Posts Tagged ‘Homeless’

“I’m Sorry”

April 1, 2012

With my tax documents on the front seat of the CRV this morning, I drove to town. Mrs. Gordon was waiting for me at her apartment complex north of the city. She’s an elderly lady who retired from GE years ago, but prepares taxes to supplement her Social Security.

I hate the main drag north of town with its thirty traffic lights and twelve lanes, its strip malls hugging the highway, its allotment of daily accidents, so I try to avoid it. I took the off ramp from Rt. 250 onto Barracks Road. That’s where several of  the homeless people panhandle and sleep under the overpass.  The city clear cut the trees last year to discourage the vagrants from gathering in the undergrowth. The city put up no trespassing signs. The homeless population has decreased from this spot, but they are not extinct.

As I slowed at the traffic light there at the end of the off ramp, I noticed an older man with a slight frame. He wore a white goatee and his hair was a little long and tangled. He stood with his cardboard sign. “Trying to get to N.C.” it read. “Please help.”  I’d not seen him before. He was dressed in faded blue jeans and a brown button down shirt. He had no backpacks or duffle bags, only a fine tremor as he stood holding his small, square sign.

I pressed the button to lower my window and handed him a five dollar bill.  He took the money and said something to me, but I couldn’t hear him over the traffic sounds. He smiled though, and put the five in his front pants pocket. I looked up to see if the light was green and saw a city policemen walking toward the old man. I pointed out my window at the officer so the older man wouldn’t be surprised. I rolled up my window and started to pull away, the light had turned green.

The policeman held up his hand, stopping me, and motioned for me to roll my window back down.  I did.

“You know you are breaking the law,” he said, frowning at me.

“No, I didn’t.” I replied.

“He’s trespassing,” the policeman said, pointing to the old man, “and you are breaking the law by giving him money.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“He’s trespassing, you’re breaking the law, and you’re sorry,” the officer said, shaking his head and turning from me to the homeless man. I felt dismissed and pulled away.

Sometimes I wish I was one of those people who have quick come-backs. I never do. As I drove toward Mrs. Gordon’s apartment, my anger grew. I could feel its heat move from my stomach up to my chest and into my red face before my eyes began to water. I pounded the steering wheel and yelled inside the car for no one to hear, “I’m not sorry for breaking the law. I’m not sorry for giving someone five dollars that I worked for and can decide who and who not to give it to. I’m not sorry for rolling down my window to try to help someone.”

After dropping off my taxes and hugging Mrs. Gordon, I drove back the way I came. I hoped to see that police officer. I wanted to stop and talk with him. I wanted him to know how I felt.

I was ashamed of myself.   I wanted to let him know from my mouth what a disgrace I think it is to make a law that forbids someone from asking for help; and what a disgrace it is to make a law that forbids someone from trying to help. I realize he has to uphold the law, but I wanted to see a bit of compassion on his face. I wanted him to understand.  I wanted him to be sorry too. I wanted to know if he had ever been trying to get somewhere and needed someone to help him.

 

 

 

 

A Gift

December 28, 2011

The first time I saw her, she was sitting and talking with a homeless man who looked just like Jesus. They were outside Trilliman’s, an upscale bakery and sandwich place at the shopping center. Two small wrought iron tables with chairs were set up there for patrons to enjoy intimate talks over specialty coffees. It was hot that day. She and Jesus, in their layered clothing, had usurped the space and were sipping orange sport drinks purchased from a vending machine. A policeman ran them away from the establishment. Homeless people were not welcome.   I decided that day the woman must be an angel. She was by Jesus’ side and her frizzy white hair haloed her head. After that, no matter where I saw her wandering the streets with her grocery carts and shopping bags, or which homeless people she was with, I thought of her as the angel, a disciple of Jesus.

As I stepped from the door at work the week before Christmas, rain surprised me. It wasn’t forecasted. I covered my head with my purse and ran to the car. As the defroster blew warm air, it took the chill off.  I fished around in my pocket for the shopping list I’d scribbled at lunchtime. Sighing at all the gift buying I still had to do, I put the car in gear and resigned myself to fighting crowds before going home.

My youngest son had to have the latest style of sneakers. The ones he wore still fit, but according to his assessment, they were vintage. No one wore those kind anymore. The shoe store in the shopping center displayed the latest rage in sneakers in their weekly ad flier in the newspaper that morning. If I didn’t hurry, they’d all be gone and I’d be browsing ebay and bidding way past the true purchase price, with the addition of  express shipping to have them before the holiday. That gift was number one on my list.

