Dedicated to my friend Johnny

My friend Johnny taught me about the power of story to build friendships. We met some years ago, when I was doing fieldwork in graduate school. He was an elderly man who was staying at a men’s homeless shelter, a community I had come to know over two years of research.

While a lot of my conversations with people then tended to remain at a surface level, my rapport with Johnny developed rapidly. We usually met at the shelter. He would invite me to sit outside with him on the periphery of the building. It became a shared space for us, neither fully outside nor inside, and this allowed us to just sit and share time together in a sort of liminal space.

We talked about the world around us, as well as our personal circumstances and struggles. He’d speak about his disability, his desire to move away, and the distance he felt between himself and the other residents at the shelter. Johnny told me about his past and about the era when he “jammed to Clapton.” He spoke about the foods he cooked and the family and friends he once had, about his life in the past and the life he wanted for his future. As we got to know each other better, his speech seemed to become more natural, even exuberant. He began to share funny moments from his life.

One day, after a more formal interview, I turned off my recorder and we sat on a bench watching people go by. He started to tell me how the trees reminded him of a place up in the Black Mountains, a range in Yancey and Buncombe counties in North Carolina. I began to imagine the mountains and parks from my home in Scotland. By swapping stories, we had moved beyond researcher and interviewee. He told me I was his only friend.

From that moment on, I listened even more attentively, taking fuller notice of the ways these conversations were revealing more than just answers to my questions. His stories seemed to offer a way for him to talk through and make sense of his personal challenges, and perhaps counter the internalized stigma of homelessness. They helped him dream of a better life. As we talked, new possibilities began to unfold for both of us. I came to realize that Johnny’s stories were not entirely unlike my own or other people’s—people with homes, like students and professors. I came to see stories as a sort of currency to use in building relationships with the other people in my life.

One day Johnny told me: “When I get out of the shelter, I won’t be comfortable until I can get a place and start drawing money. Wherever I end up, I want to go back to Black Mountain.” On Thanksgiving Day, I went to find Johnny at the shelter to share a meal. We never had it—that day I learned he had left the shelter. Someone said that he had gone back up to the mountains. Having no way to contact Johnny, I felt a sense of personal loss. I wished I had come to see him sooner. As his friend, I can only hope that wherever he is, he has found home.

By Kiran Singh Sirah
Executive Director