Reflections on Jonah, a Homeless Man

Reflections on Jonah, a Homeless Man

A Story by Rick Haydn Horst

This is something that happened to me at a café in Nashville, Tennessee before a doctor's appointment at the VA, and I felt compelled to write it down.


I enjoy the café atmosphere, the little tables, the warm fireplace, the relaxed, carefree flow of conversation, and I have few complaints about my experience there. At 9:30 that morning, I sat writing in the Café Coco, drinking the tea that I brought and complaining to myself that my loud neighbors at the next table were causing lapses of my concentration. The conversation I struggled to write in chapter three sounded as boring as the conversation my oblivious neighbors used to keep me from improving it.

The café held four of us in its cozy confines. The fourth patron, a pale, brown-haired man, sat at the far table near the fireplace and the front door. He made periodic trips outside to smoke and would return to the warmth of the fire. I noticed little of him, but at one point, he attracted my attention as he left to burn one, not by anything he did really, it was just the look. Gay men often know one another with a glance, a glimpse into the eyes that, by instinct, most heterosexual men avoid with another male.

I rose from my seat to ask the barista for more hot water, and I pulled a couple of Earl Greys from my pocket. She filled the ceramic travel mug that I brought with me without an issue.

I looked over at the man who had returned. He stood with his back to the fireplace, warming himself from the chilly outside air. He wore jeans and a hoodie that covered a thermal shirt that could easily have gone unnoticed. His hair looked a bit of a mess, but not overly so, and as he stood there, he listened to music on some earbuds. He glanced over at me, and I’m not sure what made me, but I spoke to him.

“How are you today?” A disappointing opening question that often leads to lying, and, as I discovered, he certainly lied to me when he said, “Oh, not too bad.”

I laid the tea bags into my cup to steep and walked to him, asking if I could sit with him. He occupied a table for two, and he wasn’t expecting anyone. An old backpack sat on one seat, and the other he had pulled out from the table. He sounded grateful for the company and gave me his chair that faced away from the light beaming into the window, and he took the other. The sunlight illuminated him, and the first thing I saw was his teeth. They were straight and white, so he hadn’t always been homeless. I looked at the table before me; he had set a beer in a plastic cup at his seat.

“You’re drinking a beer this early in the day?” I asked.

“If you haven’t guessed, I’m homeless. I live in a tent behind a dumpster down the street. I won’t hold it against you if you get up and leave now.”

Under closer observation, I could see he told the truth. His worn clothing had holes of the non-haute couture variety, and while he could have been one of those fake homeless people, I could see he hadn’t lied. The almost imperceptible thermal shirt appeared far dirtier than the hoodie that he used to hide it. He may have carried an Apple phone, but it was an older one with no service, and the stationary secondhand of his battery-operated watch told me that it had stopped functioning some time ago.

I am someone to whom people, given the opportunity, tell their problems. It’s often unsolicited on my part. It just happens. With him, I felt sure the five beers he had already consumed helped to loosen his tongue. I asked him how long he had been homeless, and he told me since March. It was the 10th of December, so going on nine months, and he had yet to experience winter in Nashville as a homeless man.

I noticed the guitar case leaning against the wall behind him. “Have you been doing some busking?” I asked.

“What’s that?”

“You know, playing your guitar to get money.”

“Oh, no. My parents never gave me that ability. I don’t play.” He proceeded to tell me his experiences with begging and his degrees of successes and failures. He said rich white people never help you. You get more help from minorities and the poor. He told me a well-to-do white woman shamed him by telling him he shouldn’t buy beer with his handouts. He made it a point to tell me about the judgment he received daily.

“They’re quick to whip out their pointer finger to shake at me,” he said, imitating them, “and that’s when I give them my middle one. It’s not like I bought drugs with it. I used to have a drug problem, but I don’t anymore. I just self-medicate with alcohol.”

“So, you traded one addiction for another,” I said.

“Oh no, I was drinking then too.” He referred to it as his escape.

He sized me up when he asked where I lived. I hadn’t minded. Anyone in his situation must take advantage of every possibility of getting a handout, and I had already decided I would help him. I told him I lived near Knoxville, but I found it even more telling when he asked me where I stayed in Nashville.

As we chatted, he informed me of his thoughts on the state of the US and religion, with no indications from me, as he did 98% of the talking, his thoughts had a similarity to mine.

As the time from the conversation lengthens, my ability to remember some details grow faint. Somehow, we ended up discussing his past. He experienced a lot of sexual abuse between the ages of 8 and 12.

“Where were your parents?”

“They were doing their own thing,” he said. “My mother was always running around on my father, and he was always trying to track her down.”

At 17 years old, he fell in with a man who treated him well for several months but later had repeatedly raped him. Strangely, he stayed, even when the guy, upfront and emphatically, told him that once he got too old for him, he would throw him out.

“If you knew that,” I said, “why did you stay?”

“Because it felt familiar,” he said.

I knew he needed to talk to someone, but he had no one; he craved socialization and more; his last bath was three weeks prior, and his bedding lay wet from two days of rain. He needed a room for the night.

I told him I hadn’t the ability to help him like that. I sat while he talked for over an hour and a half. I knew that if I gave-in to the impulse to help him, I would inevitably pass the point where I would help him to my own detriment; I have a hard time stopping. I knew then that I had to leave.

“Oh, come on, please don’t go,” he said. “We were getting on so well. What have I said or done that makes you want to leave?”

At the time, I couldn’t put into words my need to leave. I ached inside to help him. I hadn’t doubted that his circumstances involved more than he told me, but somehow that didn’t matter. He needed help, and I wanted to take him to Walmart, get him some decent warm clothing, get him some food, a motel room so he could get a bath and sleep in a bed for a change. I couldn’t afford to do any of that. I gave him the only cash that I had: $23.00.

“Have you no place to go to get help?” I asked him.

“There’s the mission,” he said, “but there’s drugs there and aggression.”

No doubt, that was true. I told Jonah that he had value that his life had value; empty words for someone when he already told me he had given up.

“Is there anything I can do for you?” he asked me.

I looked at him. I said, “Yes, please try to find a way to help yourself. You worry me. I wish I could help you, but I’m not in a position to do that.”

He asked for my email address, and I gave it to him. I probably should have asked for his, but I didn’t think of it at the time; I needed to leave and could think of little else. He asked for a hug before I left, and I gave him one. His body felt so thin and frail from not eating. That ache inside me, again. I couldn’t tolerate it; I had to go.

When I got to the garage at the VA, I decided to write that experience down. I never knew what happened to him. He might have gotten sick that winter and died. My brief time with Jonah only served to reinforce my view that our whole system of life in the US is wrongheaded, but I’m powerless to fix it.

© 2021 Rick Haydn Horst

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Added on January 13, 2021
Last Updated on January 18, 2021
Tags: homeless, empathy, care, pain, helpless


Rick Haydn Horst
Rick Haydn Horst

Knoxville, TN

I am a former USAF firefighter and caregiver of nearly 17.5 years to my mother who has since deceased. Currently, I am an author, and man nearly broken by the roulette wheel of life*. * See me.. more..