I never learned to ice skate, so I cut through a dimly lit parking garage in the middle of an awful, freezing night to rest my legs from the slipping and sliding on my way from the late shift at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution to my snow-covered car. I felt the presence before I saw it, then I glimpsed the shadow moving toward me, growing bigger and bigger. There are times throughout life we have to prepare to die, and I suppose I was as ready then as I’ll ever be. Out of a deep, dark corner the man came. Then, he shouted, “Hey, man, what’s up?” It was Big Al, My Personal Wino.
That was one of the few times I was genuinely glad to see Big Al and not some other crazy person, but I do think kindly about him sometimes, especially on snowy, icy nights such as these, sleeping as he often did on cardboard boxes on the hard city streets, ready to attach himself like some conscience leech. Big Al was my cross and shield for nearly four years, lurking around my car in the wee hours most weeknights, needing $20 for some imagined emergency but also warding off other creatures of darkness. Big Al was a pity and a con. God knows how many dead uncles I gave him money to bury. His “daughter” was brutally murdered, then resurrected to need money from me to get her driver’s license. I gave him money in the middle of the night at least twice to take the Greyhound bus to visit his ailing mother in South Carolina; he was always back the next morning, declaring he’d had a real nice trip. I never actually believed his wild stories — OK, maybe once or twice — but I figured I owed him something for his theater of the night.
On that particular scary, snowy night, Big Al needed a ride home. He was a homeless man with many homes. I even met some of his supposed cousins and aunts, though he confessed later that they were perhaps simply drug dealers and pimps — and at least two surprisingly attractive hookers — that he’d gotten to know through the years. I never knew who they really were, but they took in Big Al from the streets for a night or two, and I could not deny that that was a special kindness, particularly from people who seemed just one illicit deal gone wrong from being out there with him.
I told Big Al the weather was way too bad for me to be driving him into the badlands that late at night. I had visions of tires spinning on ice in a hail of gunfire. Big Al was insistent, as always, pointing out that he would surely freeze to death in that parking garage if I left him there. For once, his scam had validity. I tried to be firm, suggesting that I drop him off at a homeless shelter. Unfortunately, he knew that I knew no homeless shelter opens its doors to late-night creatures of darkness. Before I could come up with another excuse to abandon him, he hopped out of my car and began scraping ice off my windshield. He never let me forget that small gesture of helpfulness. Months later when I would be standing my ground against driving him into one more dangerous neighborhood to sleep with a “cousin,” he inevitably would say, “Remember that night I got out in the freezing cold and scraped that ice off your windshield. We been friends a long time.”
And, in a way, we were. I can’t say that I ever truly got to know Big Al, nor did I truly want to, but he taught me an amazing lot about homelessness, hopelessness and survival. We had some adventures, too, and I’ll share a few of those in the coming months. With a decent education, I’m convinced, Big Al could’ve been a star at Goldman Sachs or Lehman Brothers. He was that good a scam artist.
But in a warped way, I think, Big Al preferred the streets. How he got there is surely a social tragedy that I’m not sure he even remembers. We never talked much about his past, and no arresting officer or social agency was ever able to repair it. He lived in a bizarre, practical present.
On another freezing night, he abruptly appeared under the street lights looking like an enormous teddy bear, wrapped in layers of coats and blankets, fresh off the cardboard-covered pavement, wanting his $20, for watching my car. He had persuaded himself — and me — that watching my car was his job, and that I owed him. He caught me that night in another weather-related moment of sympathy.
Shivering in the cold myself, I told him I would bring him a genuine sleeping bag the next day. He said he didn’t want one. “A sleeping bag, you have to carry around all day,” he said. “A cardboard box you can just throw away.”