He is beautiful, the color of caramel candy. Seventy years old, he stands easily over six feet tall. A white gray beard frames his face and ropey locks the same color hang down his back.
He is barefoot and shirtless always, dressed only in jean shorts, cut high on the side like a loin cloth, exposing toned, fit legs.
He’s a fixture in my Adams Morgan neighborhood. I have seen him around for years always from the safe distance of my car –high arched feet, toes splayed and leather like, seemingly immune to the hot summer pavement.
His name is Elijah. Our paths crossed one Sunday at the drumming circle in Malcolm X Park, near my home in Washington, DC.
Speaking with him, I learned he is not homeless. The last two years he has lived in a small, single room apartment with a cook stove, refrigerator and bathroom. And before that he lived as a “nomad” on a religious quest “houseless by choice,” he says, for 35 years.
Friends have asked why I accepted his invitation for coffee. Curious, maybe. Intrigued too by his freedom from striving and my belief that wisdom, growth and learning can come from anyone.
“How is this coffee thing going to work?” I asked glancing at his semi-nudity and noticing for the first time that Elijah is missing most of his teeth. He slid a draw string bag off his shoulder. In it was a tee shirt and sandals, his entry uniform into the world where the rest of us reside.
We exchanged cell numbers. I suggested we meet at Potter’s House, a nearby café with an eclectic clientele and a pay what you can option on the menu.
Elijah and I have met several times now at Potter’s House, laughing and talking on each occasion for an hour or two. He insists on paying for my bowl of oatmeal, coffee or carton of juice. “I know you’re on a budget,” he says, after he learned I wasn’t working.
Elijah lives on $500 out of the $900 a month he gets in veteran’s benefits. He told me he spends $150 in subsidized rent, $35 on his cell phone, $40 on his internet hot spot subscription, and the remaining $275 on electricity and food. “I don’t spend any money on clothes,” he says laughing. Out of his $900 monthly income, he sets aside $400 each month in savings and has done so for years.
Our interaction is easy and effortless. Friends have expressed concern about my safety with a friend like Elijah. Others have worried that he might try to hit on me and become a pest. But there is no “boy-girl” energy in our interaction at all. Mostly, I don’t feel judged or sized up. Elijah has no interest in my education, work history or any of my props and credentials, for that matter.
We talk about our respective lives, how I’m doing and what is going on in his world. He cracked up when I told him how I never walk in the grass after stepping in dog doo barefoot when I was ten and my horror the time I stepped out of jeep in a village in Niger, up to my ankles in camel dung, goat pellets, horse excrement and who knows what else.
Occasionally, Elijah ventures off grid into some unfamiliar mental space. “Elijah, I can’t follow you there,” I say like when he told me “shape shifting” would one day regrow his teeth. “I know, I know,” he says smiling. “One day you’ll understand.”
Early on, I asked him if a friendship with him required that I agree with him. “Of course not,” he said looking at me with wholehearted eyes, head tilted to the side.
From the astonished gaze of onlookers, I know we make an odd pair walking down Columbia Avenue back to my car. Elijah gives me a quick hug before heading off barefoot to his “office” in Lafayette Park across the street from the White House.