He was a little bit goth, a little bit rock and roll and a lot unkempt in appearance. He had reddish hair and fair skin, gaunt, about 30s or early 40s, dressed mostly in black. Keeping up a presentable look was of little concern to him; often making the uninitiated folks uneasy, preferring to wear the hood of his coat no matter what the weather was. His suspicious look belied a soft-sounding voice and a friendly manner.
Some of the neighbors weren’t too keen on Ace because of his situation. He often slept on the streets and didn’t have a home.
Day after day, I would leave the house and he’d greet me good morning, or I’d come home and he’d give me a friendly nod. It was comforting to see him all those times. In an ironic way, Ace’s presence came to signal home for me.
He rarely asked me for anything. If I had an opportunity to offer him some small thing, he graciously accepted.
But Ace wasn’t satisfied with simply being on the receiving end of the gift-giving ritual. Once, he gave gifts to my husband and son, purchased at the local five and dime. It doesn’t surprise me one bit that husband would receive a gift from anyone; he is an exceptionally great guy. But the very act of a homeless man spending what little money he had to offer a token that affirms friendship was unexpected and in and of itself a wonderful gift. This gesture helps me believe that humanity has the capacity to transcend its/our fragility and flaws.
One morning, a police officer was interrogating Ace outside our door. Alarmed by the exchange, I confronted the cop. “Is there a problem here, officer?” It took me a second to realize that, to the neighbors who phoned the police, Ace will always be the bad guy in this scenario. They did not want him spending all that time in their line of vision even though his “crime” was simply to linger on a small patch of friendly territory — a temporary respite to glimpse peace in an embittered existence.
Months passed after that incident and our sightings of Ace became less frequent. We would run into him as we walked about our busy neighborhood abuzz with locals and tourists, and we’d exchange quick hellos. He never sat outside our door again.
Ace died during Thanksgiving weekend. He eventually got off the streets but suffered health complications. The news came from a neighbor who asked if we wouldn’t mind being named in his obituary. We were all honored to be mentioned.
As a friend, I could have done more for Ace but I hesitated because I was afraid (of what, I’ll never be certain). I thought many times about making him a bowl of soup on those cold nights, or letting him sleep in a spare bed, neither of which I ever did. But somehow, I know his laidback California upbringing wouldn’t have wanted me to dwell on what I failed to do for him.
Instead, he’d probably rather hear me say that when my family takes a walk in our neighborhood, we sense his absence and wish he were still here with us.
His friendship was a gift worth more than he could ever know. He is deeply missed. RIP, Ace.
Why do some gifts seem to be worth a hell of a lot more when they’re gone?