I thought Stan was a con artist after seeing him for a few weeks on the street corner near the house we had just bought. Every day he stood in the same spot, just before a bridge by the access road to a busy highway, holding the same sign “Every little bit helps.” The hair was the same, well-combed, slightly long, very thin. The beard was the same, ginger with gray streaks.
But some days he had glasses and a cane, a slight limp. Other days he walked tall.
That’s so phony, I thought.
It was only when I saw them together one Sunday morning that I realized Stan was a twin, that there were two of them working that street corner, identical men I learned later were named Stan and Dan (I’m changing their names for the internet, but they really do have rhyming names). Stan walks with a cane and has glasses; Dan does not.
I felt bad that I had judged them. I rolled down my window at the stoplight and struck up a conversation.
I talked to them every time I pulled up to that street corner after that. My daughter, who wasn’t yet two when we met them, would cry if we turned right, away from Stan and Dan, and not left so we could see them. We began to change our route going most places just to have a minute to catch up. Mostly we talked about the weather: “It’s hot today!” or “Are you keeping warm?” Slowly they shared bits about their lives, how many blankets they had in their tents, what they ate (hot dogs and hamburgers cooked over an outdoor stove), where they settled (in the woods by the creek just up the way).
My daughter has known them since she could remember. When she was just learning to talk, she would point out every person we saw on the street. “Look, Mommy, is that Stan? Where’s Stan?” We began to call them all ‘Stans.’
I found it charming, the way they were part of the geography of her life, the way they greeted her by name, the quirky friendship we were forming.
One evening, coming home from teaching my college class, I saw Dan walking on the sidewalk a few blocks from the street corner. He was hunched over, kicking at things. I stopped and put my hazard lights on. I rolled down my window.
He stopped and glanced over. His face was bleeding, huge welts on his cheek, his eye beginning to swell.
“Go on. This is none of your business.”
“Can I help you?”
“No, it’s just some idiot kids. Don’t worry about it. It’s not the first time. Go on, now. I’ll be OK.”
“Can I take you to the doctor? Do you need something?”
“No. I’m fine. Go on!”
He waved his arms gruffly, indicating I should move my car out of the way, then shuffled on. I hesitated, but it was dark and I didn’t know what else I could do. I couldn’t force him to get in my car. I couldn’t impose on a friendship that was so lopsided.
I knew it was unwise to ask a strange man into the car anyway and, despite the many conversations we had had, that’s what we were in reality—strangers.
I was struck by what I was: a privileged white woman who felt good about herself because she gave money and food and struck up conversations with two homeless men.
I saw just a glimpse of the reality of their world, a world I knew nothing about, a world I could never begin to enter, a world my chatter during a red light and handful of coins didn’t touch.
I went to bed sick to my stomach.
Not long after that, my husband ran into them at our grocery store buying meat and gas for the stove. He began picking up $20 gift certificates sometimes to hand them as we pass them on our way to wherever we are going. He writes notes to them from us in Sharpie on the outside of the gift certificate holder, signing our names, wishing them well.
Still, it’s not a true friendship. It bothers us, the distance the car makes between us and them
Just after Christmas this year, Stan flagged us down. Hurrying with his cane to our car, he handed my husband a Christmas card. On the front of the card were our names.
When we opened it, it smelled faintly of cigarette smoke and wood smoke. The card plays music when you press the red button and Bing Crosby croons, “There’s no place like home for the holidays, no matter how far you may roam.” Little dots light up like stars at the top of the card; beneath it is a pop-up picture of a cozy house surrounded by fir trees. In pen, Stan or Dan wrote “your home” over the snow-covered cottage lit by bright lights inside and “our home” over the dark forest behind it.
They filled the margins of the card:
A Special Card for
A “ Family
May Your Home
Be Bright and
With Lots of Love,
Stan and Dan
Both of them signed it, Stan with a flourish.
Inside the car was a folded up piece of notebook paper, with jagged edges from being ripped out of a spiral, on which Dan had written us a letter. I won’t type it up—it’s personal—but it begins, “Stan picked out the perfect Christmas card. I believe Family is what Christmas should be all about.” Then it goes on, to tell of losing their mother and father at a young age, of growing up on a farm, of the rough days they’ve had. And it ends with a poem about Christmas that I’ll reprint in its entirety because it is one of the finest gifts I’ve ever received.
That No Christmas Tree
Tis the Holiday season and I’m a lonely guy
I’ll make it through somehow, with my white Christmas lie
By telling myself I’m happy, full of holiday cheer
Blinded by the lights of that No Christmas tree this year
The air is full of laughter, voices are all around
While sitting in my empty room, I can almost hear the sound
Have a Holly Jolly Christmas, Be as Happy as can Be
Echoes through my empty room with that no Christmas tree
Then comes the smell of turkey, that I’ll neither see nor taste
Floating through a broken window, I’m thinking what a waste
That here I am, By Myself, I’m Happy as can Be
While glancing around my empty room, at that No Christmas Tree
Now Christmas is an emotion, one which I think should be felt
By touching the hearts of those you love, which often makes mine melt
This and being together, the family is as one
But with me and that No Christmas Tree, how can this be done?
My husband and I talked that night as we brushed our teeth: they’ve changed the nature of our friendship with this card. They’ve escalated it somehow. We are no longer strangers—they’ve shared some things with us that are precious and meaningful. We have to honor this.
We owe it to them to do more than just whiz by them with a smile as we get on with our lives.
Tomorrow: Part Two
Read all of the posts in this series on the Questions of Travel Series page.