Tech Support for the Homeless

I've had a lot of free time while waiting for my back to get better.  I'm spending most of it writing about my thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. I decided to pick something out of those ramblings every week to post on the blog, until my next adventure begins.

Luckily, I've also been able to do some tech support on the side to pay for the medical bills. It's nice to have that to fall back on, but when I left my job last June to hike the Appalachian Trail, I wasn't sure if I'd ever fix another computer. Then a week later, while visiting Boston on my way to Mount Katahdin, I found myself in a fast food chain helping a homeless man with his laptop.

- - -

Given enough time, relentless rain can turn a peaceful brook into a raging river; it can have a similar effect on a person's mood. I needed to get under a roof. It poured for ten straight hours in Boston while I hopped from one historical site to the next. I went into a fast food chain to take advantage of their indifference to loitering and free Wi-Fi, which is also why the homeless man was sitting there.

I sat at the table behind him, so I could share the only power outlet.

"If you need an extra outlet, let me know," he said. "I have a three-way splitter." A baseball cap covered his long unwashed hair. His beard was dappled in gray. Every pocket in his cargo pants and vest, which he wore over a plaid flannel shirt, was stuffed full of who knows what.

"Actually, I don't think this outlet even works," I said. He was unknowingly running on battery power. My battery was dead, so I slid my laptop back in my backpack. He took it upon himself to see if the employees could get the power on for me, but didn't have any luck.

"Hey, maybe you can help me with something. Do you know anything about computers?" he said. His missing teeth gave his words an extra hiss.

"Fixing computers used to be my full-time job," I said.

He set his laptop on my table. "I can't get some of the pages on my web site to come up."

He clicked a link labeled "Definition of Akashic Records" and waited for it to load.

"My name's Bill," he said and put out his hand.

"Hi Bill. I'm Ryan," I said and shook it.

"So, where do you call home, Ryan?" I didn't have to tell him I was traveling, my large backpack gave it away.

"Well, right now, nowhere," I said.

"Oh, a fellow poor man!" he said. "I spent a lot of years travelling too, but I have a room at a shelter right now."

I didn't mean to lead him to believe I was homeless in the way he had been homeless. He seemed happy to think I was a penniless wanderer, so I couldn't tell him I intentionally quit my job and became homeless. Besides, I kind of liked the instant comradery. And with my soaking wet clothes, backpack, and two week old beard, I looked the part.

"I got this computer for fifty bucks," he said. "All I use it for is updating my web site, but see, the page isn't coming up." He showed me how his essay titled, "Letter to Oprah" loaded just fine, but "Dreams of Prophetic Nature" did not.

"Can I get you anything? A hot chocolate or something?" he asked.

"No, I'm fine. Thanks, though," I said. "So, the problem is you’re typing out your web pages on a typewriter, scanning the pages into a PDF file, then uploading them to your web site. They'll load a lot faster if you just type them directly onto your web site."

"There is a typewriter at the shelter. I type up my essays there, and then go to an office supply store to have them put on CDs, so I can upload them to my web site," he said. "That usually works fine, but what I don't understand is why some don't come up."

"Well, it's because some of the files are really big. They come up, you just have to wait a long time for them to load."

"But they're all the same size."

"I don't mean they are physically bigger, like on the screen. I mean that some of the files contain more data than others, so they take longer to load."

"But look," he said and took control of the laptop. "My essay on the 'Definition of Akashic Records' has less pages than 'Baseball Stories #61', but it doesn't come up.

"By data, I don't mean words. There are other reasons the file size might be larger. The Akashic Records file has scanned images in it, which makes it bigger. Also, it may not be as compressed, or it may have been scanned with a higher resolution."

"I don’t understand anything you're saying. I’m not a computer expert. I need yes or no answers,” he said. “Why does a file with less pages take longer to load?" He was obviously irritated and raised his voice a little.

"That isn't even a yes or no question," I said. I gave up on explaining the problem and said, "Let's do this. I can install a free program that can make the files smaller."

"Okay, but it's free? It's not going to charge me a monthly fee or anything?"

