An excerpt from my journal, Thanksgiving Day in Louisville Kentucky 2010. I like to think I’ve grown in gratitude and grace since this post is written, but there is so much more to learn…
In the morning, I woke up with a headache and didn’t want to leave. I groaned when I remembered my plan to spend Thanksgiving on the streets, with the people who need me the most. The people who never hear someone say thank you, watch someone demonstrate love, or offer hope. “So freakin noble, Shay…” my voice was full of sarcasm and spitefulness as I grabbed a fistful of the soft fleece blanket and pulled it up to my chin. “It’s not like it matters anyway,” I rationalized. “It’s a holiday; the rest of the world is staying inside today. I can too!!”
God whispered and I sighed. I tried to ignore him as he reminded me of those who were working today to give. The volunteers, the staff, the employees of love that were going to be all over this city today… “Shut up man, my head hurts!” and I rolled over again in the bed, clenching the soft down pillow in one hand. “I never get to just be lazy!” I whined like a bratty highschooler…
The phone beeped and it was my friend that I had gone to the shelter to meet the day before. I was still wondering what she thought of my interactions with a man named Clay, (who calls himself Fish) a little girl named Rebecca (who calls herself Mouse) and her friend Squirrel. The two of us had an interesting conversation with the woman who managed the volunteers too. I wondered if spending quality time with the poor in her community was something that she was used to. We hadn’t had a chance to debrief.
The message on my phone said that my friend had woken up with a head ache too. She suggested we meet at 11. I knew the drop-in center closed at 11, but that they were serving lunch at 12. “I don’t care man, why don’t we just meet at 12 when the hotel makes me check out?” I asked to the empty room and Zuzu. Something stopped me from sending the text. I rolled back over in the bed and wondered how much of a hypocrite I would be if I did nothing today. I wondered who I was comparing myself too. My phone beeped again.
This time the message said “Would you like me to get you another room for tonight, and you can relax today and come have dinner with my family? You can go visit the drop in center tomorrow.”
The very thought of it convicted my spirit. God knows my rebellious heart. I picked up the phone on the floor and looked at the time. It was a quarter to 10. I knew that there was no way in hell I was going to spend another night in this room, (as wonderful as it was) too depressed and comfortable to work and incapable of walking away. The horrible catch 22 of having ‘things’. I texted her and let her know that I didn’t need the room for another night, but thank you, and then promptly returned the phone to it’s place on the floor. “mmmm God! Can’t I just stay till noon? Then I’ll leave and go help people this afternoon. I just want to sleep right now!” I buried my head in my pillow one more time, but I knew it was coming. I could feel Him calling. I heard the words I had said aloud to God the day before… “Break my heart for what breaks Yours.” The phone rang.
I stared at it, and it rang one more time. I picked it up. My friend called to tell me what my options were for today. She offered the day of relaxation at her house again, and then explained that her mother serves thanksgiving at 4. She said she’d really like to see me again. Then she explained the services that were going on downtown, and that there was a woman at the drop-center who had really wanted to meet me. Her name was Diane. I looked at my phone. It was 10:15. I knew I wasn’t far from downtown, so I made my decision. “I’m going to hurry up and get out of here then and try to catch Diane. I will text you later and let you know how everything goes.”
Less than 8 minutes after I talked to my friend, I was walking through the pouring rain to my truck. “Well, damn” I said as I started the engine. “This is going to be a lovely thanksgiving.”
The GPS said that I would arrive at the drop in center at 10:51. When I made it into downtown, the city was empty. The only people on the streets were probably homeless like me, and looking for a way to stay out of the rain. There was no traffic, and I parked my truck in an industrial lot down the street from the drop in center. I walked up the sidewalk and saw a man standing outside, stumbling as though he may fall over. I tried to open the front door but couldn’t, so I walked around the corner. Another man who seemed to be a little more stable pointed me toward the door. When I walked in, a man who I later found out was named Mark, told me that they were closed. I nodded, but kept walking. “I’m lookin for Diane,” I said over my shoulder. I heard him say that she was in the office. I could see through a door at the back that there was someone in a small room, so I put my hand on the door and pushed it open as I said “Diane?”
