In Which I Go Out Among the Good Citizens of My City

(6:30PM EST – promoted by Nightprowlkitty)

I was volunteering at a community event benefiting my employer, at a small park plaza located downtown.  I don’t generally go to public events like this if I can help it — I dislike crowds.  But duty called, so I went.  It was a lovely, sunny, warm day.  I didn’t have a lot to do during much of the day except just sit at a volunteers’ hospitality table, so had time to read the book I brought with me at intervals, and I had almost unlimited time to just watch the goings-on around me.

A woman, perhaps in her mid-sixties. She’s in a wheelchair. The footrests are in the ‘up’ position and she propels herself along using her feet. I’ve seen her earlier over at the bandstand, dancing to the salsa band that’s playing. She’s not disabled, or at least not badly disabled. I think to myself, uncharitably, that maybe she’s just lazy. She has a couple of department-store shopping bags draped over the arms of her chair and she has a leather purse on her lap.

There’s a coffee service set up at the volunteer’s table where I’m sitting. Coffee and lunch are being provided by the event organizers for the day’s volunteers and I’ve been assigned to sit at the volunteers’ hospitality table.

The woman wheel-walks herself up to in front of me and stops. She has a smile on her face, but I sense… not hostility, exactly, but something like it. Perhaps just an adversarial nature.

“Are you giving out free coffee?” she asks me. I explain that the refreshments are for the volunteers working at the event. “I noticed that you have donation jars here today,” she continues. I say yes, we are accepting donations for our non-profit organization.

“So, basically, you’re asking for something for nothing,” she says. I open my mouth to point out that she had just asked me for free coffee, then think better of it and shut my mouth again. Instead, I smile and say that I suppose one could think of a donation in that light.

“Well, it’s not going to work,” she snaps. I smile again, thank her for stopping by, and pick up my book. “I’m not leaving yet,” she snaps again. I ignore her and read my book. She sits there for a few seconds longer, then wheel-walks away.

Maybe they shouldn’t have asked me to sit at the hospitality table.

:::

A few minutes later a young Asian man dressed in cargo shorts, sandals and a T-shirt comes up to the table next to mine where some of the event sponsors are sitting. He’s wearing a backpack and carrying a small shopping bag. He might be in his early twenties.

He speaks, and it’s instantly clear that he’s mentally disabled. He says to the woman sitting near me that he has lost his money and his frogs. None of us sitting there have any idea how to respond to that. Fortunately there’s a man nearby wearing a park ranger’s uniform. I beckon to him and ask him if he can deal with the young man. He takes the young man aside and I listen to their conversation. The young man tells the ranger that he’s lost his money and his frogs. Together, the two of them look through the young man’s backpack to see if the money or the frogs might be inside. No luck, but the ranger does find a cell phone. The young man tells him the cell phone is so he can call his mother. The ranger asks if he may call the young man’s mother. He dials the number and speaks to the mother on the phone for a few minutes. I can only hear one side of the conversation, but I gather that the young man is fine, that he knows his way home by bus, and that we shouldn’t worry about him. The ranger thanks the mother, hangs up and asks the young man if he knows where he is and if he knows his way home. The young man says yes. The ranger asks if the young man needs help. The young man says no. The ranger pats him on the back, tells him to be careful, and says goodbye. I watch the young man walk toward a nearby bus stop, until he disappears into the crowd of people.

:::

A man walks by in full combat regalia — camouflage pants and jacket, steel-toed black boots, camouflage helmet, and a camouflage bandana around the lower part of his face, covering his nose and mouth. The only thing missing is a weapon. No one appears to notice, or to give him a second glance.

:::

There are four cops standing in front of the candy store not forty feet from where I sit under my tent. I sit there all day, and the four cops stand there. All day. Sometimes I notice that there are three cops instead of four, and it occurs to me at one point that maybe it isn’t the same four (or three) cops, that maybe they’re rotating posts with other cops when I’m not looking, but I can’t be sure because they all look alike.

:::

A woman shows up carrying a baby wallaby in a baby sling, like a pouch. She instantly draws a crowd of people wanting to pet the wallaby. I hear her say that the wallaby is her pet. I wonder where she got it, and why she’d bring it out to an event like this, unless it was only to draw attention to herself. I wonder if it’s even legal to keep a wild animal like a wallaby as a pet. I appear to be the only person around who doesn’t find the whole thing to be just adorable.

