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.