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Personalities

A Good Day To Be Alive

A conversation about life as a wino, the effects of war, heroin, Shiner, marriage and pornography, horseplay and jail, and the amount of muscles it takes to frown, between William and Sarah Hepola.

On this one corner near my house, you can find a video store, two pizza parlors, a head shop, and William.

‘It’s a good day to be alive,’ William says. He waves with both hands. He sits here on most afternoons, drinking vodka and soda, greeting people as they pass.

‘You staying out of trouble?’ he might ask.

‘You got a smile for me?’ he might ask.

He never asks for money, which is probably why I give him some.

‘Thanks, beautiful,’ William says. I like that he calls me beautiful. Of course, William is mostly blind.

William’s missing his front teeth, and his eyes are cloudy with cataracts. ‘This one’s no good at all,’ he says pointing to the left eye, which rolls off to the side. ‘And the other one’s about to go.’

He sits here most afternoons—‘the resident tramp,’ he calls himself. Austin is filled with dead-eyed drunks and pretty dreadlocked boys begging for change near campus and downtown, but William is different somehow. People know him. People keep an eye out for him.

‘You drinking your Ensure?’ asks a woman, a motherly type William’s known for years.

‘Every morning,’ says William. ‘I keep it stashed back there. Those winos wouldn’t drink it anyway. There’s no alcohol in it.’

‘I know everybody here,’ William says after she leaves. ‘I been washing the windows here for 14 years. I probably been on this corner for 12. And I never once had a complaint. If I drink a little too much, I’ll get out of the way, go around back. I don’t want to embarrass myself or anyone else.’ Around back is where William sleeps, behind the stores on a narrow strip of land between dumpster and parking lot. The shop owners give him food if he needs it, take care of him. And in his own way, he takes care of them too.

‘Hey, William, you got a cigarette?’ An employee from the pizza parlor crouches beside William. He’s a college kid, wearing a blue knit cap and a psychedelic Jimi Hendrix T-shirt.

‘Sure, sure.’ William beats out the pack and hands the kid one. ‘Coolo mundo shirt, man.’

It is Thursday morning, the day after we started bombing Iraq, and everyone’s faces are heavy with sighs. ‘Man,’ says the kid, shaking his head, ‘This war sucks.’

‘I’m against it,’ says William. ‘Because I have yet to see one example of these so-called weapons of mass destruction. I’m against war anyway. I did two tours in Vietnam. I seen what war does. Tears lives apart. Sometimes I think I drink just to forget it. I know if I drink enough, I can sleep without nightmares.’

‘Did you drink more after you got back?’ I ask.

He nods. ‘Did more drugs too. Cocaine, heroin.’

A man in a uniform pushes a keg of Shiner across the parking lot toward the pizza parlor. ‘You can drop that right here,’ William tells him. We all laugh. ‘Got him, didn’t I?’ William smiles.

‘Take it easy, William,’ says the kid as he heads back to work. ‘Stay warm.’

‘You too, brother,’ says William. ‘He’s a cool kid.’

Even though the afternoons are mostly warm air and sunshine, last night was too windy for William to sleep outside, so the owner of the adult video store lets him sleep in one of their private viewing rooms.

‘They let you watch the pornos?’ I ask.

William rolls his eyes. ‘I’m a happily married man.’

His wife is in jail, serving the last two months of her sentence for assault. They were drunk in Hyde Park one night when his wife—he calls her ‘mama’—yanked too hard on William’s belt loop, and he toppled to the ground, bashing his head. ‘I told her, mama, you can’t be acting like that. They don’t treat us the same as other people. She was just horseplaying, but you make a mistake, you’re gonna pay.’ By the time she gets out, William’s hoping he’ll be in a low-rent motor court a few miles from where we sit now. ‘I’m done with this,’ he says. ‘I’m ready to retire.’ But it’s hard to get enough money for the deposit. It’s hard to give up anything you’ve been doing for 20 years, no matter how wretched.

‘How come you’ve stayed out here so long?’ I ask.

‘I’m injured,’ he says. ‘And because I’m an alcoholic.’

William tells me that before he became homeless, he was a contractor. ‘You wouldn’t believe how much money I made.’ He tells me stories of first wives and second wives, of an Audi every year, a daughter in Germany he talks to on Christmas. ‘She’s a doctor, but she works with the homeless,’ he says. ‘Doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke. Never heard her once cuss.’ Maybe it’s what he wants to believe, or maybe it’s the truth. Who can know what sends a person’s life rattling off the rails? What things they’ve seen? I don’t know William—I didn’t even know his name till today, when I finally stopped by to introduce myself. I’d been sitting at home alone and going crazy with war reports—reading the paper, watching TV, reading a different paper, watching a different channel. All I wanted was a walk and some blue sky. That’s when I passed William.

‘You always have a smile on your face,’ I told him.

‘That’s cause I’m lazy,’ he said. ‘I read once in Reader’s Digest that it takes 17 muscles to frown and three to smile, and I’m lazy.’

‘I come into this video store all the time,’ I tell him, ‘and it’s always nice to see you sitting here.’

‘It’s always nice to see you too,’ he says, and I feel somehow honored by that.

‘I wondered if I could sit down with you for a while,’ I say.

‘You’re welcome to share my corner anytime.’

‘I’m Sarah,’ I say.

‘I’m William.’ He extends his arm, and I place my hand in his.

‘William, how’s it going?’

He smiles. ‘It’s a good day to be alive.’