Wednesday, June 13, 2012


You might think of the homeless as being dirty and smelly - and I am sure some are, just as some people who are not homeless are dirty and smelly. But Bill was clean, and smelled only of the cigarette he had just finished smoking before I approached him. His white shirt gleamed in the late afternoon sun, and his t-shirt and hoodie had no grime or grease on them.

Bill was sitting on a bench which was on the edge of the walkway which runs beside the ocean in Monterey Bay, California. A wharf which houses many restaurants and souvenir stores, extends out into the ocean at this place, and there are walkways which extend in either direction from this hub. 

It is a busy place, and there were many, many people bustling around that evening - tourists, cyclists, "regulars", people from the nearby was a hive of activity. And Bill was contentedly watching the crowds go by. 

My daughter, Kim, and I were in Monterey Bay for an artists' conference, and we were just returning from our supper when we spotted Bill. I wanted to take his photo, but I was really hesitant to ask. We had walked beyond Bill, but not out of sight when Kim convinced me to return and ask to take his picture. Mustering up all my courage, I approached Bill.

"Excuse me...ummm...I'm an artist, and I'm here in Monterey Bay learning how to paint portraits. I would love to be able to do your portrait - do you think I could take a few pictures of you?"

"ME??? You want to paint me?? Why?"

"Well, I find peoples' faces fascinating - especially when they are filled with character. Your face is wonderful for painting..."

"Really? My face has character?"

"Yes - it would be great for a portrait."

"Well, okay..." (laughing)

I took a few photos, asking him to turn toward me, look in that direction, and so on. Behind the park bench was Bill's transportation. He had very creatively made and attached a little "tricycle trailer" to the back of a bicycle. The trailer was piled with plastic bags, filled I assumed with things he had picked up and would recycle for money. As well, he had 2 plastic cooler buckets attached to his bicycle like panniers, each one labelled. One had all his clothing, the other had "Bike Fuel". I asked him about his transportation fuel, and he laughed again. Inside that cooler was his food, which of course fuelled him and thus his bicycle.

He told me that with his bike, he was able to travel all over California, going wherever he chose or wherever the weather was warmest during the winter months. Bill also said he had never had such a reliable source of transportation - much better than a car because he had to slow down to see everything, to enjoy the smells and sights. Much different from when he was in the "rat race". And he stopped a lot more frequently when traveling  - whenever he was tired or when the urge took him. 

Then Bill told me that he is much happier than when he worked in the corporate world, clawing and scratching to make it to the top of the heap of executives. He said the first million was the hardest to earn, and cost him everything in terms of what was truly valuable in life. After the first million, the rest was easier to earn, but really had no meaning. I looked at his fleece hoodie with the Apple symbol and wondered...

Bill tried to continue with his story, but had difficulty remembering the words he wanted to use. He said he had some brain damage - a result of being beaten and robbed. That was the down side of being homeless. But, Bill said, he had never been happier in his entire life. He felt FREE. Free from all the striving to "be someone" and never quite making it, free from trying to reach the top only to have someone younger or smarter pass by you on the climb up the ladder, free of the stuff that owns you instead of you owning it. And although he no longer had family, he had a community in that the homeless stick together. They cover each other's backs. They show each other respect.

I hated to leave this conversation, but Kim and I had a class to attend, so we said our goodbyes. I gave Bill some money for allowing me to take his photo, and in a gruff voice, he thanked me and said "I sure appreciate it." Then, as I stood he looked up at Kim and me and sincerely said, "God bless you."

We saw Bill from a distance a couple more times after that, riding his bike in figure 8's with the trailer attached, singing at the top of his lungs, or having lively conversation with a few others who gathered there and were part of his community. What struck me about Bill was that he was content in his circumstances. He embraced life and all that came his way. Even though I am not homeless, I want to live life in a similar way - embracing each day and all that comes in the day, content within my circumstances, singing at the top of my lungs with joy and vibrancy and blessing others. Bill taught me something deep, and I can't get him out of my mind. I don't know if anyone who knows Bill will actually see this portrait, but if they do, I want them to know he was healthy, happy and "free" when we met him in Monterey Bay, California in September, 2011. 


renate said...

Hello Joanne:) What a lovely story! I think he was a great guy! You made a beautiful portrait, I'm sure he would have liked that very much!

Anonymous said...

God bless Bill. Wonderful portrait of a face full of character.

Anonymous said...

Hi Joanne,
I hope Bill gets a chance to see what an incredible job you did on his portrait. He does have a lot of character in his face!

Joanne Giesbrecht said...

Thank you all for your comments. I truly appreciate hearing from you - and your response to "Bill".