A petite black woman with a shaved head and pink braces came out of the office and shook my hand. She had been hoping that I would drop by. I started with a few basic questions, like what they do at the drop in center and how it got started. Diane explained that she has been running it for almost 15 years, and they just decided to start calling it a ‘hospitality center’ instead, because they are trying to provide hospitality to their street community. They have TV’s and phones and they provide lunch, coffee, and an address for people to receive mail. She said 80 to 90 people show up there every day. With all of the meals going on in town today for thanksgiving, they only had 40. I asked Diane why she does this. “Because I can’t imagine doing anything else,” she said. “I quit once, because I got burned out, and I didn’t come back for two years. I did the ‘corporate America’ thing for a while, working the 9-5 for a big company, but I didn’t matter to anyone. My life didn’t mean anything to my employer. It’s not about money, it’s about feeling like I matter.” I asked her why she got burned out. “Because even though the people we serve here are asking for small things, that many people might say are so trivial that they can’t mean much, (like when someone asks to use a phone, or to use the bathroom or for dry socks), when you give it day after day, it takes something out of you. If it doesn’t, than you’re not doing it right. We don’t give stuff, we give ourselves. The hard part is figuring out how to refill.”
I nodded and I realized that I keep burning out. It’s when I freak out and stay in my truck for two days. I don’t have anything left to give. Simultaneously, I’ve absorbed all of the pain and suffering of the lives I encounter, and that part of my brain is overflowing. I think that it’s when I write it down that I release the burden of suffering, and when I pray, my soul is filled up with more love to give away.
We talked for a while about an organization in town called the WaySide mission. She said that they get tons of publicity and lots of funding. She said it with a hurt tone in her voice, as though she is jealous of their resources. But she spoke of the directors fondly and said that the board is well connected, which contributes to their success. She explained the story of their move from one side of town to the other and it sounded like it would be a great organization to speak to. I realized after a while that I had kept Diane over a half hour past her closing time, and thanked her. She hugged me goodbye and in that one tight squeeze, I realized that for some reason, this woman cared about me. I remembered her telling my friend to make sure that I knew that there were predators on the streets, and I realized she may just be worried about this little white chick running around the country. I hope to go see Diane someday during operational hours.
As I walked back to the truck through the fat rain drops that were splashing on the vinyl hood of my coat, I tweeted. I hate twitter for its consumption of my time, and even as I tweeted I wondered if I should keep today’s adventures to myself. But “be an example, Shay…” was the voice in my head as I wrote my tweet. I said I was thankful for people like Diane.
I dug through my car to pull out the address for an organization that was serving thanksgiving lunch, and headed that direction. As I looked out the window, I was horrified at the number of homeless people on the streets today. Maybe it’s every day in Louisville, I guess I don’t really know… but I drove under the highway, and saw two guys sitting on their bags in a small dry spot on the pavement. Only a block up the street was the massive shelter I was headed for. It’s called Hotel Louisville, and it is the biggest building on the street. I parked at the McDonalds directly across the road, and before getting out to walk, I filled a bag with socks, gloves, and a few random items like an umbrella, some hand warmers, and a bag of razors. I was only going to the hotel to see what it was like. Stand in line, and maybe eat some turkey. It had crossed my mind that eating the meal might be kind of wrong. I know that URM is asking people to donate 30 dollars to feed a table for thanksgiving. I don’t want to take up someone’s spot at the table who might need it more. I thought about recouping the ‘damages’ of my visit by making a donation. Then I realized that it didn’t matter. I would know if I was supposed to go in or not. When I got to the entrance of the hotel, there was a group of people standing out front. I checked the time. It was 10 till noon. I figured that was about right. But all the people were smiling and nicely dressed. I watched the table inside as everyone signed in and received a nametag. Wow, I thought. I confirmed my suspicions with the man out front wearing a biker vest and holding a leash that was attached to the collar of a pitbull/bulldog mix. All of those people in line were here to volunteer. I’ve watched 5 people provide 500 meals before, but today I saw more than 30 people go through the front doors of the hotel in just the few minutes that I stood there to watch. I got the picture. As I was reminded of the woman at the Salvation Army the day before who stated that this was her “annual service day,” I wanted to scream and stamp my foot. “Where will you be tomorrow? Where will you be the next day? People are hungry more than one day a year you idiots!!”
