It was sometime in 1985. I was a 28 year-old working for the Feds at JFK Airport in New York City. My work had me traveling to Washington DC several times throughout the year. My lodging of choice was the Marbury Hotel at the edge of Georgetown. My nightly routine was dinner then flirting with the bartenders at my favorite Georgetown haunts. My trips were often accompanied by a few other coworkers. This time I was there on my own. I walked back to my hotel each night always with a cigarette in hand. I smoked in those days- a lot.
On my second night there, I saw a man sitting in an alcove in front of the door of a closed office building. He was tall. I could see that even as he sat on that small concrete step. He had jet black, unruly hair, although the word becomes “unkept” when not applied in the civilized halls of polite society. His long black coat, while not in tatters, was clearly the garb of one without a home. He had the bluest eyes. He appeared to be in his mid-thirties. He was there again the next night. This time he pointed to my cigarette and nodded the question, “Do you have an extra one”. I smoked Marlboros at the time. I gave him one along with a light and went on my way. On the third night. I stood and talked a few minutes. I had so many questions for him. He intrigued me. He had not the trappings of the usual bum on the street bumming a smoke. Beneath the grime and grit of his clothes and hands, there seemed a veneer of better times. I dislike unasked questions and so I asked. What was he doing out here? He left his corporate life for good, he said. He hated it and what it had become. I didn’t ask if it was by his own accord or with an unwelcomed escort.
In those years after Mr. Reagan took office, one of the calamitous effects of the stroke of the Executive Order pen was to reduce the beds in this country for the mentally ill from 6 million to 600,000. It was the days of the homeless pouring into the streets and under the overpasses of highways and byways all over this country. Times Square became a mecca for it and so had Washington DC. Yet, to this naïve young mind, this man didn’t seem to fit that bill of mental incapacity at all. I continued this nightly routine. When he asked for the cigarette, I now found it my license to sit and ask more questions. How does he survive this way? How do even the basic tenets of privileged hygiene occur? I wish I could recall the answers. But I do remember we got to know each other in those brief visits each night. I liked him. He seemed to like me.
It was late fall. The air was getting chillier. On about the seventh night, I asked him a question that didn’t even seem to be coming from my conscience mind. It was accompanied by a voice that said, “Are you insane?” It was cold. I could not fathom a night out here on that stoop for him. I asked if he would like to come back to the Marbury Hotel. At first, he was even more stunned than I was by the question. He then smiled and said yes. I was glad. I regaled him with tales of a lovely shower. We walked to the hotel. I averted the eyes of the bellman and the concierge. I did not want any questions I had no answers for. We went up to the room. We talked more hesitantly now without the ease of sitting side by side on our little stoop. I was nervous in a way that would never make me bolt for the door, though. He took a shower. He had a bag and changed his clothes. He washed his socks and underwear in the sink and draped them carefully across the chair to dry. I remember he had pajamas in that bag. I remember thinking how odd a thing to pack in a survival bag fit for sleeping on the streets. It made me realize his time outside could not have been that long. It seemed he packed as any traveling businessman would do, even if there was no destination waiting for him.
We turned off the lights. He went to sleep. My brain lingered awhile in delight that he would not be sleeping on the cold cement at least for tonight. I can’t say my pride did not surface at having engineered this situation. The thoughts of being killed in my hotel room by a perfect stranger were gone, fleeting as they were. I felt I had gotten to know this man’s integrity, if not his whole story, in our nightly conversations. I began to think about what we would have for breakfast and for ways to help him get back into the society he so thoroughly shunned. I finally fell asleep. He must have read my mind in his dreams. When I awoke the next morning, he was gone. I was sad and confused and didn’t quite understand how one could walk away from all the trappings of what I came to find was quite a comfortable life somewhere in Connecticut. I went to work quite unsettled. I couldn’t wait for it to be over so I could go back to the alcove and find him. I went to dinner as usual. He was never there when I walked up the street, only upon my return. I cut my barfly time short and walked back towards the Marbury and he wasn’t there. I never saw him again, but he has stayed with me for almost forty years now.