Editor’s note: Stories of San Antonio is a showcase for stories that highlight the voices, faces, and experiences that define our city. This story was submitted by Tyler James Bruns, a part-time travel writer, who wrote about this poignant experience on the Riverwalk after a recent visit. Homelessness continues to be a prominent issue in our city, and even as our city enjoys progress elsewhere, it is still widely overlooked with few voices pushing for real solutions.
On my first night in San Antonio, I met a man on the stairs as I was leaving the Riverwalk. I wish I could say I was brave enough to initially confront him, but a young couple had found him first. They walked past him like many do, making a lame excuse to get out of a minor inconvenience. When he asked for help, they pretended he was a figment, some anomaly of their imagination to be ignored while holding hands. They were in a world I understand. A bubble of familiarity that I’m often guilty of inhabiting myself.
To be honest, I don’t think I would have stopped either, but I was alone in a beautiful city on a bustling night, and I felt the loneliness of observing without interacting. I had my money prepared before I even made it to the man. My empathy that night cost me ten dollars, but it taught me something worth much more than that.
His first words to me asked how I knew he needed help. To him, my preparedness to assist him must have appeared some sort of bad omen. Personally, I felt cowardice for observing for so long before offering help.
Typecasting him out of fear, I lied – I told him he looked as if he was down on his luck, but I felt awkward about twisting the truth. The fact of the matter was that he projected homelessness. His shirt was ripped, his hat was torn, and he smelled not like the streets, but like alcohol. The man’s teeth looked like kernels of kettle corn from the bottom of the bag – rough, discolored, and few in number. When he spoke, his words rang deep in a voice that bellowed with the cadence of loneliness. His eyes had a frost to them, a glaze which made them appear half-empty and alone.
In his hands, the man carried a brown paper sack as if it were a trove of treasure. Inside were two twenty-ounce cans. Beer. He asked if I wanted one, and I said yes with zero hesitation. If I would have thought about the moment, or waited another, the absurdity of it would have stopped me. I know my own inner dialogue used so many times before: “No, Tyler. This is insane. Move along. Don’t do this.” But instead, words imbued with empathy beat the others into the synapse of my thoughts.
“Why not?” I said.
“Why not?” There were a million reasons for “why not.” But I felt this man’s loneliness. We shared it, right there with those beers. For me, this was only a vacation, one I could leave whenever I wished. His, he had to sleep in. And the night was cold. And long. And that’s not fair.
Our conversation continued nothing like the usual introductions. There was no, “what do you do,” or ”where are you from.” Instead, we shaped words into sentences that felt honest, like a hose to our hearts that only tapped truth. It was the most authentic of conversations. I wished these happened more in life – like in new love or teenage theatrics.
I asked him if the beer kept him warm, and he laughed at me. It wasn’t a pleasant laugh; it was a sad laugh, reminding me that sometimes truth is distilled in things other than words. We talked and drank, but mostly drank. On a stone bridge, arch-shaped, we watched as the younglings below us — my kind — consumed forty-dollar meals and staggered around, taking their privilege for granted. They treated us like ghosts in the night, walking through us or past us, but never recognizing us.
I didn’t know my friend’s name. I never asked. Nor did I ask about his past. Together, we talked about the now. About his beer. How it was bland and generic but worked. About the weather, how he used to feel cold but not anymore. Most notably, he asked me about the city. I told him I was just visiting, but he asked again, not remembering his first inquiry. He asked a lot of questions twice, but I didn’t mind.
My new friend reminded me that humans are oftentimes missing parts: pieces of a personality, something aesthetic, even a mental state that may prevent them from adapting to their problems. When you have these parts, it’s hard to recognize the dilemmas of those who don’t. Empathy is tough. Sometimes it’s so difficult to recognize similarities because we’re so accustomed highlighting differences. I felt for this man, and he shared with me. Granted, he might have shared with anyone, but he shared with me. We were from different worlds.
I left him after that one beer. It was a fast transition after I said my thanks and walked away, joining my peers on the Riverwalk. I still don’t know his story. Probably never will. I just knew the story we shared. The tale of two strangers who met and drank and left, all without a handshake. “A temporary cure for loneliness.”
Our interaction was a bandage to a much larger problem: I was on vacation, and he wasn’t. San Antonio is a beautiful city, and the evenings fill themselves with laughter and music, but it was such a cold night. And a long night. And I felt for my new friend. It’s not fair, is it, his loneliness? Is it?