I met James last winter at the Cheshire Bridge Waffle House. Not 20, he was standing outside in a grimy gray hoodie, his hands shoved into his pockets. He pressed himself against the window, probably to warm his skinny frame. He smiled and I waved. He was soon standing by my table.
“You look hungry,” I said.
“You look lonely,” he said.
I laughed. “Yeah, I am, but not in that way.”
I offered him dinner. “You’re homeless, aren’t you?” I asked. He tore into a burger. “So where do you stay?” He looked annoyed. “I stay out of view,” he said. Like hundreds of other youths who lead such lives, he had been kicked out of his home for being gay. He thanked me for dinner and disappeared while I paid the check. But he came back in and whispered, “I miss my dog. I think he died.” I said I was sorry. “Would you mind if I used your phone to call my mom?”
He cried during the call. His dog had indeed died and his mother was begging him to come home to Northeast Georgia. He said his stepfather made that impossible and hung up. He ran out the door.
A few months later, I stopped for lunch at Taqueria del Sol. James was in the parking lot. He looked very sick. “You’ve got to get help,” I said. He told me he had nothing to eat and that drugs were devouring him. “What can I do?” I asked. He said he needed money. I gave him $20. I offered to take him to Lost-n-Found, an organization that provides assistance to homeless gay kids. Or I could take him to Grady Hospital or even his mother’s home. I pointed to the branch of Peachtree Creek that runs under the bridge near there.
“I got arrested down there when I was 30,” I said. “I was drunk and hiding from the police. They chased me with dogs and hauled me to jail. The worst part was that I ended up having to move back in with my disapproving parents while I got sober.”
“You were a Cheshire Bridge pioneer!” he said. “I know lots of guys — and geese! — who hang out down there. There’s a sewage plant somewhere. I’d rather be in sewage than at home.”
Saturday, I parked in front of my longtime favorite, Havana Sandwich Shop. I watched two head-bobbing geese step onto Buford Highway. I ran onto the road, signaling northbound drivers to stop. The birds waddled to the median. Then they made a step back after the traffic started to move. I looked away in terror, expecting to see them slaughtered. But then they crossed into the four southbound lanes. The traffic came to a complete stop and the birds were soon foraging in a tiny patch of green next to a commercial building. A staffer told me that they had seen a lot of apparently lost birds since new construction began on the edge of the huge space containing the creek on Cheshire Bridge where James hung out.
Children have always been the most oppressed group in America. They have no rights. We hunt them with wartime weapons. They have the highest infant mortality rate and growing incidence of food insecurity in the developed world. The CHIP program, guaranteeing healthcare for poor kids, became a Republican pawn in the last budget negotiations.
My phone rang yesterday. It was James’ mother. She found my number on her phone. Had I seen him? Not in months. I imagined him resting under a bridge. I imagined him vanishing, maybe lifting a green goose feather and rubbing it against his face as if it were the touch of love. Our city may be booming, but the growing homeless young, like the displaced geese, are harbingers of the inescapably dark shadow that uncompassionate capitalism casts. It can be different. Please contribute money and donate time to Lost-n-Found Youth and the Atlanta Community Food Bank.