The oldest boy had recently bought a used truck and was ‘pimping’ his ride. He talked non-stop about fender flares, grill guards, camouflage seat covers, fog lights, bed liners, and lift kits. I had lots of items to choose from and several automotive stores to visit.

My husband, the hardest man to buy for because he has everything, had mentioned sometime in the spring that he needed one of those battery rechargers and rechargeable batteries. The boys used his flashlight and left it on, killing the alkaline batteries. “Children,” he’d muttered. “They don’t appreciate the value of a dollar.”  The specialty store with the charger and batteries he needed was way over on the other side of town. Traffic was always horrific this time of year. I’d not get home until late. I was glad I’d put a beef roast in the crock pot to cook early that morning.  

I took my place in the line of cars at the traffic light leading to the main thoroughfare. In the distance, I spotted the angel.  It had been several months since I’d seen her last. She stood on the corner of Pine Street and Garrison Road. I recognized her immediately. She has a presence that makes you remember no matter how long it’s been. She seems to understand her direction without maps or a GPS, goes about her business with an unstated purpose; and I never see the troubles of this world reflected in her eyes. 

The rain came down hard enough to use my windshield wipers, and the angel didn’t have an umbrella or a hat. A bright yellow terrycloth headband spanned the area between her forehead and hair line. The ends of her hair drooped and dripped with the water which ran and soaked her Green Bay Packers windbreaker. The jacket was tucked into a pair of olive green army fatigues which were cinched at the waist with the sparkle of a silver sequined belt. Her pants legs disappeared into the tops of knee length black rubber boots sporting bright multi-colored polka-dots, the kind preppy college girls can’t wait for rainy days to wear. Mud from the North River Trail caked her boots. The angel had appeared street-side from the path in the woods where a small group of homeless people on this side of town congregate to commune and sleep at night.  

She was standing there at the intersection when the crosswalk sign changed offering her a safe passage. She didn’t take it. She stood there, holding her electric blue tote bag close to her chest. She peered into the car waiting for the light to change at the end of Pine, then she pecked on the passenger window with her index finger. She reached inside her bag, pulled something out and handed it to the person inside the car. She waved as the light turned green and the car pulled away from the curb. She stepped back and waited. The cars coming down Garrison got their green light and surged forward toward their destinations.

The first car sped past the angel close to the curb and through a puddle. A wave of rainwater crashed up onto the sidewalk and over the angel’s feet. The caked mud slid off onto the sidewalk, and she looked down at the colorful polka dots on her shiny wet boots. She smiled.

My light turned green after a minute, but the yellow one caught me before I could pull out into traffic. Cursing my fate under my breath, I sat staring at the now red light. I was first in line, but waiting again. I noticed movement to my right. The angel had come over close to my car. She pecked on my passenger door glass.

I pressed the button to lower the automatic window. It slid down halfway.  The angel reached into her tote and pulled out a plastic covered candy cane. She handed it to me.

“Merry Christmas,” she said.

As Luck Would Have It

August 23, 2011

I stand frowning at the old gas pump.  I stopped to fill up the Honda at the Royal Mart convenience store on the corner of West Broad Street and North Pickett Avenue in New Hope. Royal has cheaper gas than the service station over the mountain, closer to home. As luck would have it, they only take payment for gas inside, no credit at the pump.  Oh well, I’m thirsty anyway, so I walk inside to pay for the gas and grab a cold soda.  The temperature outside has topped ninety-eight and the humidity hangs on my shoulders. Even in the shade, taking breaths is like sucking in thick heat. 

As I walk back to the drink cooler, a tall, thin man staggers past me on his way to the front of the store. He brushes my shoulder. “Scuse me,” he slurs. The smell of beer on his breath is almost as strong as his body odor.  He grabs onto the display racks of cookies and potato chips, trying to balance on legs that are willing, but not able to hold him steady. He makes it to the front of the store, thumps the forty ounce bottle of cheap beer onto the wooden counter and asks for a pack of Marlboro’s.  He leans against the counter for support.

I look into the glass display case of bottles and see the reflection of the man who passed me. His back is hunched a bit as he searches pockets. I see the cashier frown, hear the concern in her voice. “Is that all the money you have Jack?  If that’s all you have, you better take it easy. It’s three more days ‘til the first of the month.”

I pick out my soda and press the cold bottle to my neck as I make my way to the cash register.  Jack hasn’t said anything to the cashier, but continues his search for money.  He’s a wiry man, mid-forties I’d guess, with long strings of wavy blond hair under a faded blue baseball cap.  His hands shake. Jack wears a nylon windbreaker over his tee shirt, dark jeans and a pair of worn New Balance running shoes. I drip perspiration just looking at him.

