Three meditations on homelessness

He sits near a mural in the alley that says TAX THE RICH. He asks for quarters. (Has he learned this is easier than dollars?) I have three and give them to him.

How jarring, still, after living all this life, to still experience a small shock when skipping pleasantries and going straight to an urgent need. He does not have the luxury of taking the long conversational way around. I wish he did, so I could be more comfortable.

We speak easily of Greyhound buses (I have never ridden one but I read stories of people who do) and he keeps speaking, perhaps for the money but perhaps just for the conversation.

It seems he could talk to me forever and not mind at all; I have more money, more time, but I want to leave. “I have to go, it was nice meeting you.”

He looks disappointed in me. I am too.

///

At the intersection, a man asks cars for money. Help. God bless, his sign says.

“Here, Caleb. Give this to the man.” My dad fishes a dollar bill out of his pocket and hands it to my youngest brother. Then, a bit of coaching. “When we pull up to the stop sign, hand him the bill.”

We are not alone in our charity: A white car with black windows pulls up next to us, not slowing to a complete stop. A hand comes from the darkness of the car with a dollar bill between fingers. There is a miscommunication, or carelessness, and the hand lets go of the dollar bill before the man has grabbed it, and it is swept up in a gust of wind.

The man chases his gift next to our car. He bends closer to the ground, hands outstretched, grasping at the fluttering bill, which twists and spins in the air away from him — as if whatever his original struggle was is not enough — as if even the dollar is conspiring against him — while the cars at the intersection wait. It is his living, after all.

Meanwhile, my brother waits by our window with his dollar, watching for his chance.

Eventually: “We don’t want to hold up traffic,” my father says.

“At this point, we’d be doing him more harm than good,” my mother says.

We leave him chasing the one dollar.

I wish — what for? — a wallet full of money? Something solid to give him that wouldn’t blow away? Or simply for a windless day where nothing would be snatched away from him?

///

“Please, do you have anything to spare — ”

“No.”

She hears it a thousand times a day. Still. It is the coldest it has ever sounded coming from my mouth.

An icy disinvolvement. Not hard to swallow. No aftertaste.

And most of all: no pain.

And I think: it could be that easy, every time.

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