Charlie keeps things simple. The rack and saddlebags on his bike can carry what he owns. So far as I can tell, that consists of: a tobacco pouch and plastic cigarette-roller, some T-shirts and socks and a second pair of jeans, a plaid flannel shirt and a camouflage coat, several hats and a mismatched pair of gloves, a pool cue that unscrews in the middle, a sleeping bag, a plastic water bottle, a pair of reading glasses, and usually a paperback novel or two. Oh, and a Magic EightBall—except he doesn’t have that any more, because he gave it to me. (I was lamenting, one slow afternoon, that I wished I had a magic crystal ball to TELL me when we wouldn’t see a customer for three hours, so I could close up and go home for a nap. Charlie held up a finger and dug in his magic saddlebag till he came up with the Magic EightBall. “There you go: you can ask IT.”)
The stuffed rabbit riding his handlebars answers to “BunnyHopper,” sneaks Charlie’s cigarettes, and tends to sass back. (No, Charlie isn’t “crazy”—he’s just brimming with humor!)
Last Thanksgiving we didn’t open the restaurant for business, but we did put the restaurant kitchen to use. My husband Keoni—with the help of our sons, Kapena & Christian—cooked dinner, while our daughter Elena Grace pushed together dining room tables and set places for guests. The previous two years, in tight financial straits, we’d gratefully accepted the generosity of other people to put Thanksgiving dinners on our table. (Many thanks to our local food bank, and to our oldest daughter Kulia’s “Operation Gobble Gobble” charity drive!) But now the (laden) tables have turned; with the new restaurant thriving, we’re blessed with food enough to share. In the week ahead of the holiday, we put out word through the neighborhood “homeless network” that anyone lacking Thanksgiving dinner would be welcome to join ours. It wasn’t fancy—paper plates and plastic forks—but everyone left with full stomachs and food in hand, and I was pleased to watch our kids unselfconsciously chatting with the grubby-but-gracious strangers seated next to them at the table… And that’s the day we met Charlie.
Charlie could usually be found at his favorite hangout—the bench in front of our local grocery store—almost always with a book in hand. (He refuses to “fly a sign,” to borrow the street parlance for roadside-begging, but picks up odd jobs that allow him to put his mechanic’s training to use, and his semi-regular employers know where they can find him.) On our way into the store to shop we’d stop for hellos (as Christian accurately observed, “Charlie gives the BEST hugs,” rib-crunching in their intensity!) and started bringing paperbacks as we finished them, swapping out for whatever he’d just finished. (It had dawned on us that he can’t qualify for a Library card without a “home address”…)
There’s an unfinished storage-space above the restaurant, which we’d originally intended to convert into a hang-out spot for the kids. When we found a rental home just up the street, though, we abandoned the playroom project, as well as the mattress we’d hauled up the stairs… until one of our kids thought of a better use. On a snowy night with temperatures in the single-digits, Kapena unlocked the upstairs door and went to find Charlie and convince him to get himself out of the weather.
Because Charlie is adamant about not taking “hand-outs,” we’ve arrived at a working arrangement that doesn’t ding his dignity. He keeps our parking lot clear of trash and weeds, takes care of our indoor plants (and potted & nursed the tomato plants a friend brought us), unloads several hundred pounds of groceries out of our car every morning, scrapes out the BBQ, and hauls our trash and recycling over to the bins. He’s done mechanical work on our minivan and our son Kawika’s brakes. On occasions when we’ve run out of something mid-day (and the restaurant is too busy for one of us to leave) Charlie is always happy to hop on his bike and do the “emergency” grocery-run. When we’ve showed up at three in the morning to start the smoker for large catering orders, Charlie pops up like a security officer to make sure it’s US and not an intruder.
We tease him about the advantages of having “our own personal Charlie” to help out with so many things, and he always responds to my thanks by saying, “Well, Ma’am, that’s what Charlies are FOR.”
When our van threw a belt this summer, Charlie took it on himself to ride his bike around town (in hundred-degree heat) to find the right belt, and came back to report where he’d found it, and for what price. We gave him the forty bucks to cover its purchase, and he pedaled right off again to bring it back, carefully handing over the receipt and counting back the change, and then spent the rest of the hot day with his head under our hood. His latest project (his idea) is working on the paint-job on my old/new Subaru. He floated the idea, with a simple list of what he’d need, and I expressed my delight. “Well. That’s what Charlies are FOR, Ma’am.”
Sometimes when he has a couple bucks he buys me flowers… And I know he has sometimes made that purchase at the expense of buying himself a beer (the other “treat” in his life–along with his books). We’ve talked a few times about our shared trait of Alcoholism, though I think it makes him uncomfortable because he starts apologizing for drinking, which was never my intent. (In fact, Keoni sometimes prevails on him to accept a couple bucks to buy a beer and drink it “vicariously” for us.) The thing is that (unlike either of us!) Charlie’s personality doesn’t change when he drinks. He may be less steady on his pins, but he’s never less Charlie.
What I love best about Charlie (in addition to his hugs) is his outlook on living. I’ve known so many people with more stuff and easier situations, who still manage to be displeased with their lot. Charlie, on the other hand… stands by our barbeque with his hands on his hips, looks up at the blue sky, and pronounces: “I love Life!”
Reminders of the joy in living, appreciation of simple things… THAT’s what Charlies are for.