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I didn't know Jack about homeless neighbor

Jack is one of the many homeless people who have taken up residence on the ventilation grates and storefronts up and down the streets surrounding my apartment. Sometimes he offers up jokes for money (although after four 25-cent donations, I expect his repertoire to extend beyond "How do you make a tissue dance? You put a little boogie in it!"). Sometimes he decorates the ground with various stick figures, happy faces and other beautifying art, an act I'm always willing to reward, given the urine- and cigarette-butt-covered state of downtown Berkeley's sidewalks. Sometimes he just sits there with a shrug and a smile, bereft of contributions, asking people to give because they can. I've walked past Jack several times a week for two school years now; he's become as integral to the scenery as the alternative bookstore on the corner (it doesn't have "The Da Vinci Code," but if you want to know how to pierce your own nipple, or the history of bisexuality, you've come to the right place), or the wafting smells of French food and old garbage that mix not altogether unpleasantly. But this Friday, I ran into Jack at the movies.

"Jack!" I said, recognizing his brown trench coat and wiry silver hair (I have a lot of spare time, and calling yourself a writer gives you an excuse to wander around the streets, getting on a first-name basis with homeless people, gas station attendants, street musicians). "What are you doing here?"

"I'm seeing a movie," he said, declaring the self-evident. There was a brief pause as I contemplated how I could formulate my next question -- but how? -- without offending him. Noticing my hesitation (and probably taking into account my donations to his art and masterful joke telling), Jack took pity on me.

"I save up all week. Eat a little less on Monday, don't drink coffee. I like movies," he said simply. "It's warm. It's an escape."

I thought about this as I sat in my heated apartment, wallowing in melancholic depression (once again, I'm a writer, it's allowed). This was the first fall semester that I didn't have a winter vacation to look forward to -- or rather I did, but this time it didn't involve Brazilian beaches or snow-covered European castles. This time, I was stuck in Berkeley. I've always justified my traveling to my dad by saying, like Jack and his movies, that traveling was my priority. My friends spent their excess money on massages and manicures; I let my nails go ragged and booked flights to far-flung places. This year, though, there would be no manicures, and going without wasn't enough to go away. There just wasn't enough money.

I sat around, stuck in a gloom that couldn't be remedied by even the best booger jokes. "What do I do?" I whined to my friend Jessica. "I can't stay here. I have nothing to look forward to."

"I've never even left California," Jessica said. "You look at your pictures and you feel lucky, that's what you do. And you get over it."

And because I was bored and because I just like looking at myself, I took her advice. I watched myself walking like an Egyptian in front of the pyramids, getting soaked by the spray of an Argentine waterfall, stuffing copious quantities of pastries into my mouth in Portugal. Wow, I thought, this is me. I've been to these places. And I was surprised when I saw Jack leave his corner.

I put on my coat and went to the pastry shop down the block, where I bought two croissants. Then I found Jack, selling his jokes for a nickel a piece. "Hey, Jack," I said. "We're going to France." I shook the brown paper pastry bag at him. "And then I'm going to take you to a movie."

Liz Moody, a 2004 graduate of Johansen High School, is a student at the University of California at Berkeley. She can be reached at lizmoody@berkeley.edu.

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