They're invisible. At least to most of us. You may see them but not perceive them. They shamble along downtown streets, tramp the highways, always en route, never arriving. They wait under bridges, outside the Salvation Army, on dingy corners. They each have a story, real or not. If they approach, we eye them warily, but that's as close as many of us want to come. It's the first law of self-preservation: Avoid eye contact. We're in a hurry. We've got to get to work, or home, or to the next appointment. To wherever we need be. Or think we need to be.
They have no names, not to us.
They may become local characters, recognizable on sight, but not persons. They're called Street People, the Unfortunates, whatever impersonal abstraction you prefer; they are no more real than references to The Poor or The Underprivileged in a politician's speech or a non-profit's annual appeal. They merit only a passing glance, then they're gone.
I knew one such, and thought I knew him well. He was another newspaperman, a drinking buddy, only he wouldn't stop drinking. He would die in a distant city after being found huddled in a church doorway beaten nearly to death. He had a name to me: Joe Farmer. But he must have seemed just another nameless wanderer to those who'd stepped over him on the street.
They come, they go, unseen, unknown. One of them got to Arkansas 43 years ago today, and not on any crack express. His sleeper would have been a boxcar, his diner wherever he could scrounge a meal. And for him this was the end of the line. Maybe he knew it, because he was still aware enough to lift himself off the train somehow, and wait for help. Or maybe he fell off. We never knew. He was just somebody passing through. Like the rest of us.
For some reason -- there's always a reason because for some of us there are no coincidences -- he'd wound up in a spot on the map called Pine Bluff, Ark., on Dec. 21, 1967. Typing out the date like that makes it seem so long ago, maybe before you were born, Gentle Young Reader.
It was long ago, but for somebody who remembers, who makes a point of remembering this date every year, it was just yesterday. Even today.
It'll sneak up on you, Dec. 21. Like a thief in the night. That's the date this wayfarer would enter the town's history, though surely neither the town nor he knew it at the time.
Now, every Dec.21, the man out by the tracks comes back to mind. We didn't know it then, and surely he didn't know it, but he had come to tell us something. It would take a reporter days, weeks, to find out his name. It turned out to be Joe Telles, as in Tell Us.