Somebody else’s problem

I was walking around Lowe’s with this homeless guy. Let’s call him Randy. He had long, stringy hair and a gaunt face, and his accent was Kentuckian-ish.

We were at Lowe’s because his flashlight was dead. It was a small, blue LED light, the size and shape of a toilet paper tube. The problem was that he dropped it one night, so now it wouldn’t unscrew.

Believe me, Randy and I tried to get it apart, but it wouldn’t budge. So we decided to look for some tools. Channel locks or vice grips or an adjustable wrench—anything would help.

As we stood in front of the wrenches, a sales associate approached. “Can I help you?” He eyed us quizzically. I would have done the same. Here’s an old, scraggly man in baggy clothes chumming around with a young guy in too tight jeans and a bright white T-shirt. On second thought, maybe this scene wasn’t out of the ordinary for a hardware store.

I was about to say, no thanks or just looking, but Randy chimed in. Mustering a face as sad and droopy face as a bloodhound, Randy said, “Mister, I’m a homeless veteran, and my flashlight is stuck, and I can’t get no light when it’s nighttime.”

* * *

Randy had told me all of this previously, when he helped me get my car started. At least, he said that he helped, that he did it all, even. Then he gave me the I’m just a homeless veteran spiel.

If I had to guess, I’d say Randy served in Vietnam. That seems to suit his age, but who knows? He could have served in Desert Storm, or maybe not at all. I believed him because, well, I’m a sucker. Then he asked if I could help him fix his flashlight, since, after all, he helped me so much with my car.

The car was a ’62 Beetle—electric blue, with a rebuilt engine and incredible upholstery. But the rest wasn’t worth what I paid for it. Why did I overpay? Again, I’m a sucker.

I try to believe that people will be honest and good to others. I always want to believe that people will treat each other with respect, that your word means something. How naive.

The car was barely drivable, the brakes hardly worked, but I got license plates for it despite this. The seller, a family friend, promised that it was stellar, so I believed him.

* * *

I spent the previous Saturday changing the oil and spark plugs, getting it road-worthy. On Tuesday, the day I met Randy, I fired it up and headed to the BMV. I gave myself plenty of stopping distance along the way. At least, I made sure to have enough room to drive into the ditch to avoid a crash. After they checked the vin number, I paid the exorbitant amount and rattled away towards school.

I felt awesome, with new jeans and a cool green button-up, driving this crazy old contraption. In my mind, everyone was asking: “Hey, who’s that cool guy?” But it was only in my mind.

In reality, the car wasn’t zippy; it moved slowly and screeched. It was 50-years-old and tired. It didn’t want to move. I had to lay on the gas just to get into the parking space at UIndy. Unlike the other stick-shifts I’ve driven, this one had three brake levers. They appeared to be in the correct, logical places, according to my educated guesswork.

It was after class, when I drove to my parents’ house that I really noticed it. The wheels sounded like they were grinding as I moved along. The car didn’t even want to roll down the incline into my parents’ driveway.

No one was home to give me advice either. And what kind of advice could my family give, anyway? My dad is always quick to proclaim: “I work with wood, not cars.” And he tries to stay away from plumbing, too.

I picked up what I needed and left, but as I attempted to turn off Janet Dr., the little blue Bug died.  I cranked and cranked, but it wouldn’t turn over. My cell phone, per usual, was dead. So I unbuttoned my nice, new shirt and got ready to test my mechanical acumen, equipped only with a screwdriver. It was like a fifth grader taking the LSAT with a crayon.

That’s when Randy lumbered out of nowhere. He started chatting about the car. “I haven’t seen one like this in years,” he told me. “I used to have one back in the 70s. It was just like this.” He started monkeying around in the engine compartment, and I figured that he at least couldn’t damage it any more than I. Somehow, we got it started. Then Randy gave me his spiel.

As soon as we hopped in the car, Randy pointed to the two smaller levers. He asked, “Why do you have these parking breaks on?” I flipped them down like I knew all along. No surprise, the car moved more easily after that.

