I met a man on my way to jury duty. It was a chance meeting, and I never asked his name. I’ll call him John.
I exited the underground metro station at Judiciary Square, confused. Nothing I saw looked familiar except the grayness of a cold Washington, DC day. I stood in place, turned a complete circle, and contemplated the direction I should take.
I answered and spun around. The man smiled at me with a crooked smile and collapsed top lip, a telltale sign of missing front teeth.
Where you headed?” He asked while fumbling inside his backpack. I tried to think of something to say to avoid answering his question. I preferred to find my own way. His appearance suggested there was something about him I should mistrust. I scanned the area for an escape, but there were no visible street signs and no one in the vicinity to save me had I needed it. There was only John.
“That’s where I’m going. Follow me.” He slung the dingy backpack over his shoulder and waited for me to catch up. I felt a tinge of vulnerability but had no immediate solution to avoid being rude to this stranger. It felt wrong to say ‘no thank you’ and be on my way.
I fell in alongside John, the street and sidewalk unusually deserted. Being trained in defensive tactics, I bladed my body strategically. If necessary, I was in the position to cold-cock him with my oversized hobo bag, weighed down with bottled water, snacks, and a hardback book. I kept one eye on John, alert for any fast movements. We were several steps into the journey before I noticed he was holding, what appeared to be, a joint. This could end badly.
It was out of character for me to walk shoulder-to-shoulder with a dusty, sandy-haired guide. It was even more unusual for me to participate in the conversation forced upon me. I was annoyed by this man’s presumed familiarity with me, but, by then, I was relatively sure he was harmless.
His kindness was peculiar, and he was oblivious to what should have been obvious; I was less than thrilled to be in his company. Perhaps he understood and wanted to walk with me anyway. The evening news and my last stint at jury duty, two years before, reinforced my predisposition to avoid strangers on the street at all costs, particularly ones that looked like John.
“I’m going to the courthouse to take a piss test,” he said, and I turned up my nose at John’s candor.
When John lit one end of the blunt, I was relieved by the sweet smell of tobacco smoke. I had no idea people still rolled their cigarettes, not the legal ones anyway. I had quit smoking more than twenty years before and detested the smell of burning nicotine. I had always bought my cigarettes by the carton.
John held the hand-rolled smoke between his thumb and index finger and struggled to wrap his loose lips around it. Between drags and puffs, he shared details of his life and why he was going my way, an unfortunate run-in with the “po-lice.”
His honesty fascinated me: given a world where many go to great lengths to put their best foot forward on Instagram or Facebook, regardless of the reality of their circumstances. John was an open book and had no regard for his unfortunate privacy. He divulged more details than I cared to hear; getting arrested more than once was of no consequence to him. His words flowed with the lightheartedness of a circus ringmaster, but the edges of his drooping eyelids told a different story. There was a pain in his eyes, yet he willed his voice to share his secrets in a disguised “water-under-the-bridge” cadence. His sentences ran together as he rambled, topic to topic, as though he had saved his confessions for an entire year and wished to tell me each one of them in as little time as possible.
The judge had allowed him to enter an intervention program that kept him out of jail, as long as he remained trouble-free and submitted to regular piss tests. It was better than nothing, even if it meant a long train ride from Baltimore, once a week, for six months.
“The cop tried to cut me a break.” He said, indicating no sign of animosity toward the police officer that had escorted him from Union Station and told him not to return.
“But then, he arrested me.” He chuckled as he took a deep drag from the blunt he had smoked down to his fingertips. It was a laugh that hinted he knew he had done something stupid; he could not help but laugh.
“He did, when he kicked me out of the station, the first two times. When I tried to sneak on a train, he said I was going to jail.” He blew the smoke into the air, tossed the butt on the ground, and straightened his dirty book bag.
“I guess I didn’t realize how drunk I was. I just wanted to get back to Baltimore. I like Baltimore better than DC. The police are more kind in Baltimore, and I know the area better. It’s an easier life there. When you know people and know how to get around, it’s easier to stay out of trouble.” It was the best thing I’d ever heard anyway say about living in Baltimore.
John and I walked a few steps in uncomfortable silence. For once, he seemed to be at a loss for words.
