“Just an evening? I have lost months and years,” I replied. “Where I come from, people lose an entire life, without feeling the loss.”
“No politics,” he said. “I am talking about an entire evening burned out on the horizon and you cannot do a thing to retrieve it.”
Ben was his name and he was my first American friend. I met him in a park near the Farragut West metro station in Washington, DC. He was among a dozen homeless who lived in the park. I mean they ate, slept and drank there. Drinking, perhaps, was more important than eating and sleeping.
Some of them were homeless because they preferred drinking to any other activity. But none of them ever admitted they were alcoholics, at least not to me. Not even Ben, although there was a time when I met him almost daily.
It was when I worked in a building near the White House and often went to the park with my lunch. He would come and sit on a nearby bench. Never asked for anything but would eat if I offered food.
Ben told me he was a Vietnam veteran. I never doubted his claim. For us South Asians, any six-foot tall man has to be a fauji and Ben was six and a half. He was strong and had an authoritative gait that people in our part of the world associate with the military.
Ben never asked me to buy him a drink, although others often did. Not even when I did buy him a drink. This was when he asked me if I had ever lost an evening.
“We see the evening being gobbled up by darkness, bit by bit. And soon it is night and the evening is gone,” he said. “We do not realise how big a loss it is. But it pains me to see it being lost like this.”
I told Ben he was not the only one who felt that way. There are people in our part of the world too who need to have a bottle and glass near them when the evening comes. I told him a lot of poetry has been written in our languages on this relationship between alcohol and the evening.
“I thought you guys were Muslims,” Ben said. “You do not drink.”
“Muslims were are,” I said. “And the majority does not drink but poets are poets first and Muslim later.”
He laughed and still did not tell me that he needed a drink. There was a liquor store near the park. I bought a small bottle of Black Label whisky to save his evening.
I thought he would jump with joy when he sees this little luxury. He did not. He took it in stride. “Oh, Black Label. Nice. Thanks,” he said and stretched his hand.
The next time I tried to buy him a drink, Ben stopped. He said he preferred to collect quarters from the people who visited the park and buy his own bottle. “That way I feel as if I have earned it,” he said.
So I went back to my old routine. Whenever I went to the park, I brought with me some food for him as well. He accepted them with a regal gesture, like a king accepting an offering from a subject. He never asked for more. He would finish eating and wipe his hands with the paper napkins that came with the food. He would then take his box, and mine, to the nearest bin and come back and light his cigarette.
And then we would discuss politics until it was time for me to return to work. His knowledge of international politics surprised me.
He knew much more than most people do. Although he loved America, his world view was not coloured by 9/11 either.
Ben had this uncommon ability to go beyond his, or his nation’s, immediate concerns and could analyse the long-term effects of a developing situation. “War against terror, so far, so good. But what after America leaves Afghanistan?” he would often ask and then tell me what he thought could happen.
We became friends, at least I thought so. He disagreed. “No, we cannot be friends. Our social disparity does not allow us to be friends. We can say we like each other’s company.”
Last winter, I saw him sleeping under the shade of an office building, wrapped in a comforter and a plastic sheet. I wanted to buy him another comforter but I knew he would say no. So I had to fake a story.
I told him some South Asians wanted to give comforters to the homeless and asked him if he could help distribute those. He said he would and added: “Bring more than one.” I smiled and went away.
The next weekend I got two from home and collected a few from friends. I had eight or nine, when I arrived at the park. He was very happy to see me and the comforters. Other homeless came and took the comforters but left one for him.
I went to a McDonald’s and bought some coffee. We had coffee together and discussed politics too. When I was ready to leave, Ben said to me, with a big grin on his face: “You had to make a lot of effort to collect these blankets, didn’t you?” I laughed and left.
This was our last meeting. I moved out of Washington to a Virginia neighbourhood. I often felt like going back to the park to look for Ben but did not. I always went to the city on a car and it’s difficult to find parking near there. Now, I think it was just an excuse. I could have visited him, if I wanted. But as Ben said, we were not friends, so I did not.
Last Saturday, I made an extra effort; found a parking spot and enough coins to feed the meter. So I went inside the park and asked one of the homeless – there are always some in there – where could I find Ben.
“Ben who?” he asked. I explained. “Oh him, he died last year,” he said and dozed off. Although, it was early afternoon, he was already drunk. “Died?” I asked. “Yes, he died,” he said and dozed off again.