Yesterday, I behaved totally out of character.
I live in a quaint New England town, with cobblestone walk ways on Main Street and an acre lot in the middle of it all known as ‘The Green’. The Green sports a gazebo, fir trees along the edge, benches to rest on and in nice weather our handful of homeless citizens. Our mayor recently declared that she would work tirelessly to relocate these people. She plans to close the small shelter and the soup kitchen. She was able to obtain the backing for this charter- I will assume by utilising the towns folk who see this group as an eyesore. I dislike her and her platform and will vote a resounding ‘No!’ in the coming election.
I had mailed a package at our local post office which sits adjacent to The Green. Heading toward my car, I notice eight people, six men and two women, sitting in the autumn sun on a variety of tattered blankets. I recognised several in this group, as I have seen them about town… often sitting on a street curb. Included was a gentleman known only as, Tree Man. He tends to be forever starring upward as if he sees an item of interest in the tree tops. Putting one foot in front of the other, it seemed that my feet were involuntarily taking me to that bunch. I will admit that I was feeling anxious as I was unsure of my intentions and unsure as to how they would react to my presence. I pointed to a nearby bench and asked, “May I?”
A middle- aged woman wearing filthy khaki pants and a layer of sweatshirts and jackets quipped, “It’s a free world”. I began my little soliloquy, aware that many eyes were suspiciously on me;
“I’ve been reading about our mayor trying to displace you. If you are comfortable speaking with me, I have lots of questions.” Two of the eight nodded their heads, so I was off and running.
We talked for a good two hours and covered a myriad of topics. I learned that all but Tree Man had addiction issues and that a few are still active. One young man, who looked particularly ill- pale, thin, tremulous and hoarse, shared with me that our town has a serious heroin problem and that he shoots up several times a day. He receives a state check for a mental illness disability and that check is delivered to a buddy’s apartment which is close by. He also panhandles and shoplifts for the means to get his drugs. “What can I tell ya? I say live and let live.” he concluded.
A grey- haired woman who looked to be in her sixties was actually only forty-one. She obsessively picked at a spot on her face. It appeared that this was a habit as her skin was potted and scarred. “I’d love to go south,” she said. “These cold winters just about kill me every year. The shelter kicks us out at six and we aren’t let back in until seven. What the fuck?” she continued, “the place is empty all day and we’re out here freezing or roasting. I think it’s cuz they want us to suffer… to not be dependent on them, ya know? When that bitch closes the shelter I’m heading for like Georgia, I think. Florida has too many fucking mosquitoes.”
Occasionally, I would glance over at Tree Man who had yet to speak. I speculated that he may possibly suffer from schizophrenia and that he starred skywards not due to a neck injury, but as a self-soothing technique.
The second of the two females looked to be in her twenties. She was obese and would pull at her shirt that was too small to try and cover her belly. She wore no outer garment on this brisk day, yet had on two knit hats under a ball cap. She said little. She did, however have an infectious smile and I found myself drawn to her. “Marie” she answered when I asked of her name. “Ya know, I was like an abused kid, ya know and ran away when I was like fifteen. Ya know, I mean, it sucked, but this sucks too, ya know?”
Tree Man stood and walked over to the gazebo which was decorated with all things autumnal. He slid the front of his pants down and began urinating on a large pumpkin. “Geez man” shouted Jim. “Every time you do that someone sees you and it really ain’t cool. Go behind the deli…geez.”
“Leave him alone, man,” stated the young addict. “He’s like a retard and he won’t change. Just fuck off.”
“Tell me to fuck off one more time and I’ll spit in your spaghetti.” answered Jim. Everyone laughed and it was obvious I was left out of that joke. Tree Man returned, wiping his hands on his soiled sweater. He laid down on his section of the blanket and did a dozen pushups.
An older man, whom I believe was named Pauli, had been sleeping and snoring since shortly after I had arrived. He would have fits of coughing, roll over and resume his noise. “I swear he has pneumonia” a thirty-something lady named Sue stated. “He won’t go to the E.R. though… old fool.” This woman appeared to be the keeper of the cigarettes. Approximately, every 45 minutes she would pass a pack around with a book of matches tucked inside.
And so it went. We talked about President Obama, the Viet Nam War, AIDS, homosexuality and God. For Jim, Jesus is the be all and end all. He quoted scripture and crossed himself repeatedly. He has faith that his Savior is guiding him on this journey. The one topic that they all shied away from was that of their former lives. Several spoke well, appeared to be educated and could debate with the best of them. Tree Man uttered just four words during the course of my visit. “Eat shoe polish, please,” was whispered during a moment of silence. Two of the guys thought that was absolutely hysterical and rolled about laughing on the once pink blanket.
I desperately needed a bathroom and was not keen on taking a visit behind the deli. I stood, stretched and thanked them, shaking all but Pauli’s sleeping hand.
“Got any extra money?” a henceforth rather quiet man asked. He wore a pink knit cap with braided yarn tassels that hung down the sides. “He’s gay,” offered Jim when he noticed my stare. I was truly embarrassed that my leer had been obvious. I told the pink-hatted man so. “No problem, it’s cool,” he answered softly. Remaining quiet when we had spoken about homosexuality, he barely flinched when Jim launched into the Catholic churches’ doctrine on this topic. “If God says it’s a sin, then damn, it’s a sin.”
My wallet was in my locked car, but I didn’t want to give anyone cash. I had heard that was a bad idea as it often went towards alcohol or drugs.
“Will you guys still be here in forty-five minutes, an hour?” I asked.
“Not me,” chuckled the young man. “I have a date with the mayor’s daughter.”
I did return in about an hour. Three grocery bags held eight submarine sandwiches, a bag of apples, a bag of baby carrots, a 2 liter bottle of soda, a gallon of milk and a pack of cigarettes. I had spent well over $150 and my rent is due soon.
I was, however, keenly aware of the following; “But for the grace of God, go I.”
“There is a lot that happens around the world we cannot control. We cannot stop earthquakes, we cannot prevent droughts, and we cannot prevent all conflict, but when we know where the hungry, the homeless and the sick exist, then we can help.”
~ Jan Schakowsky