Know before you judge

So much junk hung off the bike, it wasn't for riding. Just pushing. And through the downtown streets of my hometown, Herman R. Jeseph - everyone just called him "Buster" - pushed his bicycle heaped full of junk in all weather conditions. He wore cast-off clothing - layers upon layers - and always wore a cap. He was unshaven most days and smelled of harsh tobacco that he hand-rolled into cigarettes.

Buster was my hometown's Official Bum.

He, as my mother loved to say, "Just decided one day to drop out." In the world of my youth, Buster was a huge question mark.

He remains so, to this day.

My hometown had and still has about 23,000 residents. A farming community, mostly. In town today, homeless people hold up signs on well-traveled corners, smoke cigarettes and huddle against the elements and residents tend to look away.

But in my youth, everyone accepted Buster, our Designated Homeless Person, for exactly who he was.

A man. Without a traditional home.

When the weather turned cold and in eastern Nebraska, winter temperatures routinely drop into the minus category the jailers would leave the back door open to the courthouse, where Buster would curl up on a broken-down recliner someone rescued from a county office.

Business owners never complained to the city council, to my knowledge, of Buster's circular movements through the wide-sidewalked downtown (this was before Wal-Mart opened a SuperCenter on the east side of town, but downtown continues to hold its own, thank God).

No one cursed at him, spat at him, or even shunned their eyes as he passed.

Not in my recollections. People - from shop owners to police officers - were instead fiercely protective.

They asked how he was doing, or asked about some new trophy that seemed to collect on a series of ancient bicycles he bought at the Salvation Army. I remember scuffed boots that hung from the handlebars like fuzzy dice; the series of busted lawnmowers he cleverly had in tow.

I saw it all because I spent much of my adolescence downtown. The junior high school was a block from the start of Main Street; my mother worked for an architect who rented offices above a women's clothing store. It was the same store where at 13 years old I got my first job cleaning toilets, emptying waste baskets and changing the ballasts in fuzzy fluorescent lights.

A couple of years later, I moved two storefronts down to the jewelry store, where I engraved watches, silver wedding plates and Optimist of the Year trophies. One year, I engraved it "Opomist of the Year," which led my boss an Optimist himself to lament, "I'm optimistic you can get that corrected today." Downtown stores stayed open late on Thursdays, which meant I worked late, too. During dinner breaks, I'd cross the street to the pharmacy, which had one of those cool, old soda fountains (it's now a stereo shop).

Most evenings, there sat Buster, drinking a cup of coffee and eating a hot bowl of Campbell's Ham and Bean soup. The steam would rise into Buster's weather-beaten features, and his nose would run into the soup Drip by Drip by Drip.

Yet, no one was repulsed, especially the counter help. They asked how he was doing, poured him another cup of coffee. No one ever put a compassioned hand on his shoulder, however. He hated to be touched.

Once, and I wasn't a witness, but it's a pretty good story, a well-to-do woman in the community walked into the place with her boots clicking on the hard tile.

"You sound just like a cowboy on a wooden sidewalk," Buster bellowed from the counter.

Not missing a beat, the woman, who I will not name, replied: "Watch out, Buster, or I'm gonna ride off with your bike!"

Another interesting observation on Buster's eating habits - he never touched anything with his hands. He loved those chocolate-covered Easter bunnies and Santa Claus figures. He'd cut a chunk off with a knife, scoop it up with a spoon, dunk it into his coffee and plop it into his mouth. Soup crackers were dispatched in much the same manner, except he would stick the salty square into the soup with his spoon then retrieve it whole into his mouth, where it would slowly disappear, much like a wood planer works.

Buster's life and times intrigued me through high school. How, without a job, a place to live or the march to accumulate all the latest must-have items the rest of us coveted (in the late 1970s and early 80s, it was Atari game systems, eight-track tape players and digital watches), he made pocket change certainly enough to live on from society's cast-off junk.

Senior year, I got up the nerve to interview Buster for the school paper. He was wary, I remember, but answered my questions. He was born and raised in Fremont. He had kin, but not a wife or children.

I never worked up the nerve to ask why he was "homeless." I inquired of my mother a few years ago if she still had the clipping I was curious about. She told me that was a million words ago.

Buster's gone now, he died in 1984 at the age of 73. For a time, the courthouse displayed his bike, just as he left it at the Union Pacific Railroad depot where he passed, in a glass case. One year, the bike was put on view during the fair parade. The words on the float said, "We miss you, Buster." And so it came to pass that a whole town celebrated one homeless man.

What's the point? Nothing really.
Just celebrate who you are.
And celebrate those around you.
'Cause you never know what you might learn.


Truth in the Trees said...

I loved this, ThomG. Thank you.

svojoh said...

You made me cry. Dad use to give him coffee at Park Bowl. Buster never came in through the 2nd set of doors. He wanted it that way. I went to his funeral Thom, I visit his grave at various times. Why? I'm not sure, I just did.I have the newspaper clip from the trib. They did a story on him when he died. This town and people sure have changed.