Blauer - Tactical Clothing & Equipment

I Saw My Friend Today, I Wish I'd Have Seen Him Sooner - By Lt. Tim Cotton

I stood in the lobby of the arena and watched the people saunter by. It is a position that I had been in on numerous occasions over the years. It was a beautiful day and I would be fibbing if I told you that I was happy to be there.

Seeing a police officer is reassuring to most people. There certainly are some folks that do not feel that way. Overall, I think a law enforcement presence at any large gathering is appreciated by a majority of the attendees.

This is just how I justify it in my mind when I run into the few, the proud, and the loud. There is always a contingent of those that have had a bad experience, watched too many episodes of “The Shield,” or have another deep seated reason to dislike representatives of a police agency. I can’t fix that. I choose to ignore the carriers of those attitudes and do my best to treat all people well.

Some people smile, some people try hard to avoid eye contact, and I understand that. That does not make me suspicious, it makes me believe that many people are shy, introverted, or have other things on their mind.

I think a police officer should be seen, but avoid becoming part of the show unless conditions make it necessary.

I watch people in order to look for similarities between their appearance. I look for folks who have a similar look to stars, musicians, and actors from the past and present. It is actually one of my favorite crowd watching pastimes.

If I am lucky enough to be close to another officer, I might point it out to them without being too obvious and take a quick poll on whether they agree with me. Usually they do. I am pretty good at that. I have spent hours amusing myself while smiling kindly to people that look like Elvis, John Wayne, or Ricardo Montalban.

Last year at Reagan National Airport I saw a man who I pointed out as looking exactly like Joseph “Run” Simmons from the band Run-DMC. No one in my entourage believed me. It ended up being Simmons.

I told you I was pretty good at it. By the way, I don’t actually have an entourage - just my wife.

As I stood there in uniform working on my skill set I started to watch a man who was discussing whether he could leave the venue and later be able to get back in before the festivities got under way. He looked familiar but I could not place him. He didn’t look like a star.

Dressed in dark clothing, a short haircut and weathered appearance, he was a person that spent time outdoors. I was sure of that. I turned away and walked back to a wall where I could surreptitiously lean to give my feet a break from the concrete floor. I found a divine patch of old carpet where I could stand when my heels started to burn a little. Smart cops stand on carpet. Old cops do too. I am not smart. You can figure out which cop I am.

When he walked up to me, I knew in an instant who he was. He had aged in the thirty-five years since I had seen him this close to me. We had a post high school disagreement which ended up becoming physical. Yes, a fist fight. Right in the driveway of a mutual friend. Those were the days when friends got into a fist fight and no one called the police.

Typically those fights ended up with black eyes, bloody noses, and a handshake accompanied by an apology. Ours ended up with angry words and my friend drove off giving me the finger and yelling things I knew he didn’t mean.

In the following years, we worked in the same industry after college. He was better at it than I was and he did very well. Bright, smart, funny, engaging, and damaged. Damaged by things which I won’t discuss. Things that would break the strongest man’s will and spirit.  He tried to work through it. He didn’t do well. He turned to alcohol and drinking excessively caused him to do things he thought he would never do.

At that moment in time, none of this mattered to me. I was just glad to see him.

He asked me if I knew who he was and I said, “of course I do.” I said his first name and we shook hands. I told him that I had been watching him for a few minutes prior to our face to face and had thought to myself that he looked familiar. His smile was the same and his voice distinctive.

He said, “I thought you would pretend you didn’t know me.” I shook my head and scowled to indicate that the statement was ridiculous. He spoke of our last disagreement as if it happened yesterday. I remembered it just as clearly but I had let go of that beef within a week or two of his bias-ply burnout up a rural road in a small Maine town. He carried a lot of guilt and this was something that should have been thrown out of his pack years ago.

My friend then told me that he has been homeless for a very long time. This summer he had been living in the woods within a 5 minute walk from my police department and I knew nothing about it. If he had punched me directly in the face it would have hurt me far less.

My friend, the standout athlete with a middle class upbringing, a good college education, and a skill set that could have placed him far above all others in his field was homeless. It echoed inside my head.

Internally I cringed, but I tried to suppress my “surprised face.”

I wanted our conversation to be normal stuff. The stuff I say to all my other long lost friends after 35 years of no contact. How’s the family? When are you going to retire? Where are your kids going to college? None of the standard questions applied. Instead I just told him I was so sorry and then I think I said I was sorry again. I am not a man that has ever been accused of being lost for words. That changed on that Saturday evening.

I could smell the odor of intoxicants on his breath and I could see that his eyes had the sheen of a man that spent much of his time near a bottle. He told me that he had a stash of alcohol hidden in the bushes outside the venue and that he was heading out the door to have a quick drink before coming back inside. He was headed for the door when we came face to face.

He told me of arrests and prison, that he was able to function enough to work every single day as a temporary employee, and that he had a bus ticket in his pocket to go back to Florida the very next day. He is a transient homeless man. He is a functioning alcoholic. He likes Florida in the winter. We had that in common. We have more in common than most people do.

He made me laugh like he used to. When I asked him how living outdoors affects him, he told me, “Tim, Jesus was transient and slept outside every night. I am doing the same thing. Not in the winter, mind you. I’ll be in Florida while you are shoveling this winter.” We both laughed at the absurdity of his reasoning. He was trying to make it easy for me. He did it well. Covering his hurt with humor. We all do it. He was a professional.

He showed me worn photographs of his children. He explained how after all his child support payments are removed from his check that he has about thirty-dollars a day left to live on. Much of that goes to alcohol. None of it goes to housing.

He has no license and refuses to get it reinstated as he knows he would drink and drive again. He pointed out, “It’s not worth it Tim, I could kill someone if I was driving. I cannot live with that.”

He showed me that he had plenty of traveling cash for the three-day bus trip to Florida and that he would be working a temporary job there as soon as he arrived. He shared that he would be back next summer and would be living in the same spot. He said he had a great campsite.

I told him to come to the station as soon as he arrived next summer and we could catch up, grab a sandwich, and if I could make his life better or easier I would do what I could. He said, “I am not looking for a handout. I get by. I’m just so glad I got to see you.” I told him I was happy to see him as well. So happy, and yet so sad.

Sad that my friend was living in the bushes within walking distance from where I ate my lunch every day. Sad that he didn’t feel he could stop by and say hello because he surmised that I would not recognize or speak to him. Sad that we had not made up after a fight over something that I forgot about minutes after it happened.

This story is mine, but it is a story about all of us. It is about all of our unseen or forgotten friends and acquaintances. It is about saying you are sorry when it might not be your fault. It is about paying attention to other people and about knowing that you don’t have to look too far to find someone in need.

Take a look out your window. I wish I would have sooner.

Keep your hands to yourself, leave other people’s things alone, and be kind to one another.

- TC

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