"Nope, it's totally free."

"Hey I appreciate your help with this," he said and switched back to a friendlier voice. "Are you sure I can't get you something? A hot chocolate or ice cream cone?"

"No, I'm fine. I appreciate the offer, though," I said and continued to work on the laptop.

"Here, take this." He handed me three dollars under the table secretly, like it was a bag of reefer.

"I'm not going to take your money."

In a whispered voice he said, "It's alright, look, I'll still have this," then showed me a ten dollar bill. "I get money from the government because I told them I was schizophrenic, but I'm not really. I just said that to get money. I don't feel good about it, but a lot of guys were doing it."

I was touched that he would give me almost a quarter of all the money he had. I've given a few homeless people money, but honestly, I usually walk by pretending I don't even hear them asking for spare change.

While I installed and setup the software, he talked about why he created a web site. "I've had some experiences in my life of a prophetic nature that I have found coincide with Biblical prophecy. My web site is like a public diary where I report these experiences, so others can read about them."

"Okay, cool," I said, but was thinking, Okay, cool, this guy's crazy, I can't wait to read his blog later.

"If you don't mind, I'd like to tell you my testimony," he said.

"I don't mind. Go right ahead.”

"I believe that God is always trying to tell us things. We just have to figure out what it is," he said. "I think one way he speaks to us is through other people, like my ex-wife. She was a natural psychic. We had the same birthday, but I was two years older. When we met I was twelve and she was ten. She was outside playing with some other kids that were older than us. They said I was to be her horse. They were going to throw her onto my shoulders and I was to gallop away, but when they threw her up I did something I didn't plan to do, I ducked. She fell to the ground and didn't move. I looked at her appalled at what I did. I couldn't speak or think, or even breathe,” he said with wide concerning eyes.

“Then suddenly she was swept up onto her feet and was now bouncing back and forth on both feet prophesizing. She said, 'There would be a tornado in Massachusetts that will strike down the cross on a church's steeple. People will come to you, William, and they will tell you that you did it.'" He stopped to make sure I was paying attention. "Do you follow so far?"

I nodded.

"Then she said, 'That will be within three days of the Waco, Texas massacre. In that same weekend, during the O.J. Simpson trial, Superman will fall from a horse and be paralyzed from the neck down.' I want to point out now that, during that time, O.J. Simpson was only sixteen years old and had never met Nicole Brown. And Christopher Reeve had not yet, or even thought of, staring in the modern Superman movies."

I mostly kept my eyes on his computer screen, installing the software and compressing the files, but he kept his fixed on me as he revealed his testimony. People walked in and out of the restaurant, some glanced over at us when he talked loudly with his hands or said something like, "I had dreams and visions for the next few days about the coming rapture."

A man sitting on the other side of the aisle was tapping an empty coffee cup while he read a book. I wouldn't have even noticed since the noise blended into all the other sounds of the restaurant. People were talking, fryers were beeping, the door was constantly opening and filling the room with the sounds of the city outside, but Bill's eyes constantly flicked over to that tapping cup.

"When everything was happening in Waco, Texas, I was in prison for hitting a cop," he said. "But that's… Uhh." His eyes flicked to the tapping cup again. "Umm, what was I talking about?"

"Hitting a cop," I said.

"Yeah, but I don't want to get into that and get side tracked," he said, but realized I might get the wrong idea about him. "Well, I'll just say the cop touched my wife inappropriately. But not in a sexual way. She was running from--"

His eyes flicked at the tapping cup again. He glared at the man for a moment then yelled "Sir! Could you please stop doing that!" He turned back and looked at me as if to say, "Can you believe that guy?" I started to wonder if Bill, who had seemed friendly enough, was actually dangerous. His dark sunken eyes seemed pretty benign before, but now seemed like those of a frazzled insomniac, or Charles Manson.

The man tapping the cup looked around to see who Bill was yelling at. He never tapped it again.

