On my last ride with Sam we some how got on the subject of "the homeless". I was telling him about a guy I met in Colorado Springs earlier in the year. This is a guy a saw all the time in the homeless "areas" while riding some of my normal routes, so I thought - meeting Virgil was part of my cycling adventures and warrants a place here on my site.
Here's the story:
It was cold crisp Colorado morning and I started this project with the intent to go down and capture some of the protesters in the park and the “sad” was how our country has turned so soft with “everyone’s a winner” attitude that these folks forgot how to actually lose. When I got to the park where this “huge” protest was supposed to take place, all I saw a few well dressed people in their fancy winter coats carrying signs of displeasure and two cops making sure it stayed peaceful - boring!
However, that was not all that I saw there. On the outer edge of the park was a few of our resident homeless wandering around trying to see what was going on. I’m fairly confident that they didn’t have a clue. Furthermore, when I looked at these two contrasting groups - the entitled privileged and the depraved underprivileged - I thought to my self, which was more sad?
Well the homeless of course; or so I thought!
Then I remember this guy I used to see all the time when riding through the parks and trails. While Colorado Springs has over 1,400 homeless people, this guy really stood out. I wanted to know who he was, what was his story. I drove around the block to find a good place to park and observe the homeless and see if he would show up at his normal spot. Sitting in my truck in a parking lot across the street from the local soup kitchen (next to the park), I saw him, this gentleman's gentleman on a bench; dressed for the part, crutches to one side leaning up against his bags and backpacks, the whole works. I don’t exactly know what it was about him, sitting amongst a couple of dozen other homeless; but this man, big, bold, strong, dirty and distant - something about him compelled me to want to know more. I took out the big gun, a 200-500mm lens on my D500 DX crop body and started shooting, watching - good shots I thought to myself. I felt good about what I had captured - this is defiantly a man of many stories.
That night going through the photos looking for that “one” shot for this project, I started noticing he was tinkering with something. A closer look reviled something that looked like an old cassette walkman?
I had my photo, I’m good, right. But i didn't know anymore about him that I did before, and then there was that radio thing that kept bugging me. All day Saturday I felt like there was unfinished business. What was it about this guy, he’s just another statistical homeless person, or was he? I needed to know more, I had to know more. So that Saturday, I picked up a new portable radio at Walmart-Mart - clearly that old walkman he had had seen better days - even though I had my photo I didn't have my story and I felt that some sort "offering" was in order I was going to get to know more. Call it guilt in that I may be using him, or guilt that I am in a better “life position” than him; or my photojournalists need to just know more about who he was. Ah, I'll use it as an ice breaker, or a peace offering for disrupting is day. Either way, this was the way in!
Colorado Springs has over a thousand homeless people, what mad me think that I would ever find this guy again? But I had to try. I know some of his normal hangouts, so that morning I headed back to the soup kitchen, radio and extra batteries in hand - I needed to know more about him and I needed some closure before I could use his photo. As I made the loop around the block - there he was sitting in the exact same place he was two days ago - as though he had never left.
Please meet Virgil
A world traveler in his own right (he did mention that he made to Acapulco once). I introduced myself as a local photographer and seen him in random places while riding my bike. I mentioned that I had taken a couple of shots of him the Friday before and noticed that he was trying to get his walkman to work. He stated "it was taken away form him and tossed into a puddle". I mentioned I felt that it was fair that if I was going to use his photo that I should pay for it and offered him the radio I purchased the day before. He smiled the biggest smile, reached out his hand, not to take the radio but to shake my had and introduce him self as Virgil. No matter what life experiences and difficulties he may have seen - respect is one thing that has not eluded him.
We got to chatting, or should I say he got to chatting. The stories, blurbs of his life on the road and on the railroad tracks - here, there, this guy was everywhere. I asked if he minded if I take a couple more shots - he was so appreciative that someone new was listening to his stories, he didn’t care what I was doing, he actually encouraged it. Oh, the stories this man has! We talked about how he lost all his fingers on his left had in a gardening accident in Canada. I asked about his foot (the one that was missing) he mentioned it was an accident on a train. He was standing on a coupler between two box cars when the train backed up to couple them together - his foot was caught in-between and was smashed; he lost everything but his heel.
I asked him “why Colorado” and his answer was rather simple - between Acapulco, Alaska, Canada, Georgia and Main - Colorado was the most dangerous, he said with a smile! He mentioned that he actually hates Colorado, but between the brutal homeless people here and the extreme winters, he does not get comfortable or complacent. He said that’s how you die; to survive, you must “stay awake and alert” that’s why Colorado! Frick'n crazy right? But his instinct to stay alive, not so crazy.
The one thing that kept sticking in my mind the whole time I listened to him was how happy he actually seemed to be, smiling and laughing as he described how he has lived a full life. Not one that you or I may define as full, but one that he does. So I ask you, sad - did I get this right or did Virgil?
My time with Virgil was coming to an end, the dinner bell from the Soup Kitchen was ringing. I did give him some extra cash (I always do when photographing the homeless) for allowing me to hear his story and take additional photos. As street photographers - we typical are out there to record what’s going on in our neighborhood - I encourage that you do the same, safely. Go outside find a story - tell that story - not only with light but with words. And if you uses a photo or two from someone underprivileged, compensate them for it - it’s the right thing to do!