Friday, May 7, 2010

Interview with a Homeless Man

Just a couple of blocks down the street from my house is a little greasy-spoon restaurant that’s open 24 hours a day. I eat there pretty often because it is so close, the prices are cheap and they have a few pinball games I like to play.

I guess I’ve become a regular there. The folks behind the counter know me by name. I recognize the faces of other regulars who drop in off the street for a bite to eat or a cup of coffee.

There’s one fellow I see in the restaurant almost every day. I don’t know his real name, but everyone calls him Joe. He calls himself Homeless Joe, and yes, he is homeless.

After getting to know Joe a little over the last few months, and considering I have a background in newspaper journalism, I thought Joe would make an interesting interview subject. I asked him a few days ago if he would be interested in letting me interview him, and he agreed to do it.

I recorded the interview. What comes below is directly from that interview, though admittedly I’ve cleaned it up a little to make it more readable.

Interviewer: Hi, Joe. Is this tape recorder okay with you?

Joe: Yeah.

I: Before we get started, is there anything in particular you want to tell me?

Joe: Like what?

I: Just anything you want to say here at the beginning.

Joe: No. I’ve never done one of these things before.

I: An interview?

Joe: Yeah. I’ve never done one before. Don’t know how to start.

I: I could just ask you questions. I made a short list of a few things.

Joe: Ask me anything you want. No. Wait. I guess I should say who I am or something like that.

I: Okay.

Joe: I’m Joe. Some call me Homeless Joe. I’m 68 years old. I’m originally from Kentucky. How’s that?

I: That’s a good way to start.

Joe: What’s your first question?

I: We talked about this yesterday, but for the record, can you tell me how you became to be called Homeless Joe?

Joe: At the shelter. That’s where they first called me Homeless Joe. I think it was one of the other guys who started it.

I: Another homeless person?

Joe: Yeah, one of them. The people at the shelter, the working people and the social workers, they wouldn’t call anyone something like that. They’d probably think it’s not respectful. But it didn’t bother me any. I thought it was kind of funny.

I: How long have you had that name?

Joe: Homeless Joe? I guess about a year.

I: Before that?

Joe: Just Joe.

I: No other nicknames? Anything like that?

Joe: No. Least not since I was a kid. Just Joe.

I: Can you tell me a little about how you became homeless? You don’t have to go into any detail if you don’t want to.

Joe: No, that’s okay. We’ve talked a little about this. I don’t mind talking about it. I’ve been homeless about two years now. I used to have a job as a chef with my wife down in New Orleans working for a restaurant, but then after hurricane Katrina the restaurant closed and we both lost our jobs. She got a job up here and we moved, but then she got cancer.

I: You said she didn’t live very long.

Joe: No. Only a few months. She was new at her job so she didn’t have health insurance, and I didn’t have health insurance. I didn’t have a job. It cost everything we had for her to get her treatments, and she still didn’t make it.

I: Was there any government help?

Joe: By the time we got through all the nonsense the government puts you through, she was already on her death’s bed. There wasn’t much I could do at that point for her. She died soon after. The government helped with the bills some, but I was broke at that point and I couldn’t get a new job.

I: You have a son.

Joe: Yeah.

I: Can you tell me a little about him?

Joe: He’s over in Iraq. I haven’t seen him in almost a year. He sends me money sometimes, but I don’t have an address so it’s hard for him to find me. I’ve got his cell phone number, but it’s not like I can call him just any time.

I: Why not?

Joe: I can’t always get to a phone. And he’s sometimes hard to reach. Not real good service over there. And I probably shouldn’t call him all the time. I know he’s busy.

I: What does he say about his mother passing?

Joe: Like anybody would, I suppose. He was overseas when Lydia passed. I think Germany. He came back for the funeral but had to leave again afterward. We stay in touch, but he’s got his own things going on. The army keeps him busy.

I: Did he help any when your wife passed away? Financially, I mean.

Joe: He did what he could. But nothing we could do would have been enough. Her treatments cost a lot. I ended up filing for bankruptcy right after she died.

I: Have you worked since then?

Joe: A little bit. Odd jobs. It brings me in money for food. No one wants to hire anybody my age. And I can’t do a whole lot.

I: You seem in decent health.

Joe: I am, thank the Lord, but I’m old now. Not like the younger days when I could just go out and get any old job to make some money. And I don’t drink or do drugs like everyone thinks homeless people do. I don’t ask for money from people, either, though sometimes somebody will give me a little if they see me in here sitting.

I: At the restaurant.

Joe: Yeah, in here.

I: Why do you hang out here so often?

Joe: The people running the place don’t run me off. I just sit here and watch TV all day and keep to myself. Unless somebody wants to talk. I can usually get a dollar or two for some eggs and a cup of coffee. Plus, it’s air conditioned. It’s better than sitting down at the library park all day in the hot sun. I don’t cause no trouble, and the people running this place are used to all kinds of college kids coming in and going. I guess they’re used to seeing different kinds in here. I just like to sit here and drink my coffee and go to the bathroom every now in a while.

I: Joe, if you don’t mind my asking, where do you sleep at night?

Joe: Usually down at the shelter. Sometimes they’re crowded, so I sleep someplace else.

I: Where at?

Joe: Different places. I’ve even slept in here a few times.

I: They let you lay down?

Joe: I just sit down in one of the booths in the back and sleep.

I: Sitting up?

Joe: Yeah. Or I’ll rest my head on a hand. Sometimes I’ll lean over the table. I always try to buy a coffee. I don’t want them to think I’m a freeloader.

I: Do you have any plans for the future?

Joe: Just living and dying, like everybody else.

I: No, I mean, do you have any plans for not being homeless?

Joe: Not really. At my age, there’s not a lot I can do.

I: What about your son? Eventually he’ll come home, won’t he?

Joe: If I live long enough.

I: Could you stay with him?

Joe: I suppose I could. But I wouldn’t want to be a burden. He’s a young man. He’ll probably want to start his own family when he gets out of the army. I don’t want to stand in the way of any of that. Lydia and me were too old to have children when we had him, but we had him.

I: You were in the army, too, weren’t you?

Joe: I got out in ’64.

I: So you missed Vietnam.

Joe: The whole time I was in basic, they kept telling me “You’re going to Vietnam. You’re going to Vietnam. Get ready. It could happen anytime now.” But it never did. I got out just before Vietnam hit big. I guess if I’d stayed in I would have gone over there.

I: Joe, is there anything else?

Joe: Like what?

I: Anything else you want to say?

Joe: Oh, yeah. I was going to tell you that sometimes I e-mail my son, too.

I: You have access to a computer? Where? At the shelter?

Joe: They have free computers at the library downtown.

I: Anything else?

Joe: Is the interview over?

I: We can go on as long as you want.

Joe: I can’t think of anything else right now.

I: Okay. Can I talk to you again sometime?

Joe: Another interview? With the tape recorder and all?

I: Maybe. If you’d like.

Joe: Yeah. No problem.

I: What’s your favorite song?

Joe: What do you think?

I: Hey, Joe.

Joe: Hey, Joe. That’s right. The Hendrix song.

For those interested, the mention of the song at the end is sort of an in-joke with Joe and myself.

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