A Heavy Backpack and an Empty Bottle

The first time I saw him, I was walking along the wharf headed to my office in Fremantle Port.  He looked like any other traveler; he was a bit disheveled, his skin was darkened by the sun and he carried with him a heavy backpack and a friendly smile.  It wasn’t until I crossed paths with him again a few days later that I realized he was somewhat different from most travelers who hang around the ferry terminal.  Besides his reappearance, there was one thing that set him apart: He spent most of the day sitting in the shade of B Shed taking swigs from a tall glass bottle concealed in a crumpled brown bag.

The third time I encountered him I was on an errand walking from my office into the historic heart of Freo.  He greeted me as if he knew me and engaged me in friendly conversation about how the beautiful sunshine made for a perfect afternoon to take a walk.  His jovial banter was disarming but there was no doubt that it was the product of the liquid courage he gripped tightly in the tattered paper bag.  Several hours later he reappeared outside my office, speaking boldly to each passerby, including many of my coworkers who shared stories of his friendly but drunken dialogs along the wharf.  I worried that someone might take offense to his public drinking and alert the port authority, but it seemed that his pleasant nature was more or less keeping him out of trouble.

The next morning I was sitting at my desk working on a design project when a familiar figure showed up outside my window.  It was around 10 o’clock in the morning when the young man tossed his backpack down against one of the big, rusty ship anchors that lay strewn along the wharf.  He sat down on top of his bed roll and cracked open a fresh bottle.  I watched him for a minute and then turned back to my computer screen.  I continued to work, but could see him out of the corner of my eye as he took sip after sip in what seemed like a desperate attempt to blur the reality of a new day.  I couldn’t concentrate.  I knew if he continued at the rate he was going, he would be intoxicated by high noon and had the potential to cause enough of a ruckus to have the cops called on him.  I couldn’t let myself be a bystander.

I stopped what I was doing and spent a few minutes searching the internet for resources for the homeless in Fremantle.  I made a couple calls, wrote down an address for a shelter and printed a map for him.  I ducked into my coworker’s office and told her I was going to step outside for a moment and requested she keep an eye on me through the window just in case my assistance was poorly received.  I walked outside and around the corner, greeting him casually as I approached.  He didn’t seem to remember our previous interactions nor did he recognize me, but after we exchanged a few basic pleasantries he immediately opened up to me.

“Well, for starters, I’m homeless,” he began.  It turned out he had just traveled across the country from Queensland and he had only been in Fremantle for a couple of weeks before he managed to get kicked out of one of the local homeless shelters because he had been drinking.  (Ironically, the information scrawled on the folded paper in my pocket was for the same shelter.)  He went on to explain that he was having a lot of trouble in his head and he was trying to work through some things but that the “psych ward” wouldn’t admit him because they thought he was just looking for a safe place to sleep.  He had found that the only way he could quiet his mind and escape his fears was by drinking.  He factually described his situation, but there were undertones of helplessness in his monologue.  He felt like he had reached a dead end.

I sympathized with him and explained that I was also a traveler and there have been times when I have felt quite alone and lost too.  We talked about what it can feel like when the whole world seems to be working against you and how one small event can cause a domino effect, impacting your life either in a positive or negative way.  As I spoke to him, long forgotten memories of my father came to mind.  My dad had struggled with mental health and substance abuse issues and had experienced homelessness in his youth.  I began to share his story with my new friend, interlacing it with hope of being able to get back on track and live a productive and fulfilling life.  I reminded him that he wasn’t alone and that he was part of a community filled with people willing to help him work through the challenges he was currently facing.

We also discussed how it’s important to empower oneself by taking care of one’s physical and mental health by doing things like eating nutritious food, avoiding drugs and alcohol and actively seeking out support from the community.  I told him that I couldn’t give him any money but that I was willing to help in any other way that I could.  He expressed that he didn’t really know where to start, so I offered to do some research for him and get some information together on local agencies that could assist him with getting counseling and employment.  As our conversation came to an end, I introduced myself and finally got his name: Robert.  I told him I would see him around and would have a list of resources with me next time.  With a broad smile he thanked me for taking the time to talk to him and listen to his story.  “No one has ever really asked me how they can help, Erika.  It means a lot to me.”