* * *

I was cruising West on County Line Rd. with Randy in the passenger’s seat, and we were about to turn left onto Madison. Randy wanted to ask the owner of a Cash 4 Gold store if he could borrow tools to fix his flashlight. Apparently, he had some rapport with said entrepreneur.

The Beetle hummed steadily as another, newer Bug pulled up next to us. It was shiny, silver, and probably five years old. The driver, a middle-class, gray-haired Greenwood-ian, had his windows down. His radio, unlike mine, worked.

Randy gave a toothy grin. He kept looking back and forth from me to the other guy. For the love of God, I thought, don’t say anything. For the love of—

“Two of a kind,” Randy hollered at the other driver. “This one’s a few years older, though—a ’62. Both look nice, though.”

The man smiled skeptically and nodded. The look on his face was the same as the Lowe’s sales associate. The questions going through his mind was probably the same. Thankfully we got a turn light, before he said anything else.

The man probably knew that Randy was homeless. It’s not like people hadn’t seen him walking around. He lived in a tent next to the railroad tracks on County Line. It was hard to miss, really.

I had seen him. In fact, when I went to find a certain pinot griggio at a liquor store by the Greenwood Mall a few months after our trip to Lowe’s, I saw Randy sitting outside. He had a case of cheap beer, and he was sipping a can right there on the sidewalk. He didn’t recognize me. It’s like those people you meet at a convention or on an airplane. They’re one-and-done or “single serving,” like Chuck Palahniuk says in Fight Club. We all are.

This scene was pretty pathetic. But the saddest part was how terrible the wine, which the store owner suggested, ended up tasting. A real American tragedy.

* * *

The Cash 4 Gold guy wasn’t there. When Randy got back into the car, he said that Bill was the only one in, and Bill is a jerk. That’s when we headed to Lowe’s, and then ran into the sales associate.

That fine sales associate really tried to fix the flashlight. He got a wrench and muscled them around, but he had little success. So two more came over, one older man and another tall 30-something who looked like a linebacker. He was tall and dark, with arms like 4x4s.

“I’m just a homeless veteran,” Randy started, but the two ignored him.

The linebacker—who wore the same little Lowe’s vest as the others—took two channel locks off the wall. He clamped them on either end of the flashlight. As he was about to twist, Randy chimed in, “Sir, I’m just a homeless veteran, and—”

“Okay,” said the linebacker with contempt, “I’m a veteran, too. Settle down.” Although anyone could tell how frustrated he was, the man looked sad, too. Anyone could tell that Randy’s spiel was rote, like he had said it so many times that it just slipped off his tongue. But he stopped after the other man rebuked him. He didn’t say it again for the next 15 minutes, the last 15 minutes of our friendship.

The linebacker got the flashlight apart sans issue. It’s easy when you have the right tools, and muscles help, too. Randy thanked everyone, and we walked away towards the checkout. I bought him some batteries. Then I bought him some McDonald’s.

* * *

After all that Randy had done for me, how could I not help him out? He got the car running, sure. But on top of that, he had fought for my freedom in a war, at some point in U.S. history, although he never said which one. Who knows?

Randy was probably telling the truth about being a veteran. I still believe him. If your life is the pits and you say you’ve served, you’re probably being honest. We honor our men and women in uniform by offering them outdated, inefficient health care. We mutter our disapproval when the homelessness and suicide rates among our heroes are disproportionately higher than those among the rest of us.

But we do nothing to fix the problem, because they serve us—not the other way around. And after all, that’s the government’s problem, and there is nothing individual citizens can do about it. The assessment feels right, but for some reason I don’t feel right about it.

So why couldn’t Randy be a veteran? He fit the profile.

After I bought him the batteries and chicken strip combo, I also was almost broke, since I had paid for license plates earlier that morning. And as a college student, I didn’t have a ton of spare cash. I figured I would end up living on the streets, too. But that was a joke. I never lived on the streets.

What I did instead was drove the bug to my apartment and made dinner for me and my girlfriend. I fed my cats and rabbits. I did some homework. I went on with life. And except for seeing him outside the liquor store that one time, I haven’t really seen or had anything to do with Randy.

That was the last day I ever drove the Beetle, though. It wouldn’t start again. So I sold it. It became someone else’s problem.

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