Spencer the Laughing Bum

The following memory was originally shared on Medium.com. This week they are having a focused look at homelessness. You can read the original post here.

“The service starts in 20 minutes. You need to do something about him,” my boss said.

“He’s not hurting anybody,” I said, not looking up from the tray of muffins I was arranging for the coffee station. Usually Pastor Ryan spent the half-hour before the service hiding in the green room with the band. I glanced over his shoulder to try and see who had gotten him riled up. There were no candidates in sight.

“Jeff,” Ryan said. “He needs to go. He can’t be there when people start showing up.”

I sighed and looked up from the tray into the open doors of the worship center. Spencer sat on the back row with his arms sprawled across three chairs. A loud snore escaped his gaping mouth.

“He’s going to give visitors the wrong idea. I don’t want some drunk guy to be the first thing they smell when they walk in the door. He’s your friend. You need to get him out of here,” Ryan said crossing his arms.

I’d first met Spencer at the corner of Cross and Light. He’d stopped me on my way into a sandwich shop. I remember had been a hot day and he was wearing a sleeveless white t-shit that revealed his scared arms. It was difficult to guess his age. His wrinkled face read late sixties, but the spark in his was that of a twenty-year-old ready to take on the world. He’d blocked my entrance to the shop and said, “Hey, brother. My car broke down up the street, and I’ve got to get to this job interview. I can’t be late or they’re going to give it to someone else, and I’ve got to feed my kids. I just need four-seventy-nine for bus fare. You think you can help me out. God bless you.”

I’d given him a five dollar bill and my card, and I’d told him if he wanted a place to shower and a real meal to come and see me.

We did this dance four more times over the next three weeks. Each time Spencer had given me the same story, “Hey, brother. My car broke down up the street, and I’ve got to get to a job interview. I can’t be late or they’re going to give it to someone else, and I’ve got to feed my kids. I just need four-seventy-nine for bus fare. You think you can help me out. God bless you.”

Each time I’d given him a five dollar bill and my card, and I’d told him if he wanted a place to shower and a real meal, to come and see me.

On the fifth time, I’d had enough. Again, he’d stopped me and said, “Hey, brother. My car broke down up the street, and I’ve got to get to a job interview. I can’t be late or they’re going to give it to someone else, and I’ve got to feed my kids. I just need four-seventy-nine for bus fare. You think you can help me out. God bless you.”

“You really don’t remember me?” I’d asked.

“I’m just trying to get to a job interview,” he’d said. “For my kids.”

“The kids thing is a nice touch,” I’d said.

He’d smiled and said, “You got another five for a brother?”

That had been the beginning of our friendship.

“I’ll move him in the back corner,” I said to Ryan. “No one will see him. He’ll just sleep through the service.”

“I’m not worried about people seeing him,” Ryan said. “He’s the only thing you can smell in the room. No one is going to be able to focus.”

“I can’t just kick him out,” I said.

“Tell him to take a walk around the block. He can come back once the service has started, and sit in the courtyard and drink coffee. That’s probably what he wants to do anyway.”

“I really don’t want to do this,” I said.

“We all have to do things we don’t want to do,” Ryan said, as he walked back toward the green room to hang out with the band.

After I’d confronted him, Spencer had stopped blocking my way to the sandwich shop. Instead, usually when I was still a block away, he’d point to me and yell, “You got five dollars for a brother?”

In response, I’d point up the street to my office and yell, “Whenever you’re ready.” Then he’d laugh, and I’d approach him, and we’d talk about how he was doing.

Over weeks the greeting ritual shortened.

He’d point and yell, “Five dollars for a brother?”

I’d reply, “Whenever you’re ready.”

Then he’d laugh.

He’d point and yell, “Five dollars?”

I’d reply, “You ready?”

Then he’d laugh.

After a month, all that was left was the point and the laugh. That’s when he’d given himself his nickname. “Here comes the pastor,” he’d say as I walked up. “Coming to hang out with Spencer the Laughing Bum.”

In contrast to our ritual greeting, our talks got longer. I learned that Spencer the Laughing Bum had a family in Philly he hadn’t spoken to in over two decades. I learned that he’d followed some girl to Baltimore on a whim, and had been arrested his first weekend here for possession, and that he’d been given a five year sentence. I learned that had been his first of many trips to jail, the place he hated more than anywhere in the world. I learned he’d gone through a program and kicked heavy drugs. I learned that now he used all his money to drink. I learned that he lived in tent behind an abandon Sam’s Club, and that he had a bike he chained up every morning a few blocks from his corner. I learned that on a good day, he made more panhandling than I did working for the church, which he thought was hysterical. I learned that, while he didn’t like his life because he never felt safe, he was resigned to it because he thought this was as good as it was going to get. “At least I’m out here and not in jail with those other stupid fuckers,” he’d say.

We’d spoken for at least an hour a week for over two months. He’d occasionally attend a worship service on Sunday. I’d come to think of him as a friend, and I think he thought of me in the same way.

I left the coffee station and walked to Spencer. I could smell the alcohol radiating from him before I even walked into the door of the room. I sat down next to him. I knew there was no way this was going to end well.

I nudged him.

He sprang forward. Wiping his mouth with the back of his hand he said, “I’m up.”

“You’re drunk,” I said.

“No,” he smiled. “I was drunk last night. Now I’m hung over.” He burped. The smell almost made me vomit.

“You can’t be here,” I said.

He laughed and pointed at me with both hands.

“No, seriously,” I said. “You can’t be here drunk.”

“What the fuck is wrong with you?” he said. “I told you, I’m not drunk. I’m hungover.”

“Same,” I said.

He laughed. “We need to get you drunk so you will know the difference.”

“Come on,” I said, standing and pulling at his arm.

He pushed my hand away. “Get off me,” he said. “What’s wrong with you?”

“I’m sorry,” I said. “You can’t be here like this.”

“What do you mean, like this? You worried I’m going to scare all the fancy people away?”

“Why don’t you go for a walk? Come back after the service has started. I’ll make sure to save you a muffin.”

“You think you can buy me off with a goddamn muffin?” he said, standing. “If I wanted a goddamn muffin, I’d got to the fucking bakery. I didn’t come here for your mother-fucking stale-ass muffin.”

“I’m sorry,” I said again. “But you need to go.”

“You’re really going to kick me out of church right now?”

“You can’t be here,” I said.

“You’re fucking kicking me out of church,” he said.

“You can’t be here like this,” I said.

“Yeah, okay,” he said, throwing his hands in the air. He laughed one last time and left. Ryan came out to thank me, and we started the worship service on time.

I saw Spencer a week later at the corner of Cross and Light. I waved, but he didn’t laugh. He didn’t point. Instead, he turned his back and walked away.

After a few more weeks, I didn’t see him at the corner anymore. It’s been almost a decade now and I still think about him. That conversation in the church was our last. I betrayed his trust and lost his friendship. It’s moment I will always regret.

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