by Alessandra Cuccia
April 2008

It was 9:00 on a Saturday night, and, like other Marymount students, I was waiting for the shuttle to arrive at the Ballston Metro. There was a cool breeze and you could tell the sun had just set by the temperature of the concrete when you sat down. It was a calm and peaceful night, with traffic settling down, and fewer people walking by. Seconds after I sat down on the warm steps to wait, a man walked up to me. I could tell he was of Spanish descent. His clothes were ordinary: a black ripped shirt, blue jeans that almost fit him. He was barefoot, and his hair probably hadn’t been washed in days, if not longer. The wrinkles on his face looked like the indentions on a brain. He had hope in his eyes, the city in his heart, and only alcohol in his stomach.

Hundreds of Marymount students, business men and women, and ordinary people pass through the Ballston Metro area daily, whether to catch the shuttle, get on the metro bus or train, or run into the 7-11 for necessities. Not many of them stop to take a look around at the crowd, except for this man. His name is Gustavo, and he sees the same people day after day, but no one ever sees him.

“Living in America is one of the greatest feelings in the world,” he said to me. I could hardly understand him through the slurring and mumbling. His Spanish accent didn’t help either. As he sat on the concrete step next to me somberly playing his guitar, the wrinkles around his eyes and mouth became unbelievably soft. He relaxed and took a drag of his cigarette. “So what’s your name?” he said with an inquisitive tone. “Alehandra!” he screamed after adding a Spanish accent to my name, Alessandra. “Well, Alehandra let me tell you something.” I could tell I was the only person he had talked to in days, just an overload of thoughts waiting to be released to someone, anyone. “In this world, you never know what will happen. Look at me, I am a good person, have been all my life, but for some reason the good Lord keeps throwing me curve balls.” At that point, I was ready to just say, “Sorry, I don’t have any money, maybe some other time,” but he never asked. Gustavo just kept talking in a thick, mumbling South American/alcoholic accent.

Born in Peru and living in America for 35 years, Gustavo shines shoes for a living on 14th Street in downtown Washington, D.C. He usually sleeps somewhere in the Ballston Metro area. Sympathetic, I ask, “Where is your family? Why don’t you have anywhere to sleep?” His eyes grew huge, to the size of the sun in the middle of summer. He said, “Oh my family! They live in Ashenberry, you know, out West some. Well, I go there sometimes, but there is no freedom. Here, if I want to wake up at 3:00 in the afternoon, I can. It might be on a stoop somewhere, but I can. If I want to walk around all day playing the guitar and singing, well there’s no job here, nothing to stop me. That’s the real secret to life, freedom.” As I sat and thought about what he had just said, he lifted a 40-ounce Hurricane from under his shirt and took a sip, with the lid still on.

After figuring out how to open the bottle, Gustavo turned to me again: “Freedom, it’s the best you know, it’s easy being me.” Then he lit another cigarette and continued. “Except in the mornings, it’s very hard to be me. It’s cold in the mornings; people don’t smile as much as they do during the day. The sun is not out and shining. I really don’t like the mornings.” He never invited pity. Gustavo felt that everyone had obstacles in life, some more than others. He just felt that Jesus Christ gave him more because he is a stronger person than most, except for the alcohol problem. As he explains, “Jesus watches over every one of us, whether you believe in him or not. It is not a matter of believing in him; it’s a matter of believing in yourself.” I was shocked at Gustavo’s words, just a simple, ordinary struggling man but with so much passion and understanding of life. This prophet-like homeless man was either insane or a genius.

He slowly started to play a song. With a flamenco singer background, most of what he sang was in Spanish. The sound of his voice was like a male Janis Joplin, raspy and strong. He strummed the guitar beautifully, and his gift was obvious. I asked him why he didn’t play for money around Washington. He quickly replied, “Because Alehandra, I play for me. Money is not the most important thing. Some of the happiest people in this world, including me, are poor, but we are happy, and that’s what really matters.” After another philosophical speech, he leaned over and whispered, “Because you can’t take it with you.”

Most people walk past Gustavo in disgust, thinking only: “Oh that nasty beggar; all he wants is my money.” Very few have actually sat down and had a conversation with someone living on the streets. Gustavo is a content, happy man. He might not have material things like money, clothes, or a car, but he is still optimistic and he still has hope – except in the mornings.

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