The biker dude with the vest asked me if the bag in my hand was my suitcase, with a smile and a twinkle in his eye. Was he teasing me for being homeless? I opened it and showed him the socks. “Oh! Donations! You can take those inside I bet and drop them off with the lady behind the desk,” he explained. I looked the man over. He was scruffy enough. The guy next to him definitely looked like he could be on the streets. “You want any of this stuff?” I pointed at the bag. The man’s eyes grew wide and he shook his head. I had offended him. “Oh no, I’m not like THAT. I’m not homeless,” he defended himself. “I’m just here to watch the door and make sure no one messes with the cars in the parking lot.” I glanced in the lot. There must have been 50 cars parked there. Nice minivans and sports cars. I was aggravated at this man, who had assumed that I was homeless but was offended that I assumed the same about him. He continued, “go ahead and take that stuff inside there. Give it to the lady as a donation and they’ll stick it somewhere.”
I looked at the group of happy helpers walking through the door. Something in me snapped. Screw this. I’m not supposed to be here. I turned around and walked away without saying anything else to the guy with the dog. I walked up the block to the underpass that I had driven under, and I could see the two guys on the other side of the street, still sitting on their bags and trying to stay dry. I tried not to be obvious as I walked up the street to the crosswalk and around to them. As I got about 15 feet away, the white guy in a blue hoodie said something in my direction. I had been watching the pavement trying to figure out how this was going to happen. I often walk past people before going back, just because I’m reading the vibe. His voice startled me slightly but I looked up at his face. He repeated himself… “hey ma’am how you doin?” His voice was respectful, cautious, and low. Looking me in the eye now, he was insecure with his decision to say anything to me. It’s a good sign. I stopped. “What’s up man?” I smiled at him. I bent down and set the bag down between my feet and theirs. I asked them if they wanted some dry socks as I opened the bag, and I watched the white guy lean in and his eyes get wide as his face made the “oooo” expression. The older black man sitting next to him didn’t hold back. “Socks! Oh yes ma’am socks are amazing! Are they NEW socks? Oh my ma’am thank you so much!! Look at this,” and he pulled up his pant leg. He had wrapped a very dirty sock in a plastic bag that had ripped and soaked through. I could see where the sock was wet almost to his ankle, and it had turned yellow and black from being worn for days on end. “God BLESS you ma’am, you have no idea,” he said as I noticed his hands. When the white guy had reached out for the socks that I was holding I had seen him unclench his fists from the insides of his hoodie sleeves. “I have gloves too, and it looks like you could use them,” I said as I pulled them from the bag. The white guy didn’t mince his words. “Holy shit! Yeah I can definitely… You know you’re an angel right? This is awesome!”
As they took the tag off of their gloves, I set my bag down next to the older black guy without hesitation, and then sat on top of it, the same way that they were doing. When in Rome… “Y’all don’t care if I sit with ya for awhile do ya?” I felt completely comfortable and relaxed all of a sudden, and I figured since I could hang out for awhile, I should. Happy Thanksgiving, and all of that.
“Yeah, awesome, who are you lady?” the white guy asked. I held out my hand in the fashion of formal introduction. He shook it. “They call my Memphis, but my real name’s Jeff” he said as the older black man shook my hand and said “I’m Nashville, but it’s really Ray-Ray. ” I smiled and told them my name. They asked me what I’m doing out here, if this is like, my thing. I nodded.
For the next 3 hours, I sat on the concrete sidewalk that runs under the highway with Memphis and Nashville. Jeff told me about where he grew up, in a bad neighborhood in Memphis as the only white kid, and then told me a story about beating the absolute crap out of a black guy the night before who said something about his momma as they sat at the bus stop half a block away. He said he woke up this morning with blood on his sneakers because he kicked a field goal on the guys face. He showed me his knuckles and they were swollen and bruised. He said he doesn’t remember it too well because he was drunk, and they left after the fight was over. I wonder if the guy ever got up off the pavement. I realized that Memphis could have killed a guy last night and might not even know it. He was proud though, and told the story 3 times. He was trying to impress me. Memphis had a true Kentucky twang in his voice that told me that he hadn’t been back to Tennessee in a while. But Nashville was a different story. Quiet and happy, he explained that he chooses homelessness because it’s a simple life. He doesn’t mind the streets. I ask if they hit up the shelters or if they camp, and he said they had a campsite a few miles away. Nashville got around to asking after a while. “What about you? Where do you live?”
