To describe Roly-Poly as homeless would conjure up the wrong image of him, I think.

You see when I first moved from Ann Arbor, Michigan, to Chicago 12 years ago, homeless people intimidated me. I would throw coins at them just so they would leave me alone. Later, to save money, I adopted a more proactive approach. I greeted them with a “Hey, what’s up?” before they could spit out their opening pitch. It dawned on me that this only made things worse. I’d failed to anticipate their skill for latching onto strangers and not letting go. One guy on the ‘L’, after a half hour of him trying to convince me to withdrawal money out of an ATM, ended our interaction with epithets: honky, uptight motherfucker, fag. No, my guy Roly-Poly isn’t like that.

I should explain his nickname: I call him Roly-Poly, or Roly for short, because in the winter he wears a long, quilted coat, the same color and texture as those bugs that curl into themselves when you touch them. I guess most people know them as pill bugs.

I should also describe the way he walks: An injury, or perhaps old age, has soldered his spine into a right angle above the waist. He’s bent like a crowbar and he’s just as rigid. The first time I saw him walking toward me, I thought he was a headless man somehow wearing a Flava Flav clock around his neck. Stepping closer I realized the clock was actually the top of his bald head. He requires the aid of a thin, wire cart to maintain the minimum obtuse angle required for walking. Three heavy-looking garbage bags reside in the cart. I imagine without them there he’d fold back in half. His posture makes any social interaction with him difficult, which is why in the five years we’ve walked past each other, Roly’s never asked me for a thing. We’ve never even spoken.

I find his weird combination of rigidity and feebleness unnerving, but it also makes me want to cheer after every belabored step he takes. I’ve thought about offering him my arm to help him navigate around this city’s canyon-like potholes, but I never have because, despite his condition, I’ve seen him conquer snow drifts and flooded streets. Roly’s the type that holds his pride in his hand like an egg. Or he would if he didn’t have to hold on to that damn cart all the time.

I’m not sure Roly is homeless; he could just be eccentric. There’s a very fine line between the two. I know he sleeps all day in the library and he keeps garbage bags as company. Both facts could qualify him as a candidate for homelessness. But his personal hygiene, his omnipresent cigarette, and his maintenance of a daily schedule might indicate mere eccentricity. That last fact, for me, suggests he’s beholden to someone. A niece, maybe, or a grandson.

Over the years, Chicago has taught me to be ambivalent toward strangers: no eye contact, acknowledge any requests but keep on walking, be polite yet firm. If I ever get the chance to talk to him, Roly will be an exception. I feel bad not having the first clue what his face looks like. I catch myself holding my breath as I walk by hoping I might get the chance to help him somehow.  And I’m dying to hear his story.

Despite the city’s attempts to harden me, I think I still have a glimmer of humanity in me yet.


27 Replies to “Roly-Poly”

  1. Your post takes me back to my years in Boston. I never could turn down panhandlers with cats or dogs by their sides, presumably dependent on their human companions. You are clearly compelled by this man. Life is short. Take a chance and attempt to speak with him. He may turn his back on you, or tell you to f’ off, but that’s okay. But what if he shares his story with you? It will probably take you to someplace more interesting in its specificity than any fog shrouded invention could ever be.

  2. We have a huge homeless population here where I live, and some of them I’m dying to know their stories. I usually pass them in my car, though, which leaves little time for chatting. I like that you care about people; it’s reflected in this piece.

    1. Roly I care about, yes. There’s another guy I call The Professor who wanders around our neighborhood muttering to himself. He has tornado hair and greasy elbow patches. I should investigate him too!

  3. What a wonderful description you have given us of Roly, Nate. I almost feel like I have seen him myself from the way you have described him. When I lived in London, I’d walk past people like him everyday, as I was always told not to engage with them. However, I did start to speak to a homeless women one morning as I felt so sorry for her, as every morning she’d be there with a young child asking for money. I’d give her all my spare change every morning for about 3 months, before she finally disappeared. Then about 6 months later I saw her on a TV game show where she won a huge amount of money. Needless to say, I never saw her again, but I would have loved to have heard her whole story.

    1. You must be following my facebook feed if you know I wrote to prompts. If so, thanks for that! Yes, I asked for help on the ending in the private blog. If you read this post more than once, you might have noticed the ending changed. It changed several times, actually.

  4. I really enjoyed this. I’m not one to talk to strangers and I’ve been known to hide from people I know to avoid a conversation, but you almost made me want to get to know Roly myself.

    1. As you’ve probably guessed, I’m not one to start up conversations with strangers either. Especially now that I’ve named him. What if his real name is Mark. I wouldn’t be able to unknow that – you know?

  5. Great descriptive writing. Very easy for me to visualise this man, so a picture would be interesting.
    P.S for some reason I was thinking you were English, Nate – weird!

    1. Hah, Meg and Nikki said the same thing. I am mostly of English and Scottish descent. The first time one of my high school friends traveled to England, he said he thought he saw me everywhere. Must be in the genes!

  6. I loved this! Great description! We have a guy in Center City Philadelphia who does not take any money but instead he stands at one of the busiest corners and preaches. I know his name is Gregory, I call him Pope Gregory, and he wears a trench coat every day. I wish I knew his story.

  7. This is a very intereting part of your life. Sometimes, we do create a special bond with an absolute stranger and sometimes that bond gtows stronger. Roly intrigues me. When you hear story, please do share it with us too!

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