The homeless folk around here go down by the banks of the Tama River to die. That's what I thought. You don't see them often, but they do come out at odd times, usually underneath a Sunday afternoon's blue-sky veil. On the gray-gravel path a bicycle lazily leans against its own kickstand in a teetering balance that must last all through the night; a path made of tiny grooves in dark land leads away from the small scattered rocks and forms its own makeshift route that heads down to the dirt and cut grass arranged with what might look like some love; a few tattered green tents do their best to spite wind. I noticed all this gradually, in stages, on early-morning runs before work, when I'm still sleepy and dense. (This is my excuse.) Over a couple of weeks I started to put it all together, my own puzzle in pieces: the bike; the trail; the tent. I had thought they were all random, disconnected fragments of life that somehow collect and decay without any form or possessor.
One random morning I suddenly realized that these rusted old relics, those stone trails and ripped tents, were somebody's treasured, true things. Not talismans, but utilitarian gadgets that enabled some sway. I almost felt satisfied, the way one does after figuring out how to hook up the net after an hour full of false plugs. This was their home -- those two or three rough-looking dudes I'd seen the Sunday before last, talking in short static bursts, a warm weather laugh they'd seemed happy to share with no one each other. That was the first time I'd seen them. In the charcoal-sky before dawn, they must stay snug in their tents. I actually felt warm with my insight, like a child laying down on the living-room carpet while the sun through the window heats up his small grin.
My smug thought turned to: snug? Can a homeless person ever feel snug? I remember camping trips with my father, my dark blue sleeping-bag zipped up tight, the rain on the canvas a pitter-patter of beats that lacked a strong central rhythm. That rain was trying to arrange itself, I knew, into something consistent, almost an arc, but it was erratic, and I knew that because it lacked conscious motion it could not even recognize that this route would lead only to sad drips and slow streams of slight water. The rain always sounded that way, full of persistent dumb sorrow. It wouldn't get in. It couldn't get in. Our tent had no holes, no leaks or slight rips. I was, to be sure, snug. I doubt the homeless folk were. Snug, I mean. I had a home to return to, distant but soon. These dudes were down there for tomorrow, and tomorrow, and the day after tomorrow. I could beat the rain because I was already awaiting my exit. Homeless folk have nothing but entrances, and the rain, dumb as it is, can sneak through those every time.
Sometimes I thought: I should talk to them. Give them a bit of levity before they decay and get old. Allow them to josh with a foreigner, a raw bit of good mirth. They might get a kick out of me. A tale to tell. What the hell. Who can stay alive by themselves down by that stream for so long? Death could come for them at any moment, now that winter was close, their small camp no respite. My awkward dive into small talk might just give them a slight sense of chaos -- the 'gaijin' who came down for a chat and stayed for a drink. We all need that one bit of mad joy.
My dumb idea. One black morning I once again ran right by the bicycle, counted the stones on their path, caught a glimpse of the tent. I realized: At any point they could simply sneak away on the bike, take a jaunt for the day, find their way back down by the trail, and then crash for the night in their tent. Listen to the Tama River rustle and merge. Perhaps this is what they did, daily. The same way that I awake to my work and skededalled home when it's done. I had always assumed that they came down here to die. Now I wondered if they, like myself, were simply approaching a life.