No shirt, no shoes, no service. This is a typical rule of thumb that most people abide by while in public. However, one man has chosen to rebel against societies expectations and set his own standards (or lack thereof).
If you have spent some time in the quaint area of South Oakland, you may have had an encounter with the notorious man who is commonly known as “Shuffles.” He prefers to spend his time slowly meandering the streets and alleys, occasionally stopping to take a nap here and there.
Shuffles is particularly fond of the alley located directly adjacent to my apartment. Since I lived in Oakland for the summer with three other roommates, I gradually came to accept Shuffles as a sort of fourth roommate of mine. Consistently, I would walk outside and see him occupying my alley with a yellow blanket draped around his shoulders.
As expected, my roommates and I were uncomfortable about the constant presence of a strange homeless man outside of our first floor apartment. So, one day when Shuffles was spending the afternoon on our porch, we decided to call the police to have them come survey the situation.
As if Shuffles sensed the arrival of a police officer, he awoke from his slumber and slowly started walking away from our alley, passing the officer on his way.
“Good afternoon, Harold,” said the officer to Shuffles. Shuffles nodded and continued on his way.
We all were speechless as the officer sauntered up to our porch and asked us what the problem was. When we explained to him the situation, he proceeded to inform us that Shuffles’ real name is Harold, and that he is harmless and has lived in South Oakland for years.
So, one evening as I was taking out the trash, I didn’t notice that Harold was standing right by my front porch.
“Good evening,” he politely acknowledged me.
Since this was the first time I had heard him speak, I was startled by his confident and well articulated voice. I walked back inside but immediately returned to the porch with a beverage for Harold and I.
“Cheers,” we both said to each other with a nod.
The polite and thankful demeanor in which Harold held himself really caught me off guard. Any previous assumptions I had made, consciously or subconsciously, were shattered and I was intrigued how such a well-spoken man could be homeless.
So, the other day as I was walking down Meyran Avenue, I noticed Harold sitting on the curb by Pittsburgh Café. I decided to cautiously approach him to see if he was willing to talk with me. The conversation that ensued was one of the most eye-opening experiences that affected more than just my opinion of this filthy, homeless man.
Not only did Harold give me the privilege of having a glimpse into the parts of his life that attribute to his current state, he offered me original and brilliant opinions about politics, business, and life in general.
Harold was a student at Carnegie Mellon University and then attended the University of Pittsburgh for graduate school to study law. He lived on Ward Street up until he was evicted when his post-traumatic stress disorder started seriously affecting his life.
One of the points that really stood out to me while talking about his interests was the fact that since he is homeless, he does not have access to music all the time–something that is very easily taken for granted.
“Sometimes I will sit outside Pcafe when they are busy and playing loud music because I miss hearing it,” he said. “Before I was homeless, I enjoyed a wide variety of music, but I especially liked Beethoven and Bach,” he added.
We also talked about our tastes in movies and books and discovered we share a favorite movie: Fight Club. Harold is knowledgeable in literature and it is apparent that he used to spend a lot of time reading before he was homeless.
When I asked him about reactions that people have when they see him on the streets, his response was unsettling.
“A few years ago, I was in a better physical and mental state so students were kind to me and would acknowledge me in a friendly manner. Recently though, there is sometimes a sense of hostility,” he explained.
It is unfortunate that it is almost second nature for people (myself included) to so quickly pass judgment on another person when we have no previous knowledge of their life. After spending a short time with this man, I realized that he is incredibly talented and smart but uncontrollable events caused him to be in his current situation.
So, next time you are strolling through South Oakland, or anywhere for that matter, have an open mind and try to offer a smile instead of a judgment.