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After Afghanistan

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HOMELESS VETERANS HOUSING FIRST
Debbi Smirnoff via Getty Images

I don't know why I thought that weak, warmed-up coffee from yesterday was going to do it for me this morning. So I dumped it in the sink, got on my bike more or less as I had gotten out of bed, and headed for work. Passing La Boulange on Hayes, my usual route, I saw a skinny, old, homeless guy with a guitar sitting at a table outside with his stuff. I biked about two blocks past, then thought, "The hell with it. I'm going to buy me a cup of coffee there and buy him one too." I turned around and rode back.

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"Get you a coffee if you'll let me take a picture of you," I said to the guy, and he brightened up.

"Can you make it a hot chocolate?" he asked. "And don't I know you from somewhere?"

They all say that. Inside the bakery, another guy joined us on line, who also claimed we'd met. At first glance, a slightly rumpled hipster in his 40s, confident of his charm; at second -- he was definitely sleeping in the street. His face too red, his eyes too wild and an eight-inch gash in the seat of his jeans that showed his bare, white ass.

He held out a plate of hot bread pudding he'd just bought, and said, "There's enough for two."

Outside on the sidewalk I gave the guy with the guitar his hot chocolate and a ham and cheese croissant. Out of habit he stashed the croissant in his bag.

"Eat it now," I urged, "while it's hot." Obediently he retrieved it and took a few bites that did not seem to register in his senses. Then he sat down again and played some godawful notes. Words came out of his mouth distractedly, as if they were lost.

The younger guy -- Mark, he said his name was -- followed us out. Setting his purchase down on a cafe table, he faced me and unleashed a flood of information. He was an opera singer, a professional writer. He was selling carpet for Ikea. He had four dollars left. He knew exactly where to get a new pair of pants -- was the rip indecent? He was a lawyer, no, he didn't say that. He was going to take the LSATS: It was just a test and he had passed many tests. He had never been married, but he had lived with women; was HIV negative; and why didn't a woman like me have a ring on my finger, was I a lipstick lesbian? And where was I from, anyway, he asked, his blue eyes burning into mine. Vassar?

Why yes, I said, astonished. In fact. Vassar.

His gaze fixed even harder on me then, as if calculating a social divide that would once not have existed.

"I went out with a girl from Vassar once," he said. "Hundred fifty IQ at least; Aspergers. One minute we're in love and the next it was, 'Who the hell are you? Get out of here.'

I know the power you've got in that noggin," he said darkly.

His language was more eloquent than I can convey and was the only reason I kept listening: a freeform rant on the cusp of brilliance and madness, both courtly and volatile. There was critical information in there, and poetry. I felt that if my attention wandered for even for a second, I might miss a prophetic gem that would cost me my future. His eyes scanned me like a cyborg.

"Barukh atah Adonai, Eloheinu, melekh ha'olam," he murmured to me, as if Hebrew were code.

Seeing my eyes widen, he told me he knew who I was; indeed, this claim was gaining ground. "Why do you sublimate? Why do you suppress? Let it flow; let it go," he advised fiercely; and I felt the power of that suggestion, dangerously, believing or wanting to believe that yes, I could blow my life up or bust it wide open, break up, break out, be more. It followed from my very act of doing a 180, not 10 minutes ago.

He had been a medic in the Marines, he said; got back from Afghanistan years ago. They had filled his head with "everything you find out there on the streets."

"It stays with you," he said. "It makes room in your head; you have to make room."

They're sending the rest of them home now, he said. Not in 2016 but now; they're already arriving.

"Few weeks, few months, there are going to be a lot more of us on the streets," he announced. "Thousands of vets with heads that don't fit their bodies."

He was Mark Chadwick Adams, and he had once been a beautiful boy. He said I could find him on YouTube. That he would be taking the LSATs next week. He was not afraid.

He lifted my heavy bike out of the rack and set it up for me to get on my way. "That bike is too big for you," he said, like a boyfriend, a boyfriend who might care.

I rode to work, looked him up and did not find anything about him on YouTube. But Mark Chadwick Adams, Esquire, would have been a very good title for him, I thought, in another life that had not turned.