Joe walked the streets downtown with nothing but a mop and a bucket. He’d find you at a stop light, or right before you pulled out of a parking spot, and ask to clean your windows. He was always up front about it — just looking for a little cash, in exchange for the services rendered. The first time I met him, he must have caught me in a good mood, because I handed a dollar bill.
He pushed my hand away and turned the money down.
“How ’bout I wash your car, then you pay me for doin’ that?”
I explained to him that I had somewhere to be, that I really couldn’t sit there and wait for him to wash the car. Also, washing cars? That’s just weird. The truth of it was, he was a sketchy homeless dude with a mop and a bucket. The less time spent, the better. I offered the dollar once again, just so that he’d leave me alone. But once again, he refused.
“I don’t take handouts,” he told me. “I ain’t beggin’. Not doin’ that. All’s I want’s to do a simple service in exchange for a few bucks, like a normal person. I do somethin’ for you, you give somethin’ to me. That’s how it works, right? I’m just lookin’ to be treated like a person. Like, we havin’ a conversation right now. Like real people, you know?”
I ended up talking with Joe for a while. We sat on a bench on the New Haven Green, along with another friend of mine, and we listened to his story. He told us all about the women that he’d raped in alleyways, the houses that he burned with children still inside, just to get some extra cash for drugs. “There’s a whole lotta blood on these hands,” he told us, shrinking in his shame. “More than any man ought to see. But I done it.”
Joe was thrown from the roof of the New Haven Coliseum in a gang war. I remember hearing about it on the news when I was younger; I just assumed the man died. Apparently he was taken to the hospital and underwent extensive surgery in an attempt to save his life. Most of the joints in his skeleton from replaced by replaced by steel and plastic, or at least that’s what he told us.
Joe didn’t know who paid for the hospital bills, but he knew he should’ve died that night. He knew that he deserved to die, for all the terrible things he did. The reason he was still alive, he said, was because he wasn’t done suffering yet. “I ain’t takin’ handouts, and I ain’t beg you for cash, ’cause I don’t deserve that. I don’t deserve none of that. I’m just trying to be a person again.” And he meant it.
Joe thanked us for the conversation. He said it’d been a while since he felt like a human being, and that meant more to him than any loose change from a pocket.
Before we parted ways, Joe asked if we would let him wash our car, and of course we did. When he was done, he wouldn’t take our money. “I owed you one,” he said. “Just promise me, next time you come around, you find ol’ Joe and have him wash your car. I ain’t gonna forget.”
You can bet I get the windows cleaned every time I’m back there.