"In prison, I saw on a newspaper, the picture of the burning building in Waco, Texas," Bill said, getting back to his testimony. "And under the picture were the words, 'Blood, Fire, and Pillars of Smoke.' Those words come from a prophecy of Joel in the Old Testament in the second book of Acts. It says, ‘In the last days, sayeth the Lord, I will pour out of my Spirit onto all flesh. Your sons and daughters will prophesize. Old men will dream dreams and young men will see visions. And I will perform great and mighty signs and wonders in the heavens above, and on the earth below blood, fire, and pillars of smoke.’"

He paused for a second. Perhaps to allow for my gasp of disbelief that never came, then he went on.

"I went outside of the prison and prayed very loudly into a storming sky, 'Dear Lord God Almighty, are you awake up there? What does this all mean? Do you know what time it is here on earth? Is this the end times?' He wasn't answering me so I began to yell at God and demand that he answer me. I told him that I would no longer follow him if he didn't answer. Just then, five men walked by and asked if I could knock a cross off a church with a bolt of lightning. Then they said, 'because you did!' While I was yelling at God, a cross on a church steeple was struck down by lightning. Those men were blaming me for the lightning strike because I was yelling at God. Then I remembered this was all in my ex-wife's prophecy."

Wow, I thought, this guy is bat shit.

"Johnny Carson said a joke once that was like, 'What is the difference between Superman and O.J. Simpson.' Johnny Carson answered, 'O.J. Simpson walks!'"

That's kind of mean, I thought. "Johnny Carson said that?"

"Here, now read this." He pulled out a dog-eared bible that was stuffed into his cargo pants pocket. The cover was old and worn and the pages had ragged post-it notes sticking out around the edges. He slid the bible to me, pointing at a verse he had highlighted in yellow. "Now, read this."

It said,

"Listen, O my people, to my instruction;
Incline your ears to the words of my mouth.
I will open my mouth in a parable;
I will utter dark sayings of old,
Which we have heard and known."

"Do you see?" he said.

I really wanted to. I just gave him a slow noncommittal single nod of my head.

"I doubt Johnny Carson even knew how prophetic this was," he said.

That part I agreed with. This talk went on for over two hours. I finished with his laptop and told him I had to leave because the hostel closed at eleven, which wasn't true.

"Oh, I've stayed in some shelters like that too. Yeah, they'll lock you out. But the web pages are coming up now?" he said. "Let me just try one before you leave." He clicked on the link to his essay, "Goat and Dog Fight."

"This essay is another end times prophecy that my ex-wife foretold. She said that near the end of days there would be a highly publicized goat and dog fight. I didn't know what it meant, but then in 1998 Evander Holyfield fought Mike Tyson. Well, Holyfield did what a goat would do in a fight and kept butting heads with Tyson. Then what did Tyson do? He did what a dog would do in a fight and bit Holyfield's ear."

The essay loaded quickly. "Ah, there it is," he said. "Thanks for your help. Are you sure I can't get you anything, an ice cream cone or some French fries?"

"No, really, I'll be okay," I said.

"Here," he took out his wallet again and thought for a moment. "Take this," he said, but this time handed me the ten dollar bill.

"I appreciate it, but I have some money. I'll be fine."

"Hey, I know what it's like. You have to learn to accept someone's help now and again," he said. "I don’t know why, but I think God is telling me to give you this."

"I really do appreciate it, but I'm not going to take your money, Bill." I stood up to leave. "There's one thing you can do to help me, though." I said. "Do you know how to get to Fenway Park from here? I'm not sure how to get back to my hostel, but I know how to get there from Fenway." I walked around Boston so much it was like twisting a Rubik's Cube. I made so many random turns, that I had no idea how to get back to where I started. It doesn't help that streets in Boston will sometimes change names.

"I don't know, but I'll help you find out," he said. We walked outside. It was still sprinkling. The few city lights still on reflected off the wet street and sidewalk. A woman walked toward us with her head down.

"Ma'am, could you help us out?" Bill asked. She walked past like she didn't even notice we were there.

