When I first found out that my dad was homeless, had been for a few years, my mind went to a stereotyped scene, fraught with a boilerplate image of what that might look like. I pictured a greasy, tangled head of dark, coarse hair. When I was growing up, I’d watch him slowly shave his beard down to newly buffed skin while a foamy, stubble mixture slid down the deep "o" in the sink. I pictured that hair, grown wild and unruly, because surely it had not seen a razor in some time. I pictured threadbare clothes with patches of dirt. Would he be wearing those teal, coral, and plum colored nylon shorts—the kind of shorts so obviously defined to a different time—that he never took off? I pictured a held up cardboard sign with a hackneyed sentence that made passersby look away in guilt. Perhaps his old favorite saying. Shit happens. And I felt shame for this indoctrinated assumption so often simplified on TV.
Dad ran away eight years ago, but I always assumed he found a safe place to stay, a roof over his head. For a while he lived with his brother in Miami, and we talked on the phone every few months. But he took off again and there was nothing but silence. When my mom found out he'd been homeless, living between shelters only a few towns over, I remember wanting to look for him with the same care and determination one would use looking for an old, treasured family photograph. No matter if it took all the days and all the nights.
When someone runs away, and it’s clear they're not coming back, after a while you stop wondering where it is they went. You realize how huge the world really is, how they could be anywhere—anywhere—and the simple act of looking seems futile. A little while longer and they feel dead. Not "dead to you," like in the abandoned, bitter teen kind of way. Just dead. They must be. Because where else would they be if they stopped coming around? Perhaps we lie to ourselves too often.
His homelessness left a dent in me that his running away didn't. When he ran away, he was still this great big adult that had not a lot, but some money and an old, grass green Nissan truck I always felt infinite in, even at nine years old. Maybe it was the rolled down windows or the hard, classic rock surging through his speakers that made heads turn at traffic lights, but it felt like nothing could touch us in that small truck, a truck that back then seemed so big and absolute.
Even when he ran away it still felt like he knew what he was doing. But now that I knew he was homeless, I couldn’t help but feel I was the parent. There seemed this chance I could find him perhaps if I drove around a lot and searched hard enough.
I thought, he's been so close this whole time. I wondered if I ever passed him on the street driving to and from the Volusia Mall or to an Ormond Beach Dermatology appointment—things I did so often my chances of riding by him, I knew, were significant. How odd that would be. Maybe I even looked him directly in the eye, but only just for a moment as I usually did when I saw a homeless person. It is rude to stare at anyone, but this kind of stare feels cruel—even if it is coming from a place that can only be described as a mixture of wonder, pity, and then finally gratitude and warmth for your at times frustrating but beautiful, lucky life. It seemed impossible, but also possible that we looked at each other and didn't recognize one another. Impossible because there's no way I could ever forget the face of my father. His ocean blue eyes that I didn’t inherit, his big nose with a bump on the bridge that my sister did, and his thick brown hair we both have. But it also felt possible because eight years is a long time and the physical features of someone fade quicker than do your memories with them.
A thought comes to me. So simple, so basic, but true. We should’ve taken more pictures growing up. My generation is criticized often for the loyalty and devotion given to their cell phone, to taking pictures. It’s something my mom says often. Put the phone away. But joy to those that are so consumed in documenting the moment that perhaps they miss the moment, just a little, when they’re in it. Dad and I should’ve taken more pictures. At Rainbow Park—a kid’s playground filled with wooden jungle gyms, seesaws, slides, swings, and monkey bars that we spent hours in every other weekend. The Regal movie theater that we only went to twice a year because Dad considered it a special treat. Or the gazebo at the end of the dock of the Ormond Beach Intracoastal Waterway, where’d we’d meet up with Dad’s friend and his black Labrador, Lady, and watch fishing boats pass. All of it feels picturesque in my head, but sometimes I wish I could hold a 5x7 proof of it in my hand. I suppose I should feel lucky though. At least memory is still on my side.
Maybe I'm more like him than I think. Maybe all this time I've been thinking of him, driving past his old apartment, parking the car and getting out for no reason other than to picture my nine-year-old self run around the concrete slab where we used to play for hours… maybe I too have been wandering. Right alongside him.