It was a muggy Sunday afternoon in Birmingham's Southside neighborhood and I had just returned from Starbucks will a tall glass of passion tea lemonade and had just settled into one of the outside tables on the sidewalk with a book. A woman's screams draw me out of my reverie. "My baby!" she screamed, "My baby!"
Her daughter, whom she assumed was trotting along right behind her on the sidewalk, had not been following her at all. Instead, something had caught her eye and she wanted into one of Southside's busier intersections. Before the mother--or any of us in the area, for that matter--had registered what was happening, a man swooped her up in his arms and was carrying her back toward the sidewalk.
The man was clearly aging, though muscled in a way that only true athletes can retain into their age. His mahogany skin pulled tight over his rippled arms and wore a faded black tee shirt with the sleeves ripped off, and an array of colorful scarves and bandanas tied to his legs in place of formal pants. All this was accented by his fingers, which could hardly be seen under the stacks of rings he wore. A half-smoked cigarette dawdled between his lips.
As the man walked toward the mother, her child secured in a fatherly fashion upon his hip, the mother looked at him as though he were a mythical creature. When he attempted to transfer the child to her mother's arms, she appeared afraid to touch him, so he set the little girl down in front of her. Still with the cigarette clasped on one side of his mouth, he mumbled something about the dangers of running into the street, but neither the little girl or her mother seemed to register what he was saying. The mother simply took her daughter's hand--so tightly the child yelped--and yanked her along in her stride. No thanks had been given because she'd been too dumbfounded by the man's appearance.
That was the day I met Herman.
Like many homeless people, Herman has encountered people like the young mother before--people who treat him with less respect and humanity because he lives on the streets. Or because of the way he looks. It seems to bother people that he wears shorts and bandanas tied around his legs instead of pants, but he doesn't let them bother him. He's too busy being the protector of Southside.
If there are any rowdy drunks coming from the bars, Herman keeps them in check. If a woman is being harassed by a man as she's headed to her car, Herman will walk with her arm in arm. If two of the homeless people try to get into a fight, Herman steps in. And if little girls run into the street, he runs out there too--to stop traffic and return them to their judgmental mothers.
There are seldom times over the years that I've found myself in Southside that I haven't seen Herman. He can almost always be found lounging behind the fountain at the heart of Southside, or on the long concrete bench across the street. His attire hardly changes--on rainy days, he adds a hunter green rain parka, and on cold days he adds a dark puffy jacket. Though many who pass him probably expect him to ask for money, he never does. Once, on one of the hottest days of Alabama summer, I saw Herman out by the fountain, scrounging for a small piece of fading shade. He skin was covered in glistening sweat, with more beads of sweat swelling at his temples and hairline.
I stopped to sit beside him on the brick ledge. "Have you had anything to drink today?" I asked. Herman always speaks softly and quickly, a combination that means you have to listen closely to catch what he says. Though I don't know for sure, I was always convinced he did it because it showed that anyone who wanted to talk to him had to truly listen.
"I had some water 'round 'leven o'clock." It was past two. "I'll bring you some bottles of water from Starbucks," I said, getting up. He tapped my arm. "No, no, no. I'm okay. I don't need no water." But I was insistent. "Herman, you'll get dehydrated and pass out or get sick or something. You have to drink water on days like this." It took a little convincing just to let him agree to accept water from me. Then I had an even better idea: "If you come with me to Starbucks, then we can sit inside while you drink your water." He started to protest, but then I added, "There's air conditioning in there."
The allure of air conditioning was just too much and he followed me to Starbucks, a block away. I got three bottles of water--one for myself and two for Herman--and we sat down at a table. He didn't speak for a long time.
"What's your story?"
He looked at me with puzzlement. This clearly wasn't a question he got asked often. Another long silence ensued, and just when I was convinced he didn't want to talk to me--and I wouldn't have blamed him if he didn't; he had no idea who I was and buying someone water on a hot day doesn't require them to share their life's story--he spoke.
What followed was a long tale of his life training to be a boxer and becoming a world famous champion boxer at that! He named some of the fights he won against names I didn't know, but I gathered by the way his eyes sparkled at the memories that he must've been truly great. He named the different countries he traveled to for boxing matches--Singapore is his favorite; he says the food and people are incredible there. He told me about sustaining a head injury, which forced him to retire from boxing, and the divorce from his first wife that soon followed. He told me about how his kids had moved to various places all over the country, so he doesn't get to see them much, but misses them a lot. And he told me about his current wife and how she records Law and Order for him so he can watch it with her on Tuesdays because she knows it's his favorite show.
I marveled at how open and honest Herman was with me--all but a stranger. As a freelance writer, I'd been accustomed to formally interviewing people for years, but this was a different thing entirely. I wasn't taking notes and I wasn't planning on writing an article on him. I could listen, truly listen.
When he finished his story, he downed the remainder of his water bottle and got up to refill it at the bathroom sink. As he left, he told me to keep smiling.
It was a simple way to spend an afternoon if you really think about it, but it made me realize that everyone has a story--they're everywhere--and all you have to do is not be afraid to open your eyes. People can be so extraordinary, and they'll never cease to fascinate if you don't let them. Just remember to open your ears, open your heart, and open your mind.