"Sir!" he yelled to a man across the street. "Could you tell us how to get to Fenway?" The man didn't acknowledge us either. "Let's go in here, they'll help us."  He went into the office supply store where he had his essays scanned into digital files. I wanted to make a comment about how those people just ignored us, but it seemed normal to Bill.

"Excuse me, I wonder if you could help this young man find his shelter," he said to two women behind the counter. I never called my hostel a "shelter", but Bill didn't seem to know the difference. In all honesty, there really isn't much difference between a homeless shelter and most hostels.

"I know it's by Fenway. If you can tell me how to get there, I know I can find it." The woman looked at Bill then over at me. Her eyes seemed to ask, "How did you get involved with this guy?"

"It would be a lot easier if you just take the subway?" she said.

"Oh yeah, why didn't I think of that? And you can just use my card." Bill said. "I have a card that lets me use the subway for free.”

“Are you sure that’s okay?”

“Yeah, I'll just have to wait twenty minutes before I can use it again, but I don’t mind,” he said. I didn't mean for Bill to go to so much trouble. I thought he would be able to just point me in the right direction.

In a way, this allowed him to give me money without me taking his money. The arrangement made us both happy. I followed Bill outside then to the nearest subway station. We passed two homeless men using the awning of a closed business to get out of the rain.

"Hey, Bill," one sitting in a wheelchair said. "The other day you said you wanted to talk to me about something, but you never told me. What was it?"

"I'll tell you about it later. Right now I'm helping this young man find his shelter."

"Which shelter you staying at, Sojourner, Nazareth?" the other man asked with a friendly tone.

"No, well, it's actually a hostel," I said.

"Oh," he said. I felt like an outsider now. For a moment, I had a feeling that if I was homeless like they were homeless we would have had an instant bond, like how Marines will treat other Marines they just met like they're family.

I wish I would have just forgotten about the hostel and seen what it would have been like to follow them to a shelter, but at the time I was only thinking about how I had already paid for the hostel and left some things in my room.

"The subway is over here," Bill said. "I'll get you on the train then go back to talk to him while I wait the twenty minutes when I can use the card again." We crossed the street and went down the stairs into the subway tunnel. "That man in the wheelchair wasn't always paralyzed," Bill said. "He had a house and a wife before he was hit by a drunk driver. He lost his job, then his house, and then his wife left him."

I think of Bill and the man in the wheelchair whenever someone complains about our welfare system or tells me not to give money to a homeless person because they will only spend it on booze. I'm definitely no expert on the best way to fix homelessness in America, but it only took a couple of hours with Bill for me to see the situation differently. Many homeless people are the products of devastating circumstances.

"What I wanted to talk to him about was the prophecy regarding Christopher Reeves."

And some are schizophrenics that nobody will ever hire.

Bill swiped his card at the subway turnstile and passed through. "Wait, weren’t you going to let me in with your card?" I asked.

"Oh, I forgot, you'll have to buy a ticket at the kiosk," he said. "It's two dollars, here let me give you the money."

I was not going to take his money. "It's okay. I'll just use my credit card."

"You have a credit card?" he asked surprised. I worried he might look at me differently now, like the man under the awning.

I pushed through the turnstile. Bill led me to the platform and waited for the train with me.

When my train arrived, I gave Bill a goodbye hug. “It was good to meet you, Bill. Thanks for everything,” I said. “You too,” he said and patted me on the back.

I saw every historical site in Boston. I heard tour guides tell stories of their significance, but what I'll remember most about Boston is Bill. He'll be written off by many people. The people who ignored him on the street won't be the last. I know he's only trying to find the meaning for his life like everyone else, but people will hear his stories and just think he's crazy, like I initially did. And maybe he is. Okay he definitely is, but he's also the man who had very little and persistently tried to help me out anyway.

It made me think of a story I heard years ago. It was about an old man who gave a homeless man ten dollars, even though he didn't have much money to spare. He turned to his grandson and said, "Son, today we are rich." This confused the boy, so he asked his grandpa what he meant. He said, "because we have everything we need, and still had ten dollars to spare."

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A Backpacker's Life List by Ryan Grayson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.