Ode to the “Cardboard Citizen”

12 Jan

“I said ‘Hi,’ but you didn’t hear me,” a voice uttered from the seat behind, the words barely audible above the roar of the train.

I glanced back, curious to see their owner.

A pair of dull eyes stared back at me knowingly: I knew him.

We met a couple of years back.  At the library, no less.  Then, he had the distinct swagger of one who had simply stumbled upon rough times but was capable of climbing back out.

He was optimistic and witty.  And determined to succeed.

The man that sat behind me now bore eyes tarnished from a lifetime of disappointments.  Resignation and the pervading sense of helplessness hovered over him: It sank wearily into his weathered locs and filled the linings of his grime-encrusted shirt.

Stammering, I tried to ignore the obvious: “H-H-How are you?”  I asked, the question echoed hollowly throughout the train.

He played along, joining me in the façade of normalcy.  “Good,” he replied, making small talk about the last few years.

I listened, nodding when appropriate, inserting the occasional “ooh” and “ahh,” as my mind earnestly willed the next train station into sudden appearance.

As the train slowed to a stop, I  quickly rose,  ignoring the look of abandonment slowing crawling across his face.  I bid him farewell, wished him luck and exited.

Once the train was chugging along to its next destination, I breathed a heavy sigh of relief, releasing the memories of our encounter years prior.

It began with curiosity.  He asked what I was reading, referring to the book nudged snugly within the nook in my arm.  I responded, intrigued by the man with the wild dreads and calm rivers in his eyes.  One question led to another which led to another.

Before long, he was nostalgically recalling his  life before the streets, his Northern origins, his daughter for whom he was working to get better.

I listened intently, realizing the futility of intermittently parroting “It will get better,” or “Things will look up.”

His extraordinary-ordinary tale left me dumbfounded.  He was successful, had followed the golden road that each of us travel daily.  One slight misstep, another bad choice, then another,  plotted his descent into homelessness.

Is that really all it took?   A few mistakes?  A couple of bad choices?

It’s terrifying to see one’s likeness in that of another; to see the mirrored backgrounds, capacity, interests and aspirations and then wonder what secured one’s success and the other’s  destruction.

Then the truth becomes clear.  The truth that neither the status of the winner or loser is secure.  That life is fluid.  That anything can happen from one day to the next.

For self-protection, we, the current winners, must vilify and dehumanize these others, must deem them subhuman and worthless, and ascribe their lot to some divine force, rather than the whim of chance.  Must vow to never to make eye contact with them or acknowledge their pleas for aid, lest we see glimpses of ourselves or hear our own cries for help in the ragged persons before us.  

Thus, we group them together as one disgusting mass of wasted potential, addiction and idleness, cement them firmly into a underclass of humanity, justify their plight and toss the weight of their struggle squarely back upon their shoulders.

The sound of crackling gravel interrupted these thoughts, alerted me of the presence of another on the dark street.

I turned, already certain of the identity of my follower.

It was him.

Standing with that same look of pitiful look of displacement, of wishes unanswered and dreams re-fettered, he tottered closer.

I wasn’t afraid, only curious: What did he want?

Without the audience, the nosy onlookers or bored passerbys, he finally dropped the charade.

“I just need a friend.  Someone to talk to.”

The most basic of all requests–he asked not for food, or money or a place to stay or a job.


The thing that cost nothing and everything at the same time.

My thoughts returned to our last chat years ago.  One that ended with him in tears and me eagerly fleeing back in the cocoon of my naivete; where home is  never too far away, food is readily available and temperature is altered by the turn of a knob.

Silence pierced the air as we continued our stroll.

I wish I could say that I’d granted his request.  That I stuck by him.  That I helped him regain the splendor of yesteryear.

As he walked me to the entrance of the cafe, holding the door agape as I passed, I took one final glimpse at his face, one of a man forsaken.

I never saw him again.

“Cardboard Citizen” is a term I first heard in London while studying theater.  It refers to any homeless or displaced person. I am not in any way affiliated with the program or service.

I can’t remember the name of the gentleman I encountered that night. 

This nameless man is who this post is for.


One Response to “Ode to the “Cardboard Citizen””


  1. More Than a Pretty Picture « The Wonderful World of Shonda - May 14, 2011

    […] this day, the image rests on my desk as a challenge to create the change the disheveled character’s sign demands. It is my most cherished remnant […]


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