I glanced at him from the corner of my eye and noticed the etched lines on his leathery face and the yellowed fingernails of his dry and cracked hands. His pants and boots; larger than what one would expect for a man his height. The unnatural slump in his shoulders that faltered under the overstuffed backpack.
“Yeah, I’m a drunk, but I don’t do no drugs.” His words broke the silence as he sensed what I had just realized. John was homeless. Not just down on his luck homeless, but a sad drunk that drank until he passed out then slept wherever he was when he took his last swig for the night.
“That’s good.” I answered as I heard my grandmother’s voice, “There but for the grace of God, go I.” The chill I felt was not weather-related.
“I did a line of heroin and smoked some crack once, but I didn’t feel nothing. I had liquor in me, so I don’t know if that was the reason why or not. Maybe, the people I got it from gave me something that wasn’t real dope.”
Could this chance meeting with John be a test or a joke? I checked my watch, careful not to flash my wedding rings. I had less than twenty minutes to get to Courtroom B and still be on time.
John was convinced drugs were a waste of money. He preferred the less expensive knock-out numbing he experienced with alcohol. John was the first person I’d spoken to that admitted doing heroin and crack. I wanted to seize the opportunity and inquire more about his experience, but I felt it would have been an intrusion, so I remained quiet and let him do the talking.
I wondered whether I had ever slipped by John and ignored him on a cold night as he lay, passed out, atop a street grate as billows of steam rose from the ground engulfing his motionless body. Perhaps, he was that person I saw sprawled on the park bench, covered by a shredded sleeping bag, as brownish-yellow liquid gushed from the midpoint of his body to the grass below.
“Are you sure we’re going the right way?” I asked.
“I’m sure,” he said though I doubted his confidence. I was relieved when I saw a clean-shaven man, briefcase in hand, headed in our direction.
“Excuse, me sir, where’s the Superior Court Building?” John asked.
Without stopping or looking at us, the well-dressed stranger pointed toward the sky, “three blocks that way. It’s that tall building.”
“Thank you,” John called after the man then looked at me with a sheepish grin. “I guess I got turned around.” We did an about-face and headed in the direction from which we came.
“I need to stop drinking. Lord knows it’s gotten me in a world of trouble.”
“Why don’t you then?” I blurted, frustrated that he’d taken me in the wrong direction.
“I guess some people are just weaker than others.” His voice floated away to a different place and time. He started drinking when he was ten years old and had continued throughout his life, except the time he was sober for eight years. I estimated he was sixty-five and wondered what it felt like to live the majority of a lifetime in a fog and why there had been nothing worth stopping for. His parents were long gone, and neither of his ex-wives or their children wanted anything to do with him.
“I’m going to get myself together. It’s going to take hard work and energy. I’m not sure I have either left in me.”
Once back on track, pedestrians appeared from out of nowhere, each one staring at John and me. How unusual we must have looked together; him with his second-hand clothes and me, with my black and blonde curly afro.
“Maybe it’s a blessing drugs didn’t do anything for you,” I told him, not knowing why or where my words had come.
“Yeah, I’m going to get myself together,” he nodded; to convince himself.
When we arrived at the courthouse, there were two winding lines of people waiting to enter through building security. A light rain had begun to fall, and I hoped it would not take long to make it inside.
“You too, and thanks for getting me here,” I told him as he walked away then stopped at the back of the longer of the two lines, twenty feet away from me, standing in the shorter queue. It was an odd thing to do after having walked the whole way with me.
Periodically, I looked over my shoulder at him, but he never looked in my direction. Perhaps, he thought doing so would embarrass me. He stared at the back of the person’s head in front of him in line.
I sat in the crowded juror’s lounge among an assortment of old, young, men, and women that I avoided making eye contact with for the remainder of the day. I never spoke to anyone in the room, and they did not talk to me. We engulfed ourselves in our private worlds of smartphones and Kindles. I completed The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, finally then switched to Words with Friends and challenged a random player; who beat me six times.
After seven hours of waiting, the Clerk of Court entered the room and announced, “Ladies and Gentlemen, no other jury panels will be needed today. You are free to go, and thank you for fulfilling your civic duty.”
When I exited the courthouse, I followed the signs to the underground metro station. It was less than a stone’s throw away. I looked around, but there was no sign of John.
I often search the faces of those I see on the street, like John. They’re never him, but I say hello anyway.