The man was wearing sandals, even though Eft Crop the temperature was nearing twenty degrees in Cleveland Ohio. He was dressed in a brown overcoat that had seen better days, the hem ragged and torn with threads trailing behind him. He was unkempt; sporting a beard that was nearly as ragged as his clothing.
If one cared to look they would have noted his height first; he was tall, 6′ 3,”the square of his shoulders and the manner in which he held his chin suggested an obvious past military stint; he stood tall, and once, he had stood proud.
An even closer look revealed a handsome young man, probably nearing 40 with deeply tanned skin, striking blue eyes, a thin aquiline nose and dark brown hair, in fact, nearly black hair. The people he passed on the busy city street turned in disgust, or maybe horror. All they could see was a beggar Atticus Blog.
Stages when we feel it’s really too hard living
Richard saw their eyes turn away from him. He wondered if he had once worn that same look, had once turned away in disgust at the sight of a man who clearly needed help. Once he had commanded a staff of 168 people in a business that was so promising the first offering of public stock had netted the company more than $40 million dollars beyond their IPO projection. That had been three short years ago; it seemed a lifetime.
He had invested the bulk of their liquid assets from the stock sale with the most trusted broker on Wall Street; a scant five months before the broker had been arrested for the largest theft of public funds in the history of America; maybe the history of the planet.
Richard Langley’s company had collapsed in less than thirty days. His employees were furious at the loss of their 401K’s and all the other benefits they had been promised, and had earned.
His corporate headquarters had been on the top floor of a prominent building in Dallas Texas; his office had the corner view, reminding him every day of the wonderful success he had become.
He was dedicated to his company; as the creator and founder he had began with a small office in the back of a successful law firm. He was the president, CEO, CFO, receptionist and janitor. It had taken eleven years of dedicating almost every waking moment to ‘raise the child’ which was how he considered his company.
His wife Janelle had stood right beside him through it all. They had been blessed with three children; a son and two daughters during those years. Janelle had been forced to be both a mother and father during the early years; yet, she had never complained.
Five years ago they had purchased an estate in the affluent Plano area. He had been so proud to bring his family to the new home; it was yet another reflection of his tremendous success. After fourteen years of marriage he carried his bride across a threshold far more prestigious than either had ever dreamed.
They had a good life together. The family attended a local church every Sunday and had been very involved with the youth association. His son had grown tall like his father and had became very active in the school sports program where he had already become a celebrated success in both football, baseball and basketball.
Richard could not be prouder of his son Wes. He had made it a quest to never miss his games and attended each event faithfully, cheering with the other fathers.
His daughters, Violet and Lily were a replica of Janelle. They were filled with grace and poise and had grown quite beautiful early in life. They excelled at school and were both involved in chorus and drama classes.
Life had been near perfect for Richard Langley.
He closed the offices and liquidated the furniture and equipment. He was alone when he turned out the lights on an empty shell of his dreams. He headed to a local bar and ordered scotch whiskey, straight up. He had stayed for hours, drowning his lost hopes and dreams in the amber colored liquid as the bartender continued filling the small glass.
He missed his son’s football game that night; a first for Richard Langley. He simply could not bear the looks and whispers that surrounded him when he went to the events these days. He missed the next game and the next; in fact, Wes no longer asked if he were going to attend. Maybe he preferred him not to come. He spent the next six months drunk on scotch.
His wife had divorced him six months after his business collapsed; he was a loser. She had easily won the house, furnishings and most of their joint savings in the divorce action. He had been left with his car and a mountain of debt; so sure had he been in the success of his company he had signed personally for an incredible amount of the debt. He was an honorable man and felt he should have no compunction with accepting personal responsibility for his company’s’ financial performance. He had no idea what that would mean if the assets suddenly vanished. The creditors were interested in any morsel of anything of value; they intended to liquidate his life.
Three months earlier, he had sold the car and began walking. The more possessions he let go of, the worse things became and the harder it was to get anything meaningful back into his life.
Christmas was in two days. He had traveled from Dallas Texas all the way to Cleveland Ohio; he intended for this to be his last stop. Richard was 43 years old, a whiz kid and corporate wonder; he intended to kill himself on Christmas Day. It would be the last day he suffered the humiliation of being a loser. He could hardly wait.
His mother had died when he was 26; he had just returned from a tour of duty in Germany and received his Honorable Discharge from the Navy. He arrived with his new wife and her first grandchild only to learn that she had died while he was traveling home; she had stubbornly refused to see a doctor with her flu like symptoms. The flu had turned into pneumonia and she had died in her sleep.
His mother had always held great hope that he would be a writer. He had no idea why she believed this when in fact, he had never written a thing in his life.
As they had sifted through her personal belongings he had found an old square suitcase that resembled a small trunk.
They had opened it together as Richard told Janelle how important his mother had always said this box was. They both wondered what in the world it contained.
Popping the old latch open, they discovered it was an antique typewriter.