:::

A couple walk by with a teenage boy in tow. The couple, who appear to be in their fifties, are wearing matching color-block T-shirts. Tourists, I think to myself. The woman and teenage boy are Asian, the man is white. He has long, graying, straggly hair and a big belly. He’s wearing sunglasses. There is nothing about him that I would call remotely attractive. And then he removes the sunglasses and looks in my direction. His eyes are so stunningly gorgeous that I do a double-take. Light-colored eyes, fringed with impossibly long and luxurious eyelashes. In that instant he’s suddenly beautiful. Then he puts his sunglasses back on, and once again he’s just some slob in a T-shirt.

:::

Sometime during the afternoon, a couple with a young daughter and a baby in a stroller stop and sit down on a bench some thirty feet from where I am. I don’t pay much attention until the baby starts crying. It’s the thin, high-pitched, reedy wail of a very young infant. I look over their direction. The baby can’t be more than a month old. The mother takes him out of the stroller and begins to breastfeed him. No one pays the slightest bit of attention to them.

After a while, I hear the baby cry again and I look over. She’s finished feeding him and has put him back in the stroller, and he’s crying at the top of his tiny lungs. She takes him out and puts him against her shoulder, and he stops crying. In a minute or two, she puts him back in the stroller again. He starts crying. She picks him up. He stops crying. She puts him in the stroller. He starts crying. She picks him up again. The two of them continue the ritual for well over an hour. I wonder to myself at what point it will occur to her that he’d stop crying if she’d just sit there and hold him, but she seems determined that he’s going to sit in the stroller. Eventually the four of them walk off. The baby’s in the stroller. He’s still crying.

:::

There’s a homeless guy sitting directly opposite me on a bench. He has a backpack and a small, carry-on-sized suitcase on wheels. From somewhere in one of those two bags, he produces what seems to be a limitless supply of bread. For some reason, I’m reminded of the story of Jesus and the loaves and fishes. The man crumbles the bread, slice after slice after slice, onto the ground, and pigeons gather at his feet and feast on the crumbs. He bends forward so that his face is between his knees and appears to be whispering something to the birds. Once in a while little kids pass by with a parent, and they run into the pigeon mosh pit and scatter the birds. The homeless guy clearly doesn’t like it, but he says nothing. He just takes out another slice of bread, and the pigeons return.

After a couple of hours of this, one of the candy store cops walks over and tells the man to leave. He gestures at the pigeons as he talks. The man doesn’t say a word. He puts the bread back into his bag, shoulders the backpack, grasps the handle on the rolling suitcase, and walks away. He looks back at the cop once with an unreadable expression on his face. The cop watches him leave, and then returns to the candy store.

A few minutes later a father and daughter sit down on the same bench. The little girl has some slices of bread with her. She starts feeding the pigeons. The cop watches her feed the birds from his post at the candy store. He doesn’t tell them to leave.

:::

Who let the greedy in

And who left the needy out

Who made this salty soup

Tell him we’re very hungry now

For a sweeter fare

In the cookie I read

“Some get the gravy

And some get the gristle

Some get the marrow bone

And some get nothing

Though there’s plenty to spare” – Joni Mitchell

Did I mention the homeless people there?

There are homeless people in the plaza where the event is happening. Not many — maybe half a dozen or so, including four women. They are there when I arrive. They sit on a small cluster of benches at one end of the plaza, close to where my table is. I notice that even though they are sitting in close proximity to each other, for the most part they do not speak to, or even look at, each other — at least, the men don’t. The women seem more likely to interact with each other, and in fact within a couple of hours the women have formed a small cluster on a couple of adjoining benches. It occurs to me that it may be their way of trying to keep themselves safe.

One of the event organizers sees me looking at them. She tells me that she is hoping that the local police are going to clear them out before the event gets underway. “They have as much right to be here as anyone else,” I reply. She looks startled.

It’s a few hours later. The event organizers have gotten lunch for the volunteers donated from a local restaurant. They bring in big aluminum trays filled with salad, and pizza boxes with flatbread. I count ten trays of salad and ten boxes of flatbread. It’s an obscene amount of food. Even after all the volunteers in the immediate vicinity have helped themselves to heaping plates of salad and bread, there are still eight huge trays left untouched.

