I discovered last week that my friend of some 35 years, Jim Browne, had died following a brief hospital stay. Our friendship meant a lot. What follows is an update of a piece I wrote a few years ago describing Jim—how we met, how we became friends, and how his perspective on life truly helped. – R.M.
Jim was one of my best friends; I met him when he was begging. He had cerebral palsy, and when he sat in his chair, hands askew off clenched arms, head sometimes lolling back, legs dangling, he might have–until you caught the gleam in his eyes–seemed completely inert.
We exchanged our first words many years ago on a balmy spring Saturday in New York City. My twin sons, then in their early teens, wanted to explore a store on their own, so I waited for them across Fifth Avenue, sitting on the steps of a church, basking in the early sun and looking at the traffic. Down on the sidewalk I saw a crippled man in his mid 20s in a wheelchair. He was sitting – head, arms, hands, knees, legs disjointed – eyes focused on nothing, a tin cup in his lap. Every so often a person would stop, drop a coin or a bill in the cup, and pass quickly on. Every now and then, when no one was approaching, the man's hand would jerk into the cup, grab the bills, jerk them into his pocket. I'd noticed him before, during a lunch-hour stroll. Unlike some beggars, he wasn't there every day. When I'd dropped a bill into his cup, I'd noticed he was always shaved, dressed in freshly laundered shirts and clean pants, hair neatly combed.
That Saturday I puzzled over him, watching, figuring there was someone at home who kept him clean, so he could be set out to earn his keep. I was wrong.
Suddenly I saw his attention snap down the block. I looked. A woman was walking toward him – young, attractive, full dark hair, nice make up, wearing a tight, white blouse, short black skirt, black stockings, high heels. She was smiling as she walked through the sun, click-click-click-click, oblivious, bra-less, feeling good, moving everything while she walked. From my view on the steps I watched the man in the wheelchair, saw his eyes take in everything about the woman. Even from fifteen feet away I could see him mentally undress her as she jounced along. When she was finally out of range, I watched his eyes glaze over again and his head roll back into position.
I walked down the steps. As I put a dollar into the cup I said quietly, “She was really something.” He suddenly looked right into my eyes, smiled broadly, raised his eyebrows, and shook his head from side to side. He made a noise that I interpreted as “You bet.” We both began to laugh.
From then on he seemed to be there at least once a week, in the same place, on the sidewalk in front of the steps of the church, occupying what I came to think of as “Jim's” space. It took me a while to figure out what I would need to bring to a real friendship with this man, if, indeed, he wanted a friend: My whole self, present in his life on his terms, as he would be in mine. There for each other, warts and all.
[caption id="attachment_2253" align="aligncenter" width="356"] Jim Brown (pictured far right, front)[/caption]
When, sometime later, I asked to be his friend, he said, “Yes.” So, at five o'clock one day I watched him push himself backwards down the sidewalk with legs that were deformed and very strong, around the corner to an outdoor cafe where, among the off-duty bond traders, we ordered drinks. He asked me to pour his rum and coke into a plastic cup with a straw he carried with him.
We started by talking about family. Mine then: a wife and kids in the burbs; his: a married brother in New Jersey with two kids, he showed me pictures. I listened hard to speech that was sometimes only hollow vowels. I told him about my marketing job; he told me about his begging job. “Why do you do it?” I asked.
He looked at me, then decided to use the alphabet board in his lap to make sure I understood. With a precise finger zeroing in on each letter, he spelled out, “I need the money.”
His brother's paycheck was stretched very thin, and Jim's government money only went so far. He was fiercely independent and very smart. A wheelchair-bound, CP kid, he got sidelined in school, never graduated, was in a sheltered workshop making key chains, but hated the work and the boredom. He likes being out, meeting people, especially women. He had a lot of friends, some made while he was on the street “working,” as he would put it.
Friendship works two ways, giving and getting. I used my voice for him to phone the doctor, the landlord, Medicaid; I helped him write his Personals ad; I acted as middle man when he had someone arrested for harassing him. He helped me through my divorce, taught me to be patience with my kids, taught me why Eric Clapton rules, how to use charm, how to pick up women, how to be a friend, how to stand up for yourself, how to be actively present, minute by minute, for the circumstances of your life. We get a lot from each other.
If begging involves asking people for money, then Jim didn't beg. Those days he was out maybe eight to ten times a month during the good weather months, not asking, just sitting in his chair on the sidewalk with his cup, letting people make of him what they will.
He worked very hard, hours at a time in the hot sun, being present in front of a church for people who wanted or needed to be reminded of their own good health, the strength of their limbs, the ease of their movement. Jim asked for nothing, sitting, waiting, usually behind his mask, the sight of his body in his chair touching those who let themselves be touched, talking with some, befriending others.
I'm still not sure how I feel about being asked for money. But what if I'm not asked? What if, in the face of anyone who might be a potential friend, I'm merely left to draw my own conclusions about others and, ultimately, myself?