Last week I wrote about the CVS at the corner of 19th and Chestnut and how I always imagined that that intersection would be the set for the play of my life. Here’s another piece of the story of why I am attached to that spot.
During my childhood, my mom would bring my sister and me to Philadelphia every summer to visit my grandparents. There was a homeless man who lived on the corner, just across the street from CVS, in front of a building that in they present day they are turning into yet another Starbucks.
Homelessness didn’t really exist in our Los Angeles neighborhood. It wasn’t something I was confronted with in my day to day life. So when I did see it, I found it fascinating. I would watch this man, who I named the Cardboard Box Man, because I was so curious about what it was like to live in full view of the whole world.
One summer during the mid eighties, the trash collectors went on strike in Philly and the streets overflowed with garbage. The CBM spent his time fashioning surplus garbage cans out of his boxes, carefully giving them structure with duct tape and lining them with black plastic, to hold the overflow. At the time I was impressed by his generousity and community-mindedness, although now my cynical side wonders if he wasn’t just trying to keep the refuse out of his living room, so to speak.
There was a night when we came home late from a family party in Plymouth Meeting. As we drove by his corner, I saw that he had a friend sitting with him on his stack of flattened cardboard. There were a couple of cups of coffee between them and a few crumbs from some pastry or doughnut. They were talking and laughing. I pointed it out to my mom and she said, “He’s entertaining a friend!”
I watched him for years without ever talking to him or approaching him in any way. When I was 11, my mom and I were browsing at Robin’s Books near closing time and saw him walk into the store and head for the back, where the bathrooms were. I stood there, agog at being so close to this figure from my childhood. My mom asked the clerk about him and he said, “Oh, you mean Robert? Yeah, we let him come in here when we’re closing up to use the bathroom and rest for a bit.” We got some bits and pieces of his story, including the fact that he had once lived a typical life, with a family, home and a job as an engineer.
Sometime soon after that, he disappeared. I’ve always intended to go over to Robin’s and ask about him, but I’m not sure they’d remember him now, since it’s been more than 15 years since I last saw him.
Thinking about the Robert/the CBM always reminds of the ways we touch the lives of others without ever being aware that we are doing it.