I had just turned 28 when I had a conversation with a homeless person for the first time. I’d seen countless homeless people asking for money, food, or drugs while working in San Francisco. I had even handed out food at a homeless shelter in Berkeley, smilling at the people as I poured soup into their bowls. But I never had a conversation with any of them. I had never actually sat down and talked to anyone who didn’t have a home to sleep in each night. Then I met Jerry at a Montana gas station.
He smelled of cigarettes and his gray hair was tangled and unwashed. He looked about 60, and he lived in a truck filled with candy bar wrappers, empty soda bottles, crumpled napkins, and three dogs. He kept the dogs, he said, for his mental health. He didn’t talk to many people, but he could talk to his dogs.
If I had seen him asking for money while I was walking to work in San Francisco, I probably would have shaken my head, said “sorry,” and forgotten about him. I feel for people who are hungry, alone, and destitute, but I don’t know how to play a part in fixing the problem.
But when I met Jerry in the gas station, I needed something from him more than he needed something from me.
I was desperate for a ride from rural Lewistown to Billings, Montana, where I was trying to catch a flight later that day. There are no Hertz rent-a-cars, taxis, or buses on a Sunday in Lewistown. The town has multiple sewing shops, few restaurants, and a couple of bars. I was only there for a weekend to see one of my best friends get married, but from my short time there I got the feeling that most residents were like my friend: people who cooked meals at home, sewed their own clothing, and rode horses over the miles of open land.
My original ride had mistakenly left without me earlier that morning, so my friend and I went to a gas station looking for someone who could take me to the airport. I’d never hitchhiked before—I sometimes even avoid taxis for fear of not knowing the driver. But all the other wedding guests I knew were headed for Great Falls, a city two hours away in the opposite direction. When Jerry said that he could take me if I paid him gas money for both ways of the two-hour trip to Billings, I agreed. There were no other options.
I got into his truck while Jerry finished pumping gas. I realized, sitting there, that I already had so many ideas of Jerry before I even talked to him. An NYU study conducted by Dr. Michael Solomon shows that most people make a first impression in seven seconds. It took me less time than that to form an impression of Jerry. He seemed creepy, and lonely, and sad.
He got in the truck and I started talking rapidly. Even though Jerry was doing me a favor, I was nervous. I wanted to make sure that he saw me as a person with feelings and interests and loved ones.
“I have a couple of brothers, and we’re close. I love them. Oh, and I’m dating someone new. We have fun together. I’m excited to see where it goes,” I said, not leaving any space for Jerry to interject.
“I have two cats, and one is sick. Her name is Boots, and I hope she makes it to Thanksgiving. I’m a teacher.” I needed to get these facts out on the table so he could see me as a person as quickly as possible. But I was acting more like mechanical robot than a human having a conversation with another human.
Jerry, once I finally let him talk, started talking about drugs. He loved mushrooms and marijuana. He’s tried meth, but doesn’t have it often.
“What are your bad habits?” he asked me.
“I’m a workaholic,” I told him. “I love to work. I constantly want to be better at everything I do.”
“That’s a bad habit?” he asked. “I wish I was more like that.”
Jerry hadn’t held a job since he served in the Vietnam War. After he returned to the States, he just wanted to feel normal again, and drugs did that for him. When he was on drugs, he didn’t see the images of the people he’d watched die in combat. He could escape to a simpler world where there was pleasure and happiness. After Vietnam, no job could stop the pain that lingered from his days in war.
“Well, I work so much that sometimes I forget why I’m working,” I said.
“That makes sense,” he said knowingly. “And you forget about your family and friends that matter most to you.”
“Sometimes, yes,” I said. One of the dogs curled up on my lap.
“I have four children and three grandchildren,” he said. “They don’t visit.”
I could see how it would be difficult to visit Jerry. Would his children stay in a hotel nearby while their father slept outside, or were they homeless too? Did they send him money when they could? Did they shake their heads at him, not knowing what to do and so doing nothing at all?
“Can you ever visit them?” I asked.
“Gas is expensive. The truck is old,” he said. I wondered if his children even wanted to see him.
My phone kept vibrating with text messages from my friend who was checking in about how I was doing.
“An hour has passed. He’s safe, I think. One more hour to go,” I wrote back, looking out at the open landscape. I hadn’t seen another person for nearly the whole time we’d been driving. If Jerry wanted to hurt me, it would be difficult to escape.
When we finally did arrive at the airport, Jerry got out of the truck and hugged me. “Will you write me a letter once a year to let me know what you’re up to?” he asked.
“Sure,” I said, wondering if he meant that I should mail the letter to the gas station in Lewistown. I gave him $60 for driving me. “Thanks for the ride.”
“It was my pleasure,” he said. I knew it was. Talking to me—or to anyone—was probably the highlight of his week, because Jerry was desperately lonely.
Before I met Jerry, I’d thought that many homeless people had problems with drugs or alcohol. I hadn’t thought much about why. Talking with Jerry made me realize that a lot of horrible experiences had made him the person he was now, just as everyone has a story about how they became themselves.
Jerry reminded me that everyone wants to be seen. I still don’t give homeless people money generally, but I do look them in the eye. Sometimes I say, “I hope you have a good day,” and nod as I walk by. I want people, homeless or not, to know that I see them as a full person with feelings, interests, and loved ones. I rushed to tell Jerry about the people I love because I was scared he might not see me as a person. Jerry did, though; he thoughtfully took interest in me. I may not always have a sandwich to give to everyone who holds a sign that reads, “Hungry, anything helps,” but I can look them in the eye and let them know I see them. While that response probably won’t change anyone’s situation, I think Jerry wanted to be seen just as much as he wanted a better life.
Ashley Champagne lives in California.