Right in front of us are those homeless people, sitting on various benches. When it becomes clear that the event volunteers are not going to make much of a dent in the food, I get up from the table, fix a couple of plates of salad and bread, and take them to a couple of the homeless people. I ask them if they’d like to share our lunch. They say yes, and thank me, and take the plates. I return for two more plates, and then two more. At this point one of the event organizers notices what I’m doing, and she confronts me and tells me I must stop. I ask her why. She says that we don’t have a food handlers’ license. I ask her what the difference is between serving a volunteer and serving someone sitting ten feet away. She doesn’t answer me, but instead says that we can’t have people begging for free food at our tent. I point out that none of the homeless people have asked for a thing from us. In fact, we have been approached by any number of people at this point wanting free food, but not one homeless person has done so. The people wanting free food are just passersby and people attending the event who see the food and assume it’s for them. I don’t have a problem telling those people “no”, and I point this out to the event organizer. I tell her that I’m offering lunch to a small handful of people who don’t as a rule get regular meals or healthy food and that I’m hurting no one by doing so. She insists that I stop.

At this point I’ve already served all of the homeless people in the plaza except one woman, so I drop the argument — despite the fact that I’m seething by now — and instead get my wallet out of my purse, approach the woman, and ask her if I can take her to a nearby deli and buy her lunch. The woman says “No, thank you.” She’s an older woman — I’d guess her age at somewhere between 65 and 70 — and she has very few teeth, and her English is limited. She tells me that she’s been homeless for three weeks and, somehow through words and gestures, communicates to me that her digestion is impaired. I think. I repeat my offer, saying that maybe we can find something at the deli that will agree with her, but again she says “No, thank you.”

I return to my table at the tent. There are still six or seven trays of untouched food sitting there. I can’t even look at them. Eventually, a couple of the volunteers come and take the trays away. They tell me that they’re taking them to a shelter or mission or something nearby. Whatever, I think to myself.

:::

I watch those homeless people for the rest of the afternoon, during lulls at my table. This plaza is filled with people of every imaginable color and nationality — locals, tourists, teenagers in Goth drag, an older Indian couple — red dots on foreheads, her in full sari regalia — who sit on a bench near me for several hours, alternately watching people and dozing, never saying a single word to each other. Lots of kids, brought by their parents for this ‘family-friendly’ community event. The plaza is a riot of movement and noise, except for these homeless people, who sit quietly and almost without moving for the most part. They don’t make eye contact with anyone — except the small group of women, who have banded together during the course of the day, and who talk to each other — and no one attempts to make eye contact with them. They might as well be invisible, or ghosts.

I wonder whether this is the way they want it to be, given their situation. I wonder if they prefer to be ignored, to remain unseen in their [what society sees as] shameful condition, or if they want to be seen and to be acknowledged. I try to put myself in their shoes, and I finally conclude that I’d want to be invisible. But that’s just me. I can’t possibly know how they feel, or what they want.

What I do know is that, of everyone there today, it is these few people who the cops and the event organizers treat as, well, threatening and dangerous. And it is these few people who are the most harmless, and the most vulnerable, of everyone there.

:::

On the way back to collect my car and go home at the end of the day, I take a shortcut through a department store, and once inside detour to the ladies’ room for a pee. On my way in, there’s a woman who can only be described as a little old lady, sitting in the lounge and tying a sunhat onto her head. She looks cheerful and sweet, I think to myself. On my way out, I discover that first impressions can be misleading. She’s still there, but this time she’s sitting in front of the pay phone that’s located near the entrance to the ladies room. She catches my eye and immediately launches into an angry diatribe about how it’s impossible to hear anything on the phone when there are noisy girls — she refers to them as “little brats” — running in and out of the restroom. It’s not just their fault for being noisy, either. It’s the store’s fault for putting the pay phone at the entrance to the restrooms. I apologize to her for having been inconvenienced and make a hasty exit before I get to find out how it’s my fault, too.

:::

The take for the day in donations to my organization was about $1,800.

:::

I guess there’s a reason I don’t get out so much, these days.

:::

Crossposted at Daily Kos

16 comments

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  1. discouraging as it may have been…

    and, for the record, i have a friend who is licensed to own exotic animals, has gators/crocs, large snakes, etc, and does  edu-tainment shows…he tried to keep a wallaby once, and it scratched the family to shreds…they had to get rid of it.  it WAS cute, though 😉

    • Alma on August 24, 2008 at 9:43 pm

    Really good job.

