It’s been about a year since I went to emergency with my hockey playing concussed daughter. At the time, all that concerned me was her head, but I instinctively sat between her and the homeless man. Beside him, on the other side, was an old man and a middle-aged woman, his daughter I assumed. I felt sorry for the old man, having to sit next to the homeless guy, not because he smelled, which he did, but because he was edgy, unpredictable. I was watchful, protective, ready to move my daughter, who was playing a game on her phone.
One of the nurses sauntered over to the homeless guy. “Let’s see that foot,” she said.
“It’s kind of dirty.”
“Never mind. Just take off your sock.”
He took it off. The foot was swollen and bluish.
“Did you fall off the roof or jump?”
“Fell,” he said.
“Were you drunk?”
“Oh no,” he said.
“Were you on any drugs?”
“Yes,” he said. “Yes, I was.”
“Okay, we’ll get to you soon. How about your arm—that’s a terrible bandage. Did you get that at ER?”
He nodded. “Yesterday.”
“We’ll take care of that, too.”
The old man didn’t hide the fact that he was listening. “Not too bad,” he said to the homeless guy. I worried for him. I didn’t think it was a good idea to start conversations with strung out men showing evidence of careless violence. “Look what I’ve got.” He raised his pants leg, showing off old gouges and scars in his calf.
“Wow,” the homeless guy said. “How’d you get that?”
“I rode my motorcycle into a van. Back when I was young.”
“Hell raiser,” the homeless guy said.
The old man smiled. No, he grinned, face lighting up. “You know anyone in Innisfill?” he asked. (It reminded me of the little girl on a beach in Israel who asked me if I knew Ellen in Canada, and I wondered if he was losing his marbles.) “I’m from Innisfill,” he said.
“You know Jackson Radfill?” the homeless guy asked.
“Sure,” the old man said. “He lives around the corner.”
“He’s my cousin. I used to play at that house.”
Right then the nurse called us to an examination room. All I cared about was my daughter’s head, and, over the days that followed, waiting for her to smile again. But the conversation stuck with me, the pleasure on the old man’s face, the respect he gave to the guy next to him, their mutual interest in each other, the unlikely discovery of connection lifting both out of the moment. Something ordinary, but uncommon, a kind of unselfconscious decency. A hell raiser with long scars and scooped out flesh and unstinting humanity.