Sunday Scribblings: Grateful

The prompt over at Sunday Scribblings is "grateful." An essay on my youth:


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 liked to say, "Just decided one day to drop out." In the world of my youth, Buster was a huge question mark.
He still is.
My hometown, Fremont, Neb., had and still has about 25,000 residents. A farming community, mostly, Fremont certainly has grown savvy it's 35 miles, give-or-take, from Omaha, which has more than 400,000 residents, hosts the College World Series each year and has one of the top-rated zoos in the country.
And in Fremont 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.
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, Farris Fremont, 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 Spangler's Jewelry, where I engraved watches, silver wedding plates and Optimist of the Year trophies.
Downtown stores stayed open late on Thursdays, which meant I worked late, too. During dinner breaks, I'd cross the street to K.C.'s 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 K.C.'s 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, The Rustler. 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."
Buster's gone now, he died in 1984 at the age of 73. For a time, the Dodge County 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 parade for John C. Fremont Days, which celebrates the explorer's adventures on the advent of the Great Western Expansion. The words on the float said, "We miss you, Buster." And so it came to pass that a whole town celebrated one homeless man.
A bum on a bike he never rode.
But who taught an entire town how to be grateful.


quin browne said...

sometimes, words make me cry.

Blondie said...

What a great piece! And such a contrast to the way we see/treat the homeless in big cities where there are many. Really moving. I miss small-town America. Or did it ever really exist?

Linda Jacobs said...

I've got a lump in my throat! You told Buster's story so well!

ThomG said...

This is 100 percent a true story.

Tumblewords: said...

Touching tale of gratitude and life. Well done, a pleasure to read...

Alisa Callos said...

Great Story! The humanity of Buster came through in spades. I’m glad your town could accept him for who he was. What a gift!

"Sunshine" said...

That was powerful.

paisley said...

just wonderfully written as always... but a real message there too..

i think we are afraid,, not only to ask people like buster how they ended up homeless,,, but more so to know.. in slience we deal with the fear that it was more than likely thru no real fault of their own,, and so could just as easily be us,, as them...