By the time I got back to my desk, Robert had disappeared from view.  I was lost in my thoughts as I wondered what he had been through that had brought him to this point.  One small twist in the plot and I could have been him and he could have been me.  Was there really anything I could say or do to help him change his situation?  He was not far from my mind all afternoon.

Later that day I took a short break from work to put together a list of resources for Robert.  I found a variety of shelters and counseling centers all within walking distance of the port. I took a few moments to mark the handful of addresses on a Fremantle tourism map, scribbling the name of each place between the twisted streets of downtown Freo.  I took a walk down the wharf, looking for Robert in the places I had seen him before but I had no luck.  I was determined though, so I made a long lap around the buildings, looking for him everywhere.  I finally found him resting against his backpack in a sheltered corner near the Maritime Museum at the end of the port.  An empty bottle lay on the ground next to him.  He was visibly surprised to see me come around the corner, but greeted me like I was an old friend.  I squatted down next to him and unfolded the map, showing him where we were and how close by all the different offices were.  I could smell the alcohol on his breath as I showed him the list of agencies that I had compiled, each with a brief description of the services they offered.  With a concentrated expression, he studied the map as I explained what I had found.  I reminded him that he wasn’t alone and that he shouldn’t lose hope in himself or humanity.  He could and would rise above the challenges he was facing if he was determined to do so.  Again he expressed his gratitude but also his disbelief that I had made the effort to track him down.  I explained to him that there have been countless strangers that have helped me out along my journey and it was my responsibility to pay that kindness back into the world.  I told him to take care of himself and wished him luck as I walked away.

I didn’t see Robert again for the rest of the week and after a fun weekend of bike rides, hikes and socializing with my friends, he quickly became a passing memory added to my Fremantle experience.

The following week I was on my lunch break when Robert suddenly reappeared.  He came into the lobby of our offices and asked if he could speak with me privately.  One of my coworkers raised a suspicious eyebrow at me as I followed him out the front door.  We stepped outside and rounded the corner to the place where our friendship had begun amongst the scattered old ship anchors.  I noticed that he carried with him a plastic grocery bag filled with apples, a loaf of bread and some canned food.  He wanted to stop by to tell me that he had gotten started on some medication that morning.  Last week he had found a local counselor to speak with and had managed to get a referral to a psychologist so he could get a prescription.  With a shy grin, he quietly reported he had been sober for three days and was feeling really good about it.  He felt like there was finally a light at the end of the tunnel and that he was beginning to feel hope for his future.  I asked him what his biggest dream was for his life and he explained how he wanted nothing more than to be a carpenter and build homes for people.  I told him that no matter what, on the good days and the bad days, he could not allow himself to lose sight of that dream.  Even when he had set backs and failures, he must work day by day to do small things that will bring him closer to achieving his goal.  He agreed and promised me he wouldn’t give up hope.  He reached out to shake my hand and we wished each other good luck on our respective journeys.

I returned to my desk in awe of what I had just witnessed.  Was it possible that spending just a few spare minutes to show another traveler that he is not alone in the world could really impact his life in such a profound way?  Could a simple expression of empathy and willingness to help be enough to change the course of one man’s life?  I suppose only time will tell, but I look forward to the next time that Robert and I meet.

 

A note to my readers: My actions and this narrative are inspired by and dedicated to both my father and my stepfather who have taught me about perseverance, kindness and compassion through both their struggles and their triumphs.  My love to you both.

3 thoughts on “A Heavy Backpack and an Empty Bottle

  1. Kindness atom bomb dropped. World now a better place.
    -proud supporter of the “Erika travels the world and does amazing shit like drop hope bombs” initiative.

    AML

  2. Sometimes all a person needs, is knowing that one person cares. You went the extra mile and made a difference in this persons life, I too am proud to know you.

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