Reflecting on Leon

I brought Leon peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I gave him an apple once. I’d get free samples from the corner venders, just to hand them over to Leon. One time I took him to McDonalds. I even thought about bringing him home with me for the weekend. Give him a hot shower, a bed to sleep in, a roof over his head. But I never had the chance.

Leon slept in an alley on a plastic bag. The bag doubled as his rain jacket. He took naps in Grant park and loved to lie in the grass and listen to the music from the summer festivals. A paralyzed leg kept him from going far. It would drag behind him when he walked, limp and lifeless like a sack of potatoes. He spent his days sitting on a ledge in the shade, outside the Panda Bear restaurant, within sight of the Art Institute of Chicago. Leon told me that when he was rich, he was going to buy that Art Institute and let homeless people sleep there.

The first time I met Leon, I thought he was the epitome of a dirty old man. I offered to buy him something to eat at McDonalds, and he quickly hobbled after me, grateful for a meal. Before we even rounded the corner he was whistling at the girls, asking me lewd questions.

“Can I take your order?” the unsuspecting girl behind the counter asked.

“Yeah, you can take my order, baby. I want you, on top of this counter.” Leon said with all the seriousness in the world. I sheepishly smiled, looked to the floor, and tried to disappear. The McSecurity Guard watched us with his arms crossed until we took our food and left.

“You know, you shouldn’t treat women like that,” I told him when we got outside, hoping I wasn’t sounding like my mother.

“C’mon on Kevin. I can’t help it. I’m like a rabbit,” he explained adding a gesture with his hand a thrust of his hips. I didn’t understand what he meant until I watched his gesture, and then I looked away.

Every encounter after that was completely different. Leon himself told me he’d changed. I couldn’t help but wonder if it was real. He still complimented the ladies as they walked by, but never with the half hip thrust and leer he gave on that day we went to McDonalds.

When I had a tough day, Leon would point skyward and tell me how God provided for him that day. I walked up one morning to see Leon decked out in brand new tennis shoes, a pair of black denim jeans, a sparkling clean T-shirt, and a stiff black hat. He looked like a new person. The owner of a restaurant on the block where Leon sat had given him a whole bag of new clothes. Leon showed it all off with a smile, unzipping the bag to show me more.

Leon had served in Vietnam. I think that’s why he was disabled, although he never really explained what happened. He always needed a shave, and when I first saw him I thought he was in his late fifties. He was only forty. I’m not sure how he became homeless. I asked about local homeless shelters, but he told me how the gang bangers always tried to beat him up. He wasn’t going to put up with that. He didn’t have to.

Leon asked where I went to school and what I was studying. I told him writing and he just nodded. The next day he told me how I was going to write a book about his life. We thought about it for a minute, and then we both came up with the same title at once. Leon laughed and told me it was meant to be. I smiled, and told him I’d write his book for him. Leon Pitz, Man of the Street. He had it all planned out: when he got his next disability check, he would buy a small tape recorder and tell his story to the microphone. He’d get my address and mail me the tapes at school, and I could write his book. But the check never came. I gave him a small notebook, but he just couldn’t write out his thoughts. He told me we’d do it someday. I still watch my mailbox with a small bit of hope for an envelope from Chicago.

I relied on Leon that summer as much as he relied on me. Some days I wish I could get a hold of him. I always wondered what he did in the winter. He couldn’t sleep in that alley in December. I wondered if he took his chances in the shelters. I wanted to write to him, but he didn’t have an address. I wanted to drive to Chicago and look for him, but how can you find one homeless man in the city? I wanted to talk to the owner of the restaurant on the block where Leon sat. He was the one who gave Leon the bag of new clothes. Maybe he knew where Leon was.

All I have left is the memory. I can try to track him down the next time I’m in Chicago. I wouldn’t mind taking a road trip to find a homeless man. But for now I have the memory. The memory of a dirty, unshaven, cripple. I remember watching a Marlboro burn between his lips. I remember him looking over my girl friend and proclaiming what a fine looking woman she was. I remember his smile when I handed him a sandwich. That ‘you shouldn’t have’ look. It was like a kid on Christmas morning. All I have is the memory, and the comfort of Leon’s words, always said with a crooked finger waving skyward, “He’s watchin’ out for me.”

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