I had an encounter with a man on the street.
With his permission, I want to share a mere glimpse of the person I met while walking the streets of Asheville, North Carolina.
But first, let me give you some perspective of how I ended in Asheville. It could be summed up as a dichotomy of cultures.
Asheville was the last leg of a road trip I had with two of my cousins from Norway. It was a whirlwind of a trip from Wilmington, NC to New Orleans, LA to Asheville, NC, with a few stops and stay-overs in between. I’ll get to my trip as part of a travel blog shortly, so stay tuned! During our travels, we stayed in nice hotels, ate fabulous food, did some shopping and witnessed many unfortunate people-hence the dichotomy. But for now, I’d like to focus on an engaging encounter with a street and mountain man.
His real name is William but when I asked him his name he said, Trader Joe. I guess you could say his trade is making necklaces, and his home is a makeshift camp in the Blue Ridge Mountains. All of the recent cities I visited, likely had someone rather similar to Trader Joe. Bearing witness to homelessness is not a pleasant encounter because it stirs so many feelings. My mind goes through a gamut of emotions such as sadness, confusion, discomfort, awkwardness, guilt, and so much more. Sometimes I find myself making eye contact with those I encounter, and sometimes I look away. This time I looked, and stopped, and connected with a fellow human.
Trader Joe has an incredible story which I thought was worth sharing. As I approached him, he was sitting on a bench of a side street in Asheville. His right leg was crossed over his left, as he twisted a macrame roping that was anchored to his work-boot. I had been searching for a necklace to hang my reading glasses on, instead of placing them on the top of my head like a headband. So his craft or trade caught my eye in hopes of finding something that would solve my reading glasses dilemma. Trader Joe’s necklaces incorporated various stones, so I stopped to take a look. He told me about each stone, but the specifics left my mind. There was a gold one, I believe Tiger Eye, a green stone, maybe Jade, a purple stone, perhaps Iolite and a black stone, maybe Hematite. (I had to google stones, so I could be way off) However, it was very clear to him that each stone had a name, along with meaning and purpose- a bit profound and applicable.
His necklaces didn’t really intrigue me, but he did. I felt compelled to engage in further conversation. He sat there quietly, asking for nothing. Others in the street begged for money or had some sort of receptacle for cash, he did not. If I hadn’t engaged, I would have been just another passerby, ignoring him as I have done so many times to others during this trip.
We started to talk. I asked a lot of questions and with each response, my curiosity grew. This is what he told me about his life.
He was born into privilege in Atlanta, Georgia. There, he attended a private school. His family had some degree of wealth from Barbados, I believe. At some point in his life, his parents divorced due to opposing views of money and the importance one places on wealth. He told me he dropped out of medical school, therefore I can assume he had a college degree. He expressed that family members were disappointed with his decision to drop out of med school. He had a wife, but they parted ways with no further details other than no children of his own.
During his life he used drugs. Both cocaine and heroin came up in conversation. It would be unfair of me to say he was an addict, but he did tell me he no longer used drugs. I asked him how he got off of drugs and he said he mentally was able to stop and eliminated drugs from his life, although there have been moments of temptation. I continued to ask questions, and my mind went deep and wide as the connection continued to be formed.
Trader Joe said he was 47 years old. He told me he crossed the United States 44 times. I’m sure it was a combination of modalities: car, train, hitch-hiking and by foot. I’m rather certain he has more stories than I could ever conjure up in my mind. The few stories I heard left me a bit troubled and at the same time, eager to hear more.
Trader Joe found God. This was revealed to me in the early part of our conversation when I asked, rather ‘dumbfoundedly’ how do you live? He pointed up, and I said God? and he said yes! I told him that I share his belief and we continued on with our conversation.
He said he is a peaceful man and avoids confrontation, I believe that to be true. His eyes confirmed that as he gently spoke. There was no pretense about him. Just a calm and patient man, eager to share his story with me, a total stranger. He had been removed from certain parts of Asheville because of being vocal about unethical practices and implied some in authority prefer him to remain silent, so they don't "allow" him in the more public areas of town. He feels he has a purpose and a voice worth being heard.
At some point during our conversation, he told me he had a trust fund or inheritance but is uninterested in money. I suppose there is a lot more to that part of his story. I said maybe he could reach more people if he could use his money for good? He said that was a consideration, but for now, he was waiting for his disability insurance to be restored, then he can make other decisions. He has a lawyer working on his case. I’m sure it’s a non-profit lawyer, thank goodness they exist. Trader Joe has epilepsy, so he has had a hard time keeping a job. I’m sure his underlying illness has impacted his life in a variety of ways. He said he worked in a kitchen but was laid off due to his seizures, or the potential for seizure activity. Life seems so unfair sometimes.
I listened in awe and said he should write a book about all his experiences. He said he had, more than once. His work was confiscated as evidence of a drug-related incident, but I’m not 100% sure of my recall. He was in a coma for 10 days, last rites administered than suddenly awoke with no deficits. I suppose his life was restored for reasons known and unknown.
His adventures went on and on, although they weren't all good adventures. He jumped off a train and injured his lower leg. Apparently, his calf muscle was basically scorched and a huge portion had to be surgically removed. He showed me his mouth. He had some sort of cement plate or block, in his lower jaw, I believe that was a result of an unwarranted altercation. And on and on it went. But, all and all, he said he was happy. He didn’t ‘hate his life’. He wasn’t angry with the world. He seemed to imply he was happy living in the Blue Ridge Mountains, at an outdoor camp alongside a black bear family getting ready for hibernation and a few raccoons. They, the wild animals and him, interact from a distance, each permitting the other to be there, no one afraid, just cohabiting and trying to survive.
I hated to leave our chat but I had to check out of our fancy hotel and remove my car from the parking garage. Our lives were a dichotomy. What is even more strange, our lives could be a dichotomy in another way too. He could be the uber-wealthy person compared to me if he chose to obtain his inheritance. And yet, I’m certain we have much in common, regardless of which side of the spectrum or dichotomy we are on. I may never know, but I’m hoping our paths will one day cross, and it is possible.
It turns out his father, who he is close with and has accepted his life-choice, lives in Wilmington, North Carolina on Wrightsville Beach. Is that not a small world? Is this a mere coincidence or perhaps a divine appointment? I prefer to believe the latter. I’m hoping Trader Joe, or William, remains safe and healthy and continues to feel good about who he is regardless of the direction his life takes him. Maybe our paths will cross again, this time at Wrightsville Beach, and we can continue our conversation.
Until then, may God protect Trader Joe.
I’m writing this the day after we met, so I don’t forget the details of our conversation. I only wish I had more time with Trader Joe, not so I could write a better post, but to learn and maybe understand him a little deeper. I feel like there is so much more to talk about.