I passed the man in the hospital gown and smirked into the rear-view mirror, waiting for nursing-home staff to come running out after their escapee. No one came. The man shuffled up the sidewalk, his rear end hanging out of his drooping pajama bottoms, his gown flying loose in the light breeze. I watched him as my car idled at the stoplight. The cool gray sky framed him in my mirror.
It was late in the afternoon and I really needed to get home. I told myself that someone was surely looking for him and would be there any minute. I forced myself to concentrate on the stoplight. That's when I remembered.
Years ago when my wife and I were still newlyweds, we were leaving the grocery store in a heavy rain. I ran ahead to get the car so we could load the grocery bags quickly from the curb. All I could think about was the Otis Spunkmeyer blueberry muffins sitting on top of one of those bags. Man, I love those muffins. I was starving and that's what I wanted.
As I pulled to the store curb, I noticed my wife talking to a disheveled man in dirty clothes. He was obviously homeless and they were having an animated conversation. And, he was eating my blueberry muffins.
My wife got in the car.
"You gave him my muffins," I half-asked, half-accused.
I couldn't help myself. "Why?"
She rolled her eyes like I asked a stupid question. "He said he was hungry."
I was thinking about that episode the other day when I saw the hospital-gown man. I remembered my wife is one of those people who would never let herself look away. Dammit.
The light turned green and I drove around the block and came back upon the man. I pulled to the side and hit my hazard lights.
"You doing okay, sir?" I asked.
The man looked startled. He had a bruise above his eye and blood dripping down his arm where an IV had been before. His feet bled through his socks.
"Yeah, I'm fine. Just walking home."
"You left the hospital?"
He looked down at his gown. "What, you're a detective? Of course I just left the hospital."
I deserved that one.
"You want me to call someone?"
"Sure. Call my wife. Tell her to come get me." He recited a number and I dialed it. It went to voicemail.
"She didn't answer," I said.
"You dial the right number?" He asked grumpily.
"I dialed the number you gave me."
He huffed. "Well, I'm outta here," he said, and started ambling once more.
"Hey, let me give you a ride," I called to his exposed backside. "I'll take you to the hospital and we'll figure this out."
"No way in hell I'm going back there, young man," he growled over his shoulder.
"Let me take you home then. I'm just going to need to talk to your wife before I leave."
"You'd do that?"
He hopped in my car and I heard his bare rear end drag across my seat. A co-worker of mine came walking by. "Hey Scott," I called. "Get in the car." My co-worker noticed the man in the front seat and didn't ask questions. He opened the back door and hopped in.
The man said his name was Mike and he was in the hospital for chest pains. He directed me to his house a few blocks away.
We got out of the car and knocked on the back door. Nobody answered. He pulled a metal pole out of his garden and started beating a second-floor window. "They're probably asleep," he said as I watched the glass vibrate with each blow. No one answered the pounding, either.
"Look," I said. "I'm going to have to call the police so they can help us figure this out."
"You're having me arrested?"
"Did you commit a crime?" I asked, trying to be funny.
"Don't tempt me," he replied a little too quickly.
A police officer looking to be all of 25 years old drove up a half-hour later. He asked Mike his full name. He asked his address. He asked Mike if he needed any help.
"Nope," Mike said.
The policeman snapped his notebook shut and said, "Y'all have a nice day. Ain't no crime in leaving a hospital."
Mike shrugged at me. It was one of those "I told you so" shrugs. I shook my head.
As the police car drove off, another car sped up the street and screeched into the driveway. A woman jumped out of the driver's seat in a panic.
"Mike! Mike! What have you done! You have to be in the hospital!" She shrieked.
I instinctively put my hands in front of me and explained how I found him.
She was crying. "You have to go back, honey. Come on. Let's get you cleaned up and take you back." I slowly eased down the sidewalk to where my co-worker Scott was watching.
"Sir," she called to me. "Thank you for picking him up."
"Yeah," Mike said and ambled toward me, grasping my hand. "Thanks for the lift."
The woman called out, "Mike! Get away from him! You have covid!"
Mike shook my hand for what seemed like an eternity and turned around, mooning me once more for good measure.
"Mike has covid," I repeated to Scott.
"Of course he does," Scott replied.
I'm sure there's a life lesson buried deep within the brief interaction with Mike. I'm sure there's some sort of political statement to be made about covid, or medical care, or treatment of the aging. I'm sure you're forming an opinion about why I'm writing this story at this moment.
I came home and told my wife the story, starting with, "Remember when you gave that homeless guy my Otis Spunkmeyer blueberry muffins?" And I realized maybe that's it. Maybe all we need is someone to occasionally set a simple example that stays with us years later.
This story isn't about the hospital-gown man, after all. It's the story of the impression made on me so many years ago. Confirming my suspicion, my wife answered simply, sweetly.
She said, "Well, at least you didn't look away."
Steve Straessle, whose column appears every other Saturday, is the principal of Little Rock Catholic High School for Boys. You can reach him at [email protected] Find him on Twitter @steve_straessle.