My stomach lurched when I saw him.
He was leaning against a brick building, his fingertips gripping the walls as if they alone were holding him upright. His head swiveled back and forth in animated conversation.
He was standing alone.
He looked exactly the same as he did before I left Seattle for New York: Matted hair, unwashed skin, lopsided smile.
During my last year of residency, I spent one day a week working at a shelter. He unexpectedly appeared there one afternoon. Staff told me that he was an occasional visitor for the past fifteen years. When winter descended upon the city, they saw him more often. He disappeared during the dryer months.
Wary of psychiatrists—he had spoken to several in his lifetime—he kept our first meeting short.
“Would you be willing to come back next week so we can talk again?”
To my surprise, he appeared the next week. And the week after. And the week after that.
He told me about his immigrant parents. He told me that he was an avid reader. He often had a copy of the local paper or a library book tucked under his arm when he came to the shelter. His vision was poor, so I’d often see his face inches from the pages. He squinted. He told me about the wooded grove he slept in, though would never tell me its exact location. He showed me the toiletries he kept in his duffel bag, including the razors he used to shave his face without any water or cream.
He never told me what happened that made him homeless. He never told me who he spoke to when he was alone.
Several months before my departure, I told him that I was moving to New York City. The lopsided smile blossomed on his face.
“I used to live there,” he said. The smile withered and his expression darkened. “Be careful. There are a lot of people there. It’s not a safe place. Especially the subway platforms. Make sure you always hold onto the columns in the subway stations.”
To demonstrate, he stood up and dug his fingertips into the walls of the office as if they alone were holding him upright.
Three years have passed and I have returned to Seattle. Three years have passed and he remains homeless with limited to no options for supportive housing. Three years have passed and the only things he can hold onto are the walls along the city streets.