
On the stone fence of the building, she usually sits with her bags parked underneath her feet; and she mutters while scratching the matted hair, usually wrapped in a shredding scarf. Her clothing is nonsensical, as if she’s rummaged through a vintage shop or a drag queen’s closet, that morning. But you better be sure there’ll be some sequins somewhere on her body. And it’s not the angry face that gets my attention every time: It’s those fucking sequins!
She must’ve loved them as a little girl, as all little girls do. And as all little girls, she must’ve found them magical, like fairy dust or sparkly refections in the water from the mirror mosaic on the bottom of a pool floor. And she may have long departed — in her mind and in her face — but this child-like addiction is the only sliver of sanity that separates her from those of us, insane enough to give it up.
They are never dangerous, these faces; no more dangerous than the minds that hide behind them, storing away their stories of horror and loss from which the only sane thing to do — is to depart. Alas: The faces of the departed. There are so many of them, in this town!
Who knows what has brought them here, and why they never left. Is it because hope dies last; but when it does, it leaves a person too exhausted to depart? Or is it because they, like me, have nowhere else to go.
Because they are already — the departed, and this — is where they have departed for. And this is where they continue to depart, dragging behind their carts and their beauty — like cautionary tales for the rest of us.