    What is it about our culture that the people that are really down and could use some help, are the ones that get picked on, for no reason?

    There are a few homeless people by the Dunkin Doughnuts where my daughter works.  Sometimes they come in to use the bathroom, or get a drink of water.  Sometimes my daughter, or a kind customer (or both) will buy something/s for them.  They aren’t supposed to give any left overs away at night, but sometimes she does set up for someone to come get the garbage bag of dounghnuts & bagels at a certain time at closing.  She puts it out by the dumpster, and then has to go back in the store for something for a few minutes.  😉  She has gone a few rounds with her boss about the rules, but it hasn’t helped.  They do have the knights of columbus come in each week, and give them doughnuts to hand out to the poor.  I don’t know why its okay to do with them, and not with the homeless directly.

  2. and a little slice of life that we usually miss as we whizz by in such a hurry all the time.

    Thanks.

    • Robyn on August 24, 2008 at 9:57 pm

    I checked.  There are 46 species/subspecies of wallaby.  Four are extinct, so the one she had is probably not one of those.    Three are endangered, six are vulnerable, 8 are near threatened and one is conservation dependent.  So that leaves 25 kinds of wallabies that aren’t in trouble…although that particular one might be.

    • Viet71 on August 24, 2008 at 11:49 pm

    some years ago.  Was finishing dinner at a restaurent with 6 or so companions.  Good, big meals.

    One of my companions asked the waitress to pack up her meal remains.  On the walk back to our hotel, we came upon a homeless person.  My colleague walked over to the person and handed over her leftovers.

    It was a small but carefully planned act that really opened my eyes.

  3. a ten minute bus ride from the homeless hostile city center, the homeless come on the morning bus to take up their appointed stations for the day. Lot of foot traffic and friendly merchants along with a decidedly liberal crowd. My sister in law a Democrat who professes to be liberal said as we strolled down Hawthorne crowd watching and latte drinking, “At least in my neighborhood I don’t get accouted.” She feels threatened by those who are visible and displaced and hungry. Strange reaction from a woman who fights for feral cats rights but wants these offensive homeless to be removed from sight.

    No accosting had occurred. In front of the bookstore was a man selling a local paper published by and for the homeless ‘Streetroots’ at 1.00$ it’s a deal, pretty good coverage of local pols, plus some great poetry. At another corner stood the older woman who collects for Dignity Village, an encampment for the homeless. Then their were the young homeless, the saddest for me, runways, abused, families with no homes?

    The reason these people come to my neighborhood is that the city passed laws in the downtown which forbid loitering or sitting or ‘obstructing’ the areas around businesses, sidewalk laws. The merchants on our street seem to exist side by side with these people. The only complaints I’ve heard were about the day trippers, kids from the burbs who come to play homeless.    

    • k9disc on August 26, 2008 at 11:39 am

    great essay.

    Thank you…

    peace

     

  4. I’m so glad you did get out that day, and that you posted this story for all of us.

    Perhaps you’ve opened up a few more eyes to the senseless way people can treat other human beings. It is almost as if our society uses peer pressure to try and dehumanize those in need. If we see the homeless as “threatening” and as “beggars” who made poor life choices, then they are not deserving of assistance nor compassion. If you dehumanize them, you can more easily ignore them.

    A few years ago, my husband and I were watching the local news when they were covering a story about a proposed new ordinance in Ann Arbor, MI – a rather high income town with the exception of the University of Michigan students. Apparently, the city was considering creating a “panhandling” ordinance that would prohibit any homeless people from approaching anyone outside of restaurants and bars downtown. The most striking thing that we saw in this report was that a very well-dressed young woman (likely a college student or recent grad) was standing at one of the more expensive downtown restaurants with outdoor seating. With the most dismissive tone, she said something like this: “we’re trying to enjoy a nice meal, and all of these people are walking around on the street. It’s such a BOTHER.”

    Every time we see a snooty person who is rude toward the plight of those in need, one of us will whisper to the other something like this, “Oh, those homeless people are such a BOTHER! I want to enjoy my brie and champagne and not have to notice people who are not as well-off as me. They really destroy the ambiance!”

    Anyway, I’m sure you made at least one of the other volunteers or onlookers who observed your actions think twice about how callous it is to ignore the needs of our fellow beings. Good for you. I’m sorry if it was painful and frustrating, but you did good for a lot of people, I’m sure.

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