Inside the typewriter, still held in place by the feed roller, had been a note to Richard,
When you were two years old you came down with something dreadful; your fever spiked so high that you went into convulsions. I was terrorized as I watched your tiny body thrashing about, fearing you were dying before my eyes. I began praying fervently for you to be healed, asking God to please save your life.
Suddenly I heard a woman’s voice whispering softly in my ear. “Your son will not die; he is destined to be a world renowned writer who will inspire millions of people across the universe. His words will uplift and heal the spirits of all who read his works.”
And so Richard, I leave this typewriter to you, filled with the promise of those softly spoken words that terrible winter day. For surely you were healed and did not die. I believe the rest of her words will also come to pass. Please keep this with you until the time comes for you to take your place in the hallowed halls of those who are destined to lead the masses with their words of love and encouragement. I believe in you son.
And so, for seventeen years he had honored her wishes. Even now, when he owned only the clothes on his back and a few blankets, he kept the typewriter. These days he used it to sit on while he slept in the deeply recessed doorways of some business at night, a cushion between him and the cold, hard concrete.
Soon he would take the typewriter to Diamond Jim’s Pawn Shop on St. Clair Street and trade it for a gun to end his miserable life. He was certain his mother would understand; and he would be meeting up with her real soon to explain if she didn’t. Any luck he had been destined to have had long since expired.
It’s funny what you can learn living in the open. He had discovered where he could take a shower and not be noticed, what stores had the thickest boxes that could be used for shelter and cover and what restaurants threw out food that was still safe and edible each day.
He had learned that many bigger department stores collect everything that has been returned to them without the proper packaging and throw it into the dumpster each night. These were the places where he could score new socks and underwear, clothes and blankets. It was amazing what they discarded.
Tomorrow was Christmas Eve. He had been saving the quarters and dollars that people pressed into his hands on the streets. The holidays always seemed to touch people and inspire them to give. He went into a diner and ordered a coffee to get warm. He intended to make his third and final attempt to call his children tomorrow. He had tried every Christmas since the divorce. Each time, Janelle, his ex wife, hung up the phone when she heard his voice. He had been successfully obliterated from their lives. This would be his last Christmas; he would try one final time to say “I love you” although, he doubted they cared at all.
Looking across the diner he noticed a woman who appeared to be in her 60’s shivering in the doorway. She looked around the café a little desperately, her eyes darting around for he knew not what. He had learned to quickly assess the people he ran into. This woman appeared to have met the same lucky fate he was experiencing. Her clothes were thin and would not even keep her warm enough to survive the night. He hoped she had others hidden somewhere. He got up and crossed the short distance to greet her.
“You look like you are a little lost; want to come over to the counter and talk?”
Her head dropped to look at the floor before she finally raised timid blue eyes to look at him. “I don’t have any money and I am so cold. I just stepped in here to get warm.”
It was a rare opportunity for him; he had actually found someone he could help!
“I’ll treat, come over and sit down.”
He listened to her sad, sad story. Her husband had died and shortly afterwards her son had been killed while fighting a fire in a neighboring town. She had been at the mercy of her daughter-in-law after learning that her husband had left all of his estate to their son, trusting that he would care for his mother.
When her son had died the money reverted to her daughter-in-law; she had quickly began dating and soon decided her life had no place for the mother of a man who was no longer a part of her life. She had unceremoniously thrown her out the door with two suitcases and $500.00. Those funds had lasted a scant two months. She had been on the streets now for six weeks.
She was 61 years old now, not old enough for Social Security and too old to be given a chance to work in an economy that had left millions of very well trained people standing in line looking for work. Richard knew she had almost no opportunity to make it through a winter in Cleveland Ohio.
He related his own pathetic story to her; she sat listening and nodding in sympathy, patting him on the shoulder like he was her son. They were quite a spectacle; a raggedly dressed very thin woman with silver hair and a man that was clearly very handsome hiding behind unkempt facial hair and ragged clothing. Some of the diners wondered if they were playing a part in a local Christmas play. But this was all too real to Eleanor and Richard.
“Where are you staying at night,” Richard inquired?
“I don’t know yet; I am ashamed to tell you I stole a grocery shopping cart and put all of my belongings in it. I was not strong enough to keep carrying them around. Last night someone stole the cart. All I own now is the clothes on my back. I could hardly report a stolen cart as stolen. I am sure I got what I deserved.”
“You know, it’s going to be below zero tonight Eleanor?”
“I know,” she whispered, barely audible.
“It is a rare occurrence these days but I do seem to have met someone who is in worse straights than I am. You cannot survive the night dressed like that. Have you tried the shelters to see if they will take you in?”
“Yes, they are full.”