I join the line at the front of the store.

Jack had put several crumpled dollar bills along with a wrinkled lottery scratch ticket and some gray lint onto the counter. He slides the bills and the lottery ticket up next to the glass beer bottle. He fishes in the front pocket of his jacket, finds some coins and scatters them across the countertop.  A worn rabbit’s foot keychain falls among the metal pieces. Its fur is rubbed off, its sharp nails prominent. It reminds me of a horror movie I’d once seen. From the other pocket, he pulls a worn paperback book. I’m surprised. It’s a copy of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. He lays it on the counter.

“Damn,” Jack says. “I had another five here somewhere.” He continues to reach into various pockets as the cashier removes a ‘closed’ sign from the other side of the register and  motions the next customer to bypass Jack.

The man who was behind Jack sets his Red Bull and a bag of pork rinds down, reaches into the back pocket of his khakis for his wallet and pays with a twenty. The cashier counts his change back to him.  He slips the ten and four ones into his billfold and lets the handful of coins drop into the plastic take-a-penny cup on the counter.

Jack keeps looking.

The whole line detours to the now open spot, and no one pays attention to Jack as he searches for more funds.  The woman in a smart navy business suit and low heeled pumps swipes her credit card to pay for gas, a candy bar, and a pack of Marlboro Lights. She signs the receipt and hurries out the door to the jangle of a bell.

I look at Jack. “A damn drunk,” I hear my father’s voice say inside my head.

When I was a little girl, we took walks on the downtown pedestrian mall close to my grandmother’s house.  Disheveled men leaned in doorways, sat with their backs against the walls of the tall brick buildings, and held their hands out for money. They had long hair and long fingernails.  Most were quiet, but some spoke up, asking for change. Some said, “God Bless” when a passerby handed them coins.

I remember feeling a little scared of those men, their smell, slurred words, and whiskered faces, but mostly I felt bad for them. They looked sad.

“Never give bums money,” Daddy said.  “You can buy them a sandwich if you want, but if you give them money, they’ll drink it away.”  My Daddy was a smart man. He knew what he was talking about.  Before I was born, his father had been one of those men hunkered in a doorway, drunk, trying to keep warm.

Sometimes on those walks, I’d find pennies. “Take that home and put it in your bank,” my Daddy said. “Pennies make dollars.” Once, I found a quarter. I picked it up, excited about my luck, jumping up and down, showing off the shiny coin. Half a block away, I wanted to give the quarter to one of those old men. I held the treasure over his cupped palm only to have my Daddy jerk my hand away.

“Put that in your pocket,” he said, pulling me away from the man. Daddy kept walking, tugging me with him. I looked back to the man and he smiled at me. I smiled back and mouthed “I’m sorry.”  He shrugged his shoulders, palms up, still smiling.  I turned back and that’s when my Daddy told me about buying and giving a sandwich.

We didn’t buy that man a sandwich though; we walked on to the drug store where we sat at the counter and I picked at a grilled cheese sandwich.  “I thought you were hungry,” my Daddy said.

“Not enough for both Jack,” I hear the cashier say, bringing me back to present. “Which do you want to put back?”

“Cigarettes I guess,” Jack says. “I thought I had another five.” Jack pats his pockets again, frowning.

“You ready?” the cashier says to me.

“Oh yeah,” I say, placing my soda on the counter. “I need twenty in gas too.”

She rings up the sale on the register. “Twenty-one, sixty-six,” she says.

I hand her thirty in cash and she counts the eight thirty-four in change back to me. I stand with my wallet open, deposit the coins in the change purse and slide the bills behind my driver’s license. I look at my picture. I look stern. They won’t let you smile at the DMV anymore. I go to zip my wallet and stop. Opening it back up, I pull out the five dollar bill and hand it to Jack.

He takes the five, looks down at me, and says, “God Bless,” just like the old men I remembered, only Jack is young. He pats my shoulder and smiles, showing even white teeth amidst more than a week’s stubble of whiskers.  “You’re a good woman,” he says.

“No problem,” I say, pointing to his paperback on the counter. “I like Mark Twain too. Tom Sawyer was my favorite.”

Jack picks up Huck Finn and thumbs through the pages. “Twain was a smart man,” he says. Then he stops three quarters through the book and pulls out a five dollar bill. “Well I’ll be damned,” he says, smiling. “There it is. Must be my lucky day.”

He looks at the two fives, then looks back at me.  He offers the one I gave him back to me.

“No, you keep it,” I say. “You need a bookmark.”

“Thanks he says, placing the five back into his book.

I turn and walk toward the door.

