in the low, low branches, a songbird sings

by tobias crabtree

the morning of a big football game in san francisco (football games take on a kind of holiday feel in the united states) i walked out from my dolphin (r.v.) nest and went to buy coffee. i was feeling kind of rich because i made money the day before, i wanted to buy coffee instead of make it. my rig was parked one street off of the great highway in the outer sunset of san francisco. i’m breaking the law by sleeping in my vehicle at night, “they” don’t like people not owning homes here in the good ol’ U.S. of A, “they” want you to own some significant stuff so “they” can stick you with significant fees. it just doesn’t pay well for folks to be getting by with little. not to mention the fact that, “if you’re poor, you’re probably lazy” (for substantiation of the existence of this idea, just listen to any privileged politician as they address the what-to-do-about-the-poor. it would become especially noticeable in a private conversation where there is less a chance that public image might be tarnished.)  i just noticed that i’m starting off here with some pretty harsh sarcasm, i’ll try and straighten up. on with my story, i’ll curb my nasty little tongue.

i walked up 46th toward trouble coffee. as i passed the 7-11 i saw an old timer with a large, service style ruck sack. he had that thing stacked tall, his bed-roll tight with the tarp folded and dressed on top. i notice things like this. i love the ones who really know how to make it and make it right.  he had a tin cup riding just over a canteen that was dented and old. some beat-up, obsolete issue from days gone by. the man might have been 65 but he might have been 75. the only space for expression was between his huge white beard and a set of grizzled eyebrows, and there, peering out were his sharp and shining  bleepers. he was lean and strong and i was surprised at the way he handled his loaded pack. he set it down and gave it a once-over. he glanced into his reflection in the window, ran his hand down over his irrepressible beard, gave his tucked shirt a quick smoothing and then loosed his canteen and walked into the store. they must know him, i thought, and he came out and took a snort of water from his now-full container. he handled himself like a professional, in every way. there was a moment when we locked eyes over the 30 feet of distance between us. i smiled in a fashion to show appreciation, not pity, and, i’m not sure, but i think he smiled back from under that life-built beard. his eyes certainly did twinkle. he is a fringe human and he is in no way famous. his life is movement between bivouac sites and water sources and a way to get food. i may be his only fan.

on that same morning, a 20 year old professional football player that makes millions a year, rolled over and woke up. he might have ordered coffee from room service. he might have moved from his room to get his massage that will prep his muscles for the game. he would decide on what clothes to wear, and he probably gets paid to wear certain ones. he gets paid for the way he moves on the field, the way he runs and jumps and passes. he does those things real well. when asked, he says he’s better than the other guy and he believes it. he really is good at football. he does not need to drive but he has several cars. he has many friends and thousands of fans that will scream his name and wear his jersey. he is proud and sure of himself. there will be handmade signs at the game that ask him for marriage. commentators will talk about him. papers will write about him.

these are two different people on the same day. they are both living and valid. i am talking about them both. i am saying that i like both these animals. i am also pointing out that they are both worthy of our attention. there are things to worry about on both sides. will this young athlete ever find a way to connect to the earth that wrought him. will he learn to be humble, i mean really humble, so that he can grow as a human. it is so dangerous for him off of the football field! i wonder if he will ever be able to figure it out.

and what of the forgotten one. the “lazy” old man. i saw him again, you know? i did. i asked him if he had ever used a cell phone and his reply was, “i’ve seen one work.” he is a veteran. he does not have family. he has been on the streets and in the woods for 35 years.  he walked from santa fe, new mexico 20 years ago. he has lost everything many times. “things get stolen when they’re outa sight,” he told me with a smirk. he gets a government check once a month that would make a rich person scoff and toss it. he is hard and gnarled. he takes care of his teeth and uses thread to floss. the world is his space in which to live. i asked him when he last had a conversation like the one we were having and he answered me with an “i don’t know.” he has figured it out, but his reality is difficult. i asked him if he needed money and he told me no. i imagine him sitting now in the cliffs by the sea. i imagine him sitting there and listening to the songbirds sing in the low branches by his bed.