This story was originally published on Medium.com as part of their emphasis on the homeless. Read my first story about Joe by clicking here. Read the original version of this story by clicking here.
I learned a lot during the six months that Joe lived in my basement.
Joe had odd stories.
He told me once about how he’d been chased out of Baltimore by a man he believed was a demon. Not knowing where else to go, Joe had gone to find work in Texas, and then he’d crossed the border into Mexico. He’d found himself living in a small house in Juarez with a man he believed to be involved in a demonic cult. Seeking to escape his new roommate, Joe had begun working his way back home. The entire time, Joe had felt the devil was chasing him. His epic journey had ended on a plane, where he was sure that the devil was going to catch him because he was in an enclosed space. Joe said the devil had boarded the plane with him, and was closing in on him, but Jesus, in the form of a small Hispanic man, sat next him and protected him all the way home.
Joe told stories like this one frequently and freely. He shared them with anyone who would listen. To Joe, these weren’t wild delusions, they were reality. As he told them, he’d say, “I know, man. I know this sounds crazy, man. But, look man. This really happened to me. I wouldn’t lie to you, man.”
Joe desperately wanted us, the “normal” people in his life, to help him make sense of the world he saw. Unfortunately, when we’re confronted with something that doesn’t fit — like Joe’s stories — our natural response is to pull back and look away.
Sometimes Joe heard voices.
When we were rebuilding the first floor of the house, we were excited to discover the original tongue-and-grove hardwood floors from the late 1800’s buried beneath layers of carpet and tile. We uncovered them and tried to restore them. Often, I would sit on those floors and read late into the night. The only thing separating me from Joe’s cot was some old wood and air. Occasionally, we’d chat — me, laying on the floor with my nose in a book; and Joe, laying on his cot looking up at the floorboards.
One night has always stood out in my memory. It was after midnight. Joe and I had been talking through the floor for over an hour, sharing stories about what we’d done during the day. Joe told me about how, while he’d been building a fence for a guy a few blocks away, he’d spent a large amount of time wondering what it would be like to work in a tollbooth.
“I mean, look, man,” he said with his usual nasally drawl. “You just sit there, man. In a box. All day, man. And look, see. I don’t know, man. But I don’t think they let you have a radio or anything.”
“I bet you could sneak in some headphones,” I said.
“No, man. Look, see. They check you for that kind of stuff,” he said. “You can’t take anything in there with you, see. Because Homeland Security, man.”
“Homeland Security is in the business of frisking tollbooth workers for headphones?”
“Man, look. You don’t know. I’m just saying, they could be, man. And then, man, what would you do all day? I mean, look, I know what I’d do, man. I’d sing to myself all day. I’d be singing up a storm, man. People would say I was the happiest tollbooth guy in the world, man.”
“I bet they would,” I said.
And then there was silence. Assuming Joe was done, I went back to reading my book. Minutes passed. I finished a chapter, checked the clock on the wall, and decided to start another one.
After another few minutes, the silence was broken by Joe’s hysterical laughter. “That’s so funny, man,” he said through laughs. “I love it. Funniest story I’ve heard all day, man. That was the best.”
I waited for him to calm down, and then I said, “Hey, Joe. I didn’t say anything.”
“Oh, man,” he said with concern. “Well. That’s not good.”
Instinctively, I looked up to make sure the back door was locked, to make sure that if Joe came out the cellar he couldn’t get into the house.
Getting the help was difficult for Joe.
I tried to help him apply for Medicaid, but he didn’t have the right identification or information. He couldn’t even tell me his birth-date, much less his social security number. Then, one day, Joe got sick.
We were going about our morning routine. I came down at five and unlocked the backdoor. Joe came up from the cellar and joined me in the kitchen. I poured myself a mug of coffee and then passed him the pot. He filled his enormous cup with ice, and then poured the rest of the coffee over top of it. It was then that I got a good look at his face. It was bigger than usual.
“Hey Joe,” I said. “I think there’s something wrong with your face. It looks swollen.”
Joe turned to examined his reflection in the dark glass of the microwave. “Wow, man,” he said. “Look at that.” With his right hand, he gently pushed on his right cheek. Puss oozed from every pore, covering his fingers.
“Get your boots on,” I said. “We’re going to the hospital.”
“No, man,” he said. “They don’t like me there, man.” He pushed on his cheek again. More puss oozed from his face. “Look, man,” he said. “It’s already getting better. We don’t need the hospital, man.”
“No,” I said. “It’s not getting better. Get your boots on.”
Joe ripped a paper towel from the holder on the counter. “No, man,” he said. “I’ll just take care of it. See, look.” He neatly folded the towel into a square and pressed it firmly against his left cheek. I could see it dampen with puss. “They hate me at the hospital, man. I don’t have any money, man. They only help people with money, man.”
I grabbed my car keys off the counter and started walking to the front door. “Get in the damn car, Joe,” I said.
“Fine, man,” Joe said. “Fine. But, look, see. When they throw us out, man. Because I don’t have any money, man. Don’t complain to me about wasting your day.”
After Joe argued with two nurses, demonstrated his new puss trick to a small child, and explained to another patient that he’d once seen a man die while waiting in the emergency room lobby, we saw a doctor. Turns out, living in our dirt-floor basement had given Joe some sort of weird infection. I paid for his antibiotics out of pocket, and Joe moved in with another family from the church. After a few more months, he moved onto a boat he’d been slowly restoring. He told me he was happiest there, because when he was alone he didn’t bother anyone.
Society is the jerk that kicks you while you’re down. When we struggle to understand reality, when we’re chased by devils and hear voices that make us laugh, when we forget our birth-date we discover it’s difficult operate in the real world. We’re pushed away, forced to live on the outside where even the simplest things like going to the hospital are hard.
When a square peg tries to fit into our round holes, we don’t make room by creating a square hole; we just keep reminding the peg that it doesn’t fit. Rather than embracing the stragglers for who they are, our conformity obsessed culture looks away. When the Joe’s of the world walk by, we make sure our doors are locked.
Living with Joe taught me that I’m as guilty of this as anyone, and that the solution to homelessness isn’t fixing all the Joe’s of the world. The solution is all the “normals,” like me, changing how we treat them.