Some times, you happen to encounter some people with whom you cannot exchange any single word; and you hardly even share any intelligible gestures with each other, either. Though, like if an invisible flow of some bizarre energy was conveying meaning of an ineffable sort between the two of you, those people earn a prominent position in the realm of your memory. One of those people was that homeless guy I once bumped into in Saigon.
Somewhere, in a narrow, dirty alley in one of many a random neighborhood of this vast and chaotic Vietnamese city, there was a cheap hostel I once spent some ten days of my life. There is something unique about the people you see in an alley. Unlike any other street, an alley does not commute to any other place. Thus you know that almost the total of the people you see there are there because that’s the exact place they want to be. They must have some particular business in this very alley. It’s very unlikely that anyone will ever happen there by chance.
Out of all the different same people I kept seeing coming in and out of that alley, there was that one guy who particularly attracted my attention. Like everybody else, he had his reason to be there. And like many others, his reason to be there was that there was him home. But unlike all the rest, he had chosen his home to be there. He was one of those people who have the liberty to choose where their home is, freely: he was one of those people we call ‘homeless’.
That guy was following a rather strict schedule. He would every day appear at the alley entrance by late afternoon. He would slowly yet steadily advance to the inner part of the alley, carrying a rather huge canvas sack, holding it with both hands over his shoulder. I did not get to know of the sack’s contents – as I never saw him open it. But I doubt it could have been clothes – as I never saw him wearing anything other than the same, once-white-but-now-grey briefs.
In a ritualistic manner, he would then carefully place the sack on the exact same spot, every day, leaning against a wall, next to a cluster of garbage bins and a stock of some more of his things he always left there; and he would take a guardian-like post, sitting cross-legged on the pavement with his back leaning against it.
Judging the sack by its size, I doubt it could have weighed less than 20 kg. He did not seem to toil much in order to carry it, however. And that was especially impressive because he could not have weighed more than 30 kg himself.
That guy’s built was somewhat scanty. It seemed like heredity had omitted to add the related to muscles and fat piece of code in his DNA, altogether. And what remained was a skeleton wrapped with a condom-tight layer of skin.
He seemed to be lacking appetite, or the sensation of hunger altogether. He often had plenty of food (which some of the alley’s residents were giving to him) but he wouldn’t do much of a use of it. Not because he wasn’t often eating, but because he was a rather slow eater. He would always hold a panini-size loaf of bread in his hand, which he would be eating over a period of many hours, chewing every bit as like he was going through an inner moral struggle before he managed to swallow it.
Besides the merely perceptible chewing motion of his jaw and the periodical lifting of his hand to his mouth and down again, the only other parts of his body moving were his neck and eyes. They were constantly scanning the alley registering every person appearing. And they were getting intently fixed to some one of them when traffic was low.
As I often happened to be out on the balcony, right opposite to his position, late at night – doing people-watching meditation – just like him pretty much – our gazes were meeting each other regularly. It was through those long confrontations of our eyes that I got to understand that he was living in some deep trance, somewhere far away from the common world.
He gave me the impression that his vision could only grasp people or cats, all non-living matter being only a blank background to him. He seemed to be in deep happiness for as long as any legged objects were within his sight, looking at them with a smile of big content contorting whatever muscles his face had.
His contentment was gradually receding as traffic was getting sparser. And by the point we’d end up with our gazes fixed at each other – being the only ones in the alley – I could discern in him a fear of his being imminently left to darkness.
I tried to communicate with him, from across the narrow street, by words, gestures, and nods. But he could not understand the least of the meaning that any of them implied. He would, though, every time, no matter what the meaning implied by my signal, respond with an outburst of joyous laughter and words, gestures, and nods of his own – from which nor could I derive any meaning.
Then, as my expression would go flat again, the fear was returning into his mood. I doubt he could perceive me or anyone else as ones of his own kind. Maybe his own physical substance was, too, a part of the enveloping blankness. Maybe he was only seeing an array of legged objects roaming through a blank, two-dimensional space which he was observing from some other, outer dimension, where there was only a still blackness.
That’s pretty much how that guy was passing his evenings, immersed in some deep trance. He was always sitting in the exact same spot, in the exact same pose, tormentingly slowly nibbling a piece of bread, and meticulously scanning the alley with his gaze for people or cats who’d give him a good laugh.
After there were no more people or cats to keep him interested, he’d end up supine in front of his sack under a rough, dirty blanket, sleeping soundly and smilingly until the morning. In the mornings, now, he seemed to be quite a different person: more of a person in the sense of a person who is aware of being a person. He would nimbly fold his blanket and place it back to his stockpile. Then he would spend some time sauntering around the alley and exchanging merry salutations with some of the residents. And finally, just before the shop – in front of whose entrance his home was – was about to open, he would shoulder his large sack and make for the mazelike city. What he might have been doing there, I do not know. But I can well imagine him wandering around planlessly until the shop was closed again, in the afternoon, when he would return home and indulge in his peculiar meditation process.