Thursday, November 18, 2010

Homeless man in Alaska

When I was about 21 years old I worked the graveyard shift in a Texaco store located off of one of the busiest streets in Fairbanks, Alaska. I began working there in the winter and lasted through most of the summer before landing a job elsewhere with far better hours. Anything is better than working graves.

I got to meet a lot of interesting people in that Airport Way store; every morning around 5 a.m. the newspaper was delivered, taxi cab drivers frequented the store, and local folks stopped in for those odds and ends they didn’t feel like venturing to the grocery store for. In truth it wasn’t a bad gig. Sure, I had the occasional odd ball. That late at night you come to expect it. I kept the police on speed dial and everything was fine.

After one particularly scary night, a car was chased off from the parking lot and two men were arrested with weapons, my boss decided I needed a partner with me at night. That was fine with me. It helped the witching hour pass a little less lonely and provided me with some assistance with the cleaning.

Randy was from one of the other stores. He wasn’t used to the higher amount of traffic because his store sat further out of town. This store seemed like constant motion on some nights, especially Friday and Saturday. At first things seemed to go just fine. Randy was a lot different than I, but we got along well enough.

On one Sunday, when Randy wasn’t working, a transient came in out of the cold. He wandered the store for a bit before heading over to the coffee. He stood there looking at the pots. I could see the longing in him.

“Go ahead and have a cup,” I said, knowing the warmth would do him good.

He never even looked at me, he just reached up and poured a cup. He drank it timidly, the warmth burning him at first before his body became used to it.

He wore a stocking cap of some unrecognizable color, an Army field jacket and gloves that looked as though they had been the home to a family of moths.

His face was red from the cold and his beard and hair looked as if they hadn’t seen soap in months. Judging by his smell I knew it to be true. He stayed for a while before filling his cup and heading to the door. I never asked for payment. Instead I put a dollar in the register and called it good.

As he reached the door he looked back at me, our eyes met. He was grateful, I knew it.
I also saw in those eyes a quick glimpse of this man’s life. He was ill, mentally, and he was suffering. But there was nothing I could do, and I knew that.

I didn’t see him for a few days. I figured he had found a shelter somewhere and was staying out of the cold-the temperatures had dropped well below -40 as it tends to do in Fairbanks.

Then one morning as I was preparing for a shift change he came in. Again on a night that Randy wasn’t working. He walked straight to the coffee pot and stood there.

“Go ahead,” I said.

He wasted no time.

Part of my job was throwing away the old hot dogs and preparing new ones for the morning. So I headed over to the hot dog cooker and started to gather them up. I stopped.

“You hungry?” I asked holding out a few hot dogs. He took them without saying a word.

He stayed for awhile. My replacement came in and saw the man standing there. She walked over to me, “Who is that?” A transient, I told her.

She looked at his hands and saw how raw and chapped they were. “Have him rub this on his hands,” she said handing me a jar of Carmax.

I did, and then clocked out and headed home.

Friday came. Randy was once again at the store with me. There was a buzz in the night, the type that makes you realize something is going to happen. You can almost smell it in the air.

We were particularly busy this night. The weather had broke and people of all ages were out enjoying the warmth. Odd that 30 degrees above zero was warm enough to draw everyone out of their homes. But when you spend a week inside hovering around the heater you jump at the chance to go.

As midnight approached I saw the transient coming up to the store. We were exceptionally busy so I knew there was nothing I would be able to help him with. Randy saw him too and for some reason got angry. I never understood why.

The transient came in and went to the coffee. I nodded my assent and he poured a cup. Then he pulled out a cigarette and lit up.

“Hey!” I said,”You can’t do that in here!”

I quickly ushered him out the door.

I apologized to the throng of customers and continued ringing up orders. Randy moved out from behind the counter and made his way outside. “I’ll be right back,” he said.

Too busy to notice, I wave my hand in indifference. Randy was in a foul mood and I really didn’t want him around. With only a few customers left, I heard a loaned bang on the one of the windows, looking I saw Randy had the transient smashed against the glass. I stood wide eyed, confused, wondering what had just transpired.

“Call the cops! He tried to attack me!” Randy screamed. I dialed 911.
The cops were there quickly. They pried Randy off the man and asked him to step back. The transient looked scared, confused and totally out of his element.

The officers talked to Randy for a bit, getting his side of the story. From the transient they could get nothing. The man refused to, or perhaps could not, talk to them. But they knew him. I remember they called him by name. A name I can’t remember now.
They put him in the car, uncuffed, and told us they were going to take him to a shelter. Randy continued to spew that he wanted to press charges. The cops basically told him there was no point and then headed out. I never saw the transient again.

The whole event angered me. Although I was powerless to help the man in anyway, I also knew that his ventures into the store at the wee hours of the morning were possibly the only civility the man experienced. No because of Randy, he wouldn’t be back.

After our shift ended I hung around the store for a bit to talk to the manager. I told him I didn’t want to work with Randy anymore. I was bothered by the whole incident and felt Randy was just being mean. It seemed he was taking out his aggression on someone weaker than he. Randy was nothing more than a school yard bully. my manager understood. I never saw Randy again either.

I left Texaco that fall and went to work for another company. Like I said before the hours were much better. Despite that, I never forgot about that night or the true victim.