Growing up I had a purple bedroom and my own closet and toy chest. I had a book shelf and a duvet cover and a sally the camel toy that got to sleep snuggled with me. In New York City when I went to visit my grandmother, the streets were dotted with the homeless. Grammy prepared for visits by stocking up on peanuts for us kids to feed the squirrels. To feed her grandchildren she opted for grapefruit flavored soda, jello with whipped cream and yo-crunch yogurt—novelty food items that we received with zeal to match that of peanut-greedy squirrels.
I was ten years old and I accepted the fact that it was okay to feed bushy-tailed black squirrels peanuts but that it was imprudent to offer money to the homeless. I accepted the fact that my stuffed animal had a reserved spot cocooned in my arms, beneath layers of blankets, but that grown men and women had only the sidewalk to call home. I accepted society’s taciturn agreement that things were easier when the homeless were seen peripherally and forgotten momentarily
I had never had a conversation with a homeless person until last week. GCY organized a day devoted to letting the homeless people sprinkled across the Tenderloin district of San Francisco to be both seen and heard as we fellows set out to learn their stories. I talked to Willis and Walty Walt where they rested against a chain-link fence long enough to convince them that, no we were not Mormons. Long enough for Willis to say, “I like how you talk to us like we just people.” Walty Walt had gruffly informed us that he had no stories to tell us but later, unsolicited, he told me that he had a story for every gray hair on his head. He proceeded to tell the story behind one of his beard hairs in his loud, cadenced, vibrant style– a story about how he had talked his girlfriend out of an abortion. I heard Willis’ glowing account of his high-achieving son and when I asked if they thought about death Walty Walt said, “every day” and repeated a phrase his mother taught him, “You’re only here for today and tonight.”I was struck by how wonderfully normal it was, at times, to be talking to complete strangers– even if they were sipping a mid-morning beer. At one point Willis asked me if I believed in a God and later when I asked him if he would like a postcard from Senegal he requested a photo of me lassoing a zebra.
At ten years old I had slept soundly in my lavender room and while visiting the city tried to avoid the searing eyes of the homeless and the way they tugged at me. I had accepted what I did not understand and eight years later I still have neither the words to make sense of this inequity nor the vision to fix the system. All I know is the skin-crawling guilt of ignoring the homeless, and, conversely, the vindication of connecting with them on a basic human level. I have no lofty vision, but maybe a postcard is a start.