Frank The Corner Man
I never caught his real name.
To me, in my mind, I always called him Frank. Somehow it was an intrusion to ask him straight up, “What is your name?”
I think he was a man devoted to his privacy, ardent about his independence.
If this were the 1920’s, Frank would have been called a “hobo,” and riding the rails on the tops of swagging box cars firing up a cup of joe.
But this is 2012, in NW Washington State. We don’t do hobos here. We have services.
I met Frank a long while back, on the corner, with a hand-printed cardboard sign that read “Vietnam Vet, anything helps, God Bless.”
At first, walking down that frantic stretch of road and intersection to get to the art supply store, service dog pulling me along like a motivational mantra on cement, Frank melted into the background. I was consumed with my self, my own anxiety, my own agenda, to get to the art supply store and back.
Over time, with repetition, Frank and I made eye contact, and he said hello to my dog.
I did not give him money. Being from a former life in social services, I was trained not to do so, but to render phone numbers and bus routes to shelters and service agencies who were funded to provide for the homeless.
But Frank had an economy going. And he knew it.
This particular intersection happened to be rated the Number One busiest and most congested and stalled-out interaction in the city. To Frank’s benefit. Cars had to wait 4.5 minutes for the light to turn in their favor, and then, they might not make it and have to wait another round.
All that time, sitting in a car, looking at Frank with his sign on the street corner. Hidden away behind the bushes of his full, unkempt gray beard and piercing eyes. Dollars got handed out rolled-down windiws. Frank stacked ‘em up and rolled them into a tube sock.
And he asked how my dog was doing.
One day he called to me, “tomorrow is another day! Always remember, there’s another day..”
And then one day, he was hunched in the bushes behind the sidewalk. He waved to me and with a great push got up to greet me.
“Just taking a break,” he said, grin under a tobacco stained mustache and still having his original teeth somehow, “I broke my hip. Takin’ it slow today.”
It seemed ridiculous to offer platitudes. And help to get services. Scuttlebutt had it that he lived in a tent across the main semi-highway, and routinely got chased out by cops and had to relocate, but never breaking the law or getting arrested. Just a tent, and relocation.
Something about him smacked of “been there, done that. Dont’ preach to the choir, honey.”
But Frank was not the kind of guy to say that out loud.
There are implicit rules among the homeless that denies anyone the right to gain status over another to teach, correct, or help or pretend you know of a better way.
Sometimes independence trumps the controls of beaurocracy.
But humanity remains.
So I brought him beer. He told me once he wouldn’t refuse it.
And when I saw his frame, his skinny thin frame — from smoking too much over a lifetime — skinny gaunt frame become haunched and crooked with a side-step from that broken hip, I knew that the man with the leathery ravines where crow’s eyes used to be was not long for this world.
The piercing eyes were vague and watery around the edges of the whites.
So I brought him beer.
One day the temperature reached 101 degrees — August — and I came across him on a different sidewalk, myself walking home from the store, bag full of cold beer for me and frozen Chinese for my service dog.
He was haunched and scrabbling across the cement. “How’s your dog?” he grimaced a pain-laden smile. The kind of smile your soul has on reserve, but the crunched muscles of your throbbing body won’t deliver.
“He is hot,” I said, and pulled his backpack over toward my end and shifted beer cans into it.
Stuffed in as many as I could. I knew he needed it.
“You know you have to drink water too,” I said, “wether you want it or not. Beer will get you through the night, but won’t hydrate you. Where you going?”
“I’m sleeping there tonight,” he pointed in the direction where, if you go three blocks over, there are some vacant fields.
“I know how to get you services, and a clean bed, ” I said, “But I won’t push it on you. You will tell me if you want me to arrange a shelter bed and services for you?” I pleaded, dignified, but still, a plead.
“Oh services don’t help,” he brushed me off, “They don’t do much good and I’m doin’ fine.”
But the next day, a Sunday, when I brought Frank a Tupperware box full of fresh tuna casserole, he was not fine. I called the paramedics to the corner of West 112th and Thorson Avenue.
The next three days, my service dog and I sat by his hospital bed, and in the waiting room, while the IV dripped morphine into Frank’s perishing body.
Cancer had its final say in the matter. No one knew. No one could have known. Frank was just a corner man, waiting for the stop light and hoping the police wouldn’t take away his night tent.
I prodded the doctors and nurses and the social worker. Family? Children? Next of kin? Who will bury this gentleman? Who will send him on his way? Is there a religion? Anyone to say a prayer of a certain denomination?
Not a clue.
I poured two fingers of contraband Jack Daniels into the decaf coffee on Frank’s breakfast tray.
“How’s your dog?” he meagerly and eagerly put the cup to his cracked, scabby lips.
“He’s right here, doing good,” I said and pointed to the floor where my dog was standing guard over both of us.
“You’ll need to keep the bottle,” he mused. “The cops are kicking me outta here today.”
And today it was.
No one was called, no one was able to find a family member to call.
I sat outside the morgue room, waiting for the County hearse.
“Who will see the body to the grave site?” I asked.
The charge nurse was terse, not in the mood for a Hallmark moment from some stray do-gooder sentimentalist.
“The driver,” she said.
When the driver showed up, and the greenish-black bag was hoisted into the back of the coroner’s public service hearse, I said, “STOP.”
They looked at me. My dog looked at me.
“I am riding with him,” I said. “To the grave site.”
“No, honey, you can’t do that, you’re not family, you’re not next of kin.”
“Then get the doctor,” I said. Plainly. “It is his orders that count. I want to hear it from him.”
When the doctor showed up, tipping his eyebrows into “what the hell is this woman doing, getting me down here — away from my patients ???”
I tucked the leftovers of Jack Daniel deeper into my coat pocket, and said, “This gentleman is somebody’s son. Somewhere out there, dead by now, he has a mother, good or bad, a mother. But a mother is universal. And I happen to also be a mother. For today, I will be this man’s mother, and I will weep for him as a mother would, and I will escort him to his grave.”
…..Well, after a second round of negotiation about having a service dog travel in the back of hearse, we made it to the cemetery, Frank –obligingly — in tow.
Then Frank was lowered into his pauper’s grave, anonymous, just a number for a headstone. I never caught his real name.
My dog lowered his stance to a chin-down on the grass.
I recited the Lord’s prayer.
And then, as the back hoe dumped heaps of dusty summer dirt into the hole, I sang,
“Abide with me, ’tis eventide,
The day is past and gone….
The shadows of the light are gone.
The day is fast and done…”
And then, because time permitted,
“God be with you till we meet again..
In His hands hold upright you,
By his side He will guide you..
God be with you till we meet again…”
I had not had my wits about me earlier and did not think to snag any flowers from the gift shop or bouquet to put in the earth with Frank.
So I poured the last of the Jack Daniels over the dirt, crossed myself, and said to my dog, “We go now.”
And we turned and walked toward the bus stop.
Frank the Corner Man was somebody’s son.
And I am somebody’s mother.