Damn it, the last thing he needed right now was a helpless woman who would surely die before daybreak if he did not intercede. Mentally he counted the dollars and change he still had in his pocket. He was unsure whether the amount would cover the cost of the gun and ammunition, even with the sale of the typewriter. And he had to make the call to his children just one last time. Still, she was pitifully thin and had no coat at all; just three ragged sweaters she was wearing, layered one on top of the other.
Richard stood up and paid the bill.
“Let’s go. Maybe we can find a thrift store that will help us with a coat and something to keep you warm for the winter weather that is only going to get worse.”
“I can’t son; I have no money. My purse was hidden in the cart.”
“Come on Eleanor, we have to do something. I will do what I can to help.”
They strode down the busy street; snow was beginning to fall, softly hitting their faces and covering their clothes. His feet were already cold. He would be so thankful when this was over. Just a day and a half now; it was growing dark already.
They found a Salvation Army Thrift Store and quickly turned into the doorway, thankful for the temporary reprieve from the blowing wind and snow.
The clerk knew instantly that they both needed all the help she could give them.
She took Eleanor over to the thick winter coats and helped her to find one that would go a long way towards keeping the bitter cold out. Then she added insulated underclothing, two pairs of leg warmers, socks, boots, toboggans and gloves. She added three thick blankets to the pile and turned her attention to Richard.
“I have what I need, just take care of her. We have very limited funds to make these purchases.” He knew he needed very little to sustain him for the rest of his short life.
“It’s a Christmas special. The clothing is free; you can donate ten percent of what you have in your pockets to our Christmas fund.”
Reluctantly Richard accepted two blankets and a thicker coat and toboggan along with a pair of boots. He paid her $1.31, ten percent of the contents of his pockets.
They left the store together; Richard felt a great load had been lifted off his shoulders. At least now Eleanor had a fighting chance to survive the cold and snow.
As the hour grew later the winds increased off the great lakes; it was bitterly cold and snowing heavily.
“Eleanor, we need to find shelter.”
She was so cold she had not uttered a word for the last two hours. The businesses were finally closing. They had all remained open later to accommodate the holiday shoppers. When the cold became unbearable Richard and Eleanor had stepped into the shops, fooling no one, to simply warm up.
Richard had been carrying the typewriter and their purchases for the entire day. He was cold, tired and hungry.
“We need to find a place to be safe tonight. Let’s stay together; at least we will have each other to help stay warm.” She nodded her head, silent tears streaming down her cheeks.
“Richard located an entrance to a building he thought would do the trick. He had learned that the deeper the doorway was recessed, the better chance he had to stay warm; the thick brick entrance acted as a shield from the wind and snow.
He bundled Eleanor up tightly and asked her to wait for him. He went to round up soup and cardboard boxes to help shelter them from the cold. When he returned, he found her snoring softly, shivering involuntarily. He wondered how they would fare this cold snowy night.
Eleanor accepted the tall container of soup gratefully. He had brought hot chocolate and had even managed to collect their entire meal from the diner free of charge. He had finally just blurted out the truth about the upcoming night. He had not done so for himself, but in an attempt to save poor Eleanor, who was too weak and thin to generate any kind of warmth alone. It was almost Christmas; the older Italian man who owned the small diner had packed up the containers of soup, hot sandwiches and hot chocolate and shoved them across the counter to Richard. “Merry Christmas son, may God be with you both.” It was free!
When their meal was finished Richard gathered up the containers and carried them to the trash can on the corner. He found another man standing there by the trash, clearly trying to decide how to ride out this windy snowy night. He returned with Richard. Three bodies could bring more warmth than two.
They all huddled close together in the doorway. Richard arranged the thick cardboard to shield them from the howling wind and snow. He shared their blankets with the newcomer.
The man was 59 years old and had an alcohol addiction. It was the same story Richard had heard repeated so many times on the streets; one addiction or another had ultimately led to the loss of a job, a family and finally a home.
And so, they all gathered each night, staring at the sky to see what the night would bring and then looking at their options; and those were always few.
Sometime late into the night the winds died down and the snow just fell silently on the dirty city streets. The group fell into a troubled slumber and another night passed.
Blinking their eyes to adjust to the sunlight, they were rudely awakened by the shop keeper of the business where they had bedded down for the night.
“Get out of here, you worthless bums! And move that pile of crap out of my doorway.” He was shaking his fist at them!
Quickly they gathered up their treasures that had gotten them through another night and hurried away.
Richard knew the pile of cardboard, bags and blankets probably did look like worthless crap; but it was the only thing standing between the group and certain death from exposure to the elements.
He found a hiding place behind a dumpster of a business that was closed for the holidays and took Eleanor’s hand. “We need to find something to eat and a way to stay warm today. We will return tonight to get the things and go to the same doorway; it worked just fine to keep us safe last night.”
‘Too Hard Living’ is an excerpt from ‘Like A River,’ a true story about the personal losses of one man in the economic freefall many experienced. It describes the seeds of failure that created a man who ultimately inspired millions; but not with his early success. It was his failure that created the man he always wanted to become.
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