She Call Me Bobby by Hugh Hollowell
Several folks have wanted me to talk about what I do day-to-day.
“I don’t get it,” one correspondent said, “You just talk to the homeless? About what?”
Well, I do more than just talk to folks who are experiencing homelessness, but that is a big part of what I do. I want to show you how one such conversation went down just this morning.
Note: The way we talk, the choice of words we use, all of that is part of our story and part of who we are. Life on the streets is not pretty and it is not polite. Many in my position clean up the language when reporting what is said, but I have chosen to leave it.
I was on my way to use the Internet at Morning Times (a coffee shop and, most days, my office) when I saw a gang of folks I know over by Betty’s van. I stroll over. The mood is solemn.
“Hey guys,” I said, “What’s going on?”
Everyone murmurs and shuffles, looking at the ground. I notice that one older guy everyone calls Slim was sullen and weeping.
“Slim,” I said, “How’s it going?”
“Bad,” he says. “I went to give plasma this morning like I always do on Fridays. This time, they wouldn’t give me any money. Instead, they told me I’m HIV positive.”
HIV. For most Americans it no longer means what it once did. However, these folks know that, if they get it, they probably won’t have access to the life-giving drug cocktails and cutting edge treatments. They all know someone who has died as a result of being positive.
For them, HIV spells death.
Having already heard this story, the crowd begins to melt away. I’m uncertain if it’s out of a desire to give us some privacy or a desire to get out of the cold– in any event, it was welcome.
I have known Slim for about two and a half months. I have helped several of his friends with job applications and have let them use my computer to check their email for messages from family. He knows me to say hi, but he has never really opened up to me. He is much older than most of the street folks, perhaps 50 or so. He told me once in conversation he had been homeless for seven years.
“They tested me, like they always do,” he begins to explain. “They test you every time. They wanted me to sign a paper saying I had HIV, but I ain’t signing shit.”
After several minutes of conversation, I managed to extract the following details.
That morning, Slim went to sell plasma. Many who are currently homeless do this as it is the only thing many of them have to sell. You lay on a cot and stare at the wall while they insert a needle in your arm. After they take blood from your body and extract the plasma, they put the blood back in you. They sell the plasma to the various bio-med places for research and pay you $20 – $35 and you can expect it to take about two hours. If you are a regular donor, they pay bonuses and an extra $5 every third visit, they say.
The routine tests on his blood for HIV showed positive. He was told he had to sign a statement saying he knew he was HIV positive. He refused and left – he later reveals that reading is not something he does well, so he has a fear of signing anything. Understandably, he was in shock by the time I heard this story, so the finer details were a bit harder to nail down. As near as I can tell, he had no second test and no referral to any health care options.
“You need to go to the Health Department,” I said. “You need to know for sure.”
Slim is crying. “It’s Christmas, man. I don’t need this.”
It goes like this for about 10 minutes, when I realize that Slim doesn’t have the two dollars for the bus to go out to the Health Department. I assure him I can spare $2.
“Will you walk with me to the bus station?” he asks.
“Be glad to.”
We begin to walk toward Moore Square Station, the central hub for the transit system here in Raleigh. Slim is beginning to calm down. He has the two dollars that I gave him clutched in a death grip in his hand.
“You are a nice man,” Slim says. “I know you help Sam and Julia out with clothes and help them, let them use your phone. I tell everyone what a nice man you are. I would ask to borrow your phone, but I got no one to call.”
“No one?” I said.
“Well, I got a Mom, but I haven’t talked to her in four years. I want to call her, but I’m scared. I’m afraid she don’t want nothing to do with me anymore. I done bad things.”
We talk about his Mom for a bit. It turns out she lives in Maryland and the family has endured one too many broken promises, so they no longer talk. I urge him to call because four years is a long time. He promises to think about it.
“You’re a nice man. Why you so nice? I mean, you help us out, you talk to us… I ain’t nothing, man. My own Momma don’t want to talk to me, you don’t even know me and you help me. Why you doing this?”
I hesitate. I know folks who would see this as an opportunity to swoop in, tract in hand, tell them about how Jesus will solve all their problems, fix everything. I try to imagine what Jesus would say.
“I care about you guys when it makes no sense to, because Jesus loved me when it made no sense for him to,” I tell Slim.
He perks up, looks at me from the side of his eyes.
“Jesus?” he said.
“Yup. Jesus,” I said.
I think I have lost him now. He surprises me.
“I know Jesus loves me – my momma told me,” he said. “But that Jesus, he is a motherfucker.”
I have no idea what to say to that.
“Yeah?” I said.
“Oh yeah. The thing about Jesus is, he don’t cut you no slack. Jesus is hard.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I know.”
We’re at the blue section of the transit station, waiting on the bus. The air is cold on my ears, the turbulence from the exhaust fumes pressing my jeans against my ankles. The two dollars has managed to disappear. After a lengthy search they turn up in a coat pocket.
“Thank you for doing this,” he said. “I don’t want to die from HIV.”
“Well,” I said, “we are not even sure you have HIV. The first step is to find out for sure.”
We agree to meet up this afternoon in Moore Square about dark so he can let me know what the verdict is. While we are working out the details, the bus pulls up and the doors open, a line of patient commuters waiting to board.
It’s one of those moments – they happen sometimes – when I think God tells me just the right thing to say.
“Slim,” I said. “What does your momma call you?”
He smiled, remembering. “Bobby. She call me Bobby.”
“OK, Bobby,” I said. “I will see you tonight.”
He laughs that I use his name. “Do you think Jesus cares I have HIV?” he asked.
“If you have HIV, then Jesus would be heartbroken,” I said.
“You gonna pray for me, aren’t you?” he asked.
I assure him I will. The breath is almost knocked out of me as he tackles me in a spontaneous bear hug, tears running down his face.
“If it is OK, I gonna pray for you too,” he said into my coat.
Then he turns, embarrassed at the sudden emotion and steps onto the bus.
As he waves to me from his seat two thirds of the way back, the bus pulls away, the exhaust kicking up leaves that swirl around my feet as both our tears dry on my coat.
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