Burton — they call him Burd at home for short — is dressed in a black stocking cap and a dark canvas coat. That’s not what you notice about him at first. What you notice about Burton is the white beard wrapped around his gaunt face. It fits with his tall, thin frame, slightly stooped. The beard isn’t combed, but it is well-groomed. Burton has a face filled with character and hardship. By his appearance, you’d think him more at home on a fishing vessel than where he actually is.
When he speaks to you — and he wants to speak to you — you notice his sparkling blue eyes.
Yet what’s most noticeable when you stop to speak to Burton — and you can’t help but stop — is the overwhelming odor of stale urine around him. When you live on the street, finding a public bathroom isn’t always your top priority, and even then, not everyone is willing to let you do what you’ve got to do. Things happen.
“Do you think I can make it in this program?,” he asks me. He is looking for some reassurance.
Burd and I are both in the cafeteria of a homeless shelter, each for entirely different reasons. I can’t answer his questions, and I apologize for not being the person that can help. That doesn’t bother him any more than the odor does.
“I’m not from here either,” he says, looking me in the eye over the top of his cup of coffee, two spoons of powdered creamer. “I’m from way up north.”
That information fits better with his appearance. How far north? New York? Maine? Canada?
“Ever hear of Dahlonega?”
I have. In fact, my daughter is in school there now, I tell him. Just 60 miles away from Atlanta, it’s not very far north at all, unless you’re walking. I tell him I used to live in Cumming, a half hour south of his hometown. At this, he decides we are practically neighbors.
“I lost everything in 2015,” he volunteers. “My wife left me. She took our kids and our house. She took everything. I’ve been on my own since then. I was a mean drunk.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” I tell him, and I am. I know the pain of divorce too well. Does anybody ever really recover?
“I’ve never taken any drugs,” he feels compelled to tell me. “I’m not an addict.”
That’s good, I tell him. I’m not sure what else to say. In truth, it matters not if I say anything. This is a man that needs to be heard, acknowledged.
“I haven’t been here too long, but I’ve already seen more drug stuff than I think I should have to see.”
It’s apparent that he doesn’t much care for addicts.
“Alcohol though, that was my problem. I started drinking in 1990. In 2015 my wife told me she’d had enough, and that was all.”
“I was a mean drunk,” he repeats to no one in particular.
He was a truck-driver by trade he tells me, and that’s what led to his downfall in a round-about way.
“I was smoking marijuana,” he says. “Then, in 1990, they started doing random drug tests for truck drivers. I had to quit smoking pot if I wanted to keep my job, so I started drinkin’. I never missed marijuana after that.”
He drove a concrete truck, for a while.
“After three years they discovered I had the wrong class of license, so they made me drive a tractor-trailer instead. That wasn’t as much fun, because I was going to the same place and back day after day. There and back, day after day. I did that for 17 years. But drivin’ ready-mix, I was always goin’ someplace new.”
He has aspirations. There’s life in those eyes, an energy, a pride that remains unbowed. Hope.
“I’d like to get Social Security,” he says.
He has injured a leg, and walking can be difficult.
“I’m hoping to get disability payments. That’s why I’m here in Atlanta. I think I’ve worked enough.”
The Social Security Administration is three blocks away.
“I’m 58,” he tells me. He looks 10 years older, easy. Life and the booze have both been hard.
“I hear they’ll let you draw Social Security, and still work some. That’s what I’d like to do.”
I don’t think you can be both substantially disabled enough for Social Security and yet gainfully employed, but it’s not my place to tell him that. I wonder aloud what he’d like to do.
“Truck drivin’,” he says. “I’m still a truck driver. I need to get my license back this year because it expires next year, and I’d have to start over and take the test again.” If he could get his disability payment it would give him the margin needed to get his license back.
I’m called away for a moment, and there’s disappointment in his eyes. “I’ll be back in a minute,” I tell him. “Hang tight.”
He does, and when I return his face lights up again. I’ve offered him really nothing more than my attention. I’ve had very little to say, and no answers for any of his occasional questions.
Nevertheless “I’m glad you’re back,” he says. “I was enjoying our conversation.”
“I was too,” I assure him.
We talk just a minute or two more about what kind of a truck driving job he could get, but then roll call for the program attendees starts, and he needs to talk to the leader. We say our goodbyes and I tell him I hope to see him again soon. He excuses himself and limps to the front of the room. As I look back over my shoulder I see him remove his stocking cap and bunch it up in his hands as he approaches the man with whom he needs to speak, a sign of his nervousness. It’s the last I see of him.
A week later, I’m in that cafeteria again. I look for Burd. I’d like to know how he’s doing.
I’ll never know. Burd isn’t there. He’s not there the week after, or even the week after that. He never returns. Nobody knows where he went or why he didn’t come back.
When you live on the street, you do what you’ve got to do. Things happen.