When I was on the rowing team in college, we drove a half hour south to San Pedro for practice six mornings a week. One day, as we rumbled under the overpass and pulled onto the freeway, those of us who had fought the sleep off saw a man sitting under a cardboard teepee. Outside of a few curious looks, we failed to react; LA is full of homeless men and women, and if you don’t get callous about it quick, you’re a goner.
The next morning, the same man was there, under the same cardboard. You don’t see this, usually, as the homeless learn to shift from haven to hovel to shelter to foxhole and back, never staying long enough to be remembered.
But the morning after that, the man was not only still there, but had also added a piece of cardboard to his hut. One of my teammates waved to him. And maybe it was the grim camaraderie that had set into our bones and callouses, the shared resignation to scheduled pain that we all clung to, that caused us to adopt him into our morning routine. Or maybe it was that a good three-quarters of the team was from Eastern Europe and most of the rest of us were not as far but far enough from home that we found the cardboard familiar. But he belonged, suddenly, with us.
The cardboard home grew daily. Even on days when we went out to the boathouse twice, it seemed that in the few hours between our first and second practices he had added to and refined his place.
One day he got a puppy, and the puppy became a part of our mornings, too.
On it went, into the spring, into the longer days and the earlier sunrises. The deeper into our season we dug, the bigger the man’s home became.
One morning he’d gotten a rug, and was sweeping outside his makeshift doorway as we passed. Our east-facing windows were open and we waved and offered him the sign to “fight on” – an otherwise tepid symbol meant to spur on school spirit. Two fingers up and palm facing out, what most people would see as “peace,” but we knew he knew what we meant. He returned it with a fierce and weary smile.
And then, the following morning, he was gone. Along with the cardboard, the dog, and the rug.
Just like that, it was all gone.
He came to mind tonight, and I didn’t know what to do other than tell you, here, now. I guess because I don’t know what his name is or where he is or what happened to him. And because it’s crazy that none of us ever knows how long the cardboard will last. And because it feels important to remember people even without knowing their names, without knowing anything other than that they keep a clean house and are nice to their dog.