|Found this photo on the internet, Gerald looked very much like this man.|
When I met Gerald in the early 1980s he was just past his prime. He claimed to be in his early 30s though he looked a lot older. Living on the streets and being a drug addict will do that to you. His dark black skin was stretched tightly over his skinny body. His eyes were milky white pools with black dots in them. His hair was unkempt but his clothes were a step above the normal attire of a homeless person. He dressed more like someone who was cleaning out the garage than a mendicant.
The stories about Gerald were a little difficult to believe given his physical state. Plus in bars there are always exaggerated stories about people and their past deeds. Bars are where people hang out who only have past accomplishments to talk about and nothing much going on in the present. There too are some in bars who have future glory to regale people with, again because the here and now is devoid of anything worth mentioning. There were stories about me and what I’d done, some of which were true. I know because I had spread them. So when people talked about Gerald’s former talents it was both interesting and just more bar bullshit.
But one day a group of us actually left the bar on a Saturday afternoon and meandered down to the basketball courts. Gerald joined us. I conspired to be on his team. I was in pretty decent shape for a bar denizen and had always been a good basketball player, so I figured I could “carry” him against the pot bellied out of shape mugs we’d been playing against.
The game started with me inbounding to Gerald. Someone was guarding him pretty tightly. Gerald seemed to elevate from a standing position to three feet of the ground in the wink of an eye. The ball rolled off his finger tips and through the hoop. Nothing but net. The other team took out the ball and Gerald stole it effortlessly and zipped a pass to me in the same motion. He was like that for the next ten minutes, doing what no one else could and ever so quickly. If he was like this now, how must he have been a dozen years ago when he was not only not using but was in shape?
Gerald begged off from playing anymore. He made his excuses and left. We all agreed that his departure was really because he didn’t want to show us up anymore and he was — already — physically spent. I concluded from Gerald’s display that the stories about him probably were true.
I got to be friends with Gerald, mostly because he was so damn fun to talk too. In a bar there’s no more appreciated ability than the gift of gab. Gerald needed it because he never had a cent on him. I or someone else was always buying for him. I used to carry change or $1 bill in one pocket and called it Gerald money. If I didn’t see him in the bar it was likely I’d encounter him on the streets and when I did he’d hit me up for money. I couldn’t say no. Once when I gave him a buck he asked if I couldn’t spare a bit more. This is simply not done when panhandling from a friend or acquaintance. You take what you’re given and are thankful for it. But this was Gerald, a man who was about as far down on your luck as you can get but always smiled, always had a story to tell, always laughed and was always upbeat. I dug into my wallet and pulled out another couple of bucks. He shook my hand.
Gerald would always shake my or anyone else’s hand upon greeting us and when given money. On two separate occasions his hand was bloody. I never knew why nor did I say anything.
I was a copyeditor at a big accounting firm at the time. One day I was given the firm’s tickets for a Warriors game. Needless to say they were excellent seats just a few rows from the floor smack in center court. I couldn’t think of anyone else I’d rather take or who would appreciate it more than Gerald. He was delighted to go.
There were a few looks our way when we took our seats. It was not at all unusual that an African American should be sitting in the pricey section, but Gerald’s appearance did suggest someone down and out. I’ve attended a lot of sports events with a lot of different people and going to an NBA game with Gerald is among my favorite experiences. Sure he had some unique insights into the game but more than that he was a wit and our senses of humor matched perfectly. We chatted and chuckled through most of the game. Gerald appreciated me taking him to the game and thanked me profusely. I said I hoped we could do it again sometime and meant it.
In the coming months I saw less and less of Gerald at the bar and eventually he didn’t come in at all. More worrisome was that no long after that I stopped seeing him on the streets. I asked everyone who’d ever talked to Gerald at the bar if they knew his whereabouts and no one had a clue. I thought to ask some of the people on the streets but was uncomfortable with the notion. I’m not sure why, it wouldn’t have done any harm. People come and go on the streets. Gerald had been around for around six months. No one pays much attention.
A few years later I stopped frequenting the bar and stopped drinking. I’ve never missed booze nor the bar scene nor any of my old drinking partners. Just about the only person I think of from those days with any affection is Gerald. He was a warm, gentle man who’d had a great talent. More than that he was clearly quite intelligent as his conversations and humor demonstrated. Of course I have no idea what became of him but the odds are that it was not good. Some things in life are just damn sad.