“Give me back those cigarettes Shirley, and while you’re at it, a computer pick mega millions ticket too,” I hear him say as the bell jangles behind me.  

 

 

 

 

Jesus at Trilliman’s

July 27, 2011

I saw a man today who looked like the picture of Jesus on my grandmother’s living room wall.  At least the man’s head and shoulders looked like Jesus. The one in Grandma’s picture had on white robes and carried a staff.   This Jesus, the one at the shopping center, had on a Washington Redskins tee shirt and a pair of faded jeans.  He wasn’t wearing sandals.  He had on work boots.   This Jesus carried a backpack and smoked a cigarette. 

 The woman with him could have been an angel.  She was an older lady with solid white hair in tight frizzy curls all over her head, kind of like a halo.  She had nicotine stains between the index and second fingers on her right hand and her white cotton print dress was torn at the neckline.  Her black knee socks were rolled down to the tops of her hiking boots.  She sat with Jesus at one of the two tables in front of Trilliman’s, an upscale bakery and sandwich shop.  I overheard them talking about the hot weather as they shared the cigarette.

I was in my car at the curb, waiting for a prescription to be filled at the drug store.  I watched and listened to the couple.  Their presence reminded me of my childhood and the importance my grandparents placed on Jesus and going to church.  I had this sensation that I might hear the gospel, be lifted up in prayer, or feel the spirit rise in me.  It was one of those moments that made me feel like an epiphany was about to occur right before my eyes. This sighting was somehow important.  In my head, I heard my Grandma say, “Listen child, God speaks through angels.  Jesus walks among us.” 

I seemed to be the only one whose gut was reacting though.  People walked by, not paying attention to this vision.  Shoppers were busy with their errands and deadlines.  They hurried, shifting packages from one hand to another, children from one hip to another.  Mothers and daughters leaned together in conversation about summer styles and colors.  People gathered at the bus stop and looked at their watches. Even the dogs on leashes didn’t pay attention, and animals are supposed to have a special sense about these things.

Jesus and his angel sat for a time, quiet in their thoughts.  I got out of my car and spoke to the couple.

Jesus smiled and said, “Hi.”

The angel said, “I like your dress.  I used to have one like it.  Where did you get yours?”

I found myself afraid to admit I’d bought it at the second hand store.  I feared she’d think I was lying, but I confessed.  “At Goodwill,” I said.

“I love Goodwill,” she said.  “I got these boots there last week. They’re perfect for walking in the woods.”  

We talked for a few more minutes about mutual bargains we had found before I walked into the drug store to pick up my prescription.  I found a few other items I needed as well, AA batteries, vitamin C, a roll of wrapping paper and a Hershey bar, which I didn’t need, but wanted.  With all of that and my prescription, the total came to $13.13, an omen, I thought.

I went back to my car and looked toward Trilliman’s.  Jesus’ backpack and the angel were still there, but Jesus was gone.  The other table was occupied by a lanky man with a long pony tail.  He had a Boston Red Sox cap pulled down low over his eyes.  Every now and then he’d lift a paper bag to his mouth and drink.  The woman with him was old and had a Kroger shopping cart pulled up close to her.  It was filled with clothes, drink cans, an umbrella, a few plastic bags, tied tightly, and a ceramic flower pot with a small green plant growing in it.  She smiled a toothless grin at her companion as they laughed and talked. 

In a few minutes, Jesus came back with two orange sport drinks.  He loosened the top of one and handed it to the angel.  He sat down, and the four friends enjoyed their refreshments and each other’s company.

I was looking in my purse for my keys when the police car pulled into the space in front of me.  The officer got out and walked up to Jesus, the angel and their friends. 

“You all need to move along now.”

“We’re not bothering anybody,” Jesus said.

“We’re just sitting here,” the angel said.

“Unless you are a paying customer at this establishment,” the policeman said, pointing to Trilliman’s, “you have to move along.”

“Have you seen the prices in there?” Jesus asked.  “Nobody, including you, could afford to eat there.”

“Snooty people too,” the angel said, “turn their noses up when you walk in.”

“I can’t help any of that,” the policeman said. “I have to enforce the rules.  If you aren’t a paying customer, you have to leave.”

“I’m going to have a talk with the one in charge,” the lady with the shopping cart said. “He will take care of everything.  He won’t have any of this, you’ll see.”

 “Ok,” the officer said .  “But until I hear from him, I have to ask you to leave the premises.”

 The four trespassers gathered their belongings and walked south toward McLean Boulevard.   The old lady with the cart got some help from the angel when they had to maneuver the curb drops.

There’s another sidewalk café called Pop’s two blocks away.  It’s a bigger place with more tables.  Jesus led the way.