I explained that I had Bubba and Zuzu parked up the street. Nashville’s eyes got really big and he asked me where I was from originally. I told him I was born in Illinois but that I’ve been to 47 states this year. He laughed and said I’m crazy. Then he asked me if I’d take him out west. They wanted to go somewhere warm. He offered to do all the work, he would panhandle the money and everything. Honestly, if I didn’t have anything grounding me, (like this project) I probably would have taken them… Just so they wouldn’t be so cold tonight. I talked to them about what it’s like in Arizona, New Mexico, and Southern California, and we talked about our families and this silly holiday called Thanksgiving. Nashville said that he called his mom yesterday, but that he lied to her. He said he hates to do it, but he doesn’t want to worry her. Memphis was walking around on the sidewalk, pacing, but he chimed in. “Yeah, call your momma on Thanksgiving, but don’t tell her your homeless.”
After a while, Nashville went to go get something from a friend, and Memphis took his seat next to me. We talked about some of the crazy things that he has seen on the streets, and he took my hand and ran it over the bone under his eye so that I could feel the metal plate that is his cheekbone. When he was living on the streets in Tennessee, he got jumped by 4 guys for the gold chain that he wears around his neck. He held on to the chain with both hands as they beat the crap out of him, and when it was over he spit out 11 teeth. His jaw was broken and his cheek bone was shattered, but he still had his gold chain. His mother gave it to him, and it was important. I could see as he spoke that his jaw bone hadn’t healed quite right, and he was still missing all of those teeth. I was thinking about his story from last night, and realized that violence breeds more violence. He said that in Louisville, they have great programs for homeless people, and he had heard about a place where the kids that are in college for dentistry need to practice, so they’ll fix people’s teeth for free. A case worker at the shelter was working on getting him into the program. It was going to take 6 weeks, but eventually he would get dentures. He was excited about it.
Nashville returned with a bag of tobacco, and I stared off into the distance as they rolled up a few cigarettes. “Penny for your thoughts, young lady” Memphis said. I smiled and Nashville added “we see you over there thinkin. What are you thinking about?” I shrugged, not knowing how to explain that I was thinking about how I spent last night in a hotel, with not one, but two beds, and a shower. I was thinking about how last night, they were sleeping in their tents. I was thinking about how this morning, I had the option to stay in that hotel another night, but I chose to see this side of thanksgiving. I looked around at the walls of the underpass, and Memphis smiled at me. “You came out of nowhere, you know that? You’re a good person. There are good people everywhere, but you surprised me. Nashville was watching you walk across the street and he said to me ‘I think that lil girl is gonna come talk to us’… and I told him ‘yeah right! She ain’t gonna come over here’… but here you are! You brought socks and gloves, and you came to chill, and that’s awesome.” I was humbled again the level of immediate acceptance from these two strangers. A young black girl walked by and smiled at us. She said “Happy Thanksgiving” and we smiled at her. Memphis said “You too! And be careful out here, ya hear?” I found it ironic that a lot of people might try to warn her about people like Memphis.
I unzipped my jacket to show Nashville my ‘prized possession’ in that conspiratorial, grade school manner that Gregory had used with me before in Memphis. I wanted him to understand that I was trusting him with this information. When I pulled the camera out of my jacket, his eyes got huge. Memphis leaned over to see, and they both started asking questions. “Wow! What do you take pictures of? Are you a photographer?” and I told them I photograph what I see. Memphis told me I should have been around this morning to take a picture of the blood on his shoe. I laughed. He said that it’s really cool, that I’m a photographer out here on the streets, photographing the ‘dirt’. He said I would be famous someday, and I laughed at him. He argued. “No, don’t you know how important a photograph can be? One photo can change everything! I still remember, and I bet you do too… the cover of that National Geographic all those years ago. It had a photo of that little Indian girl with the bright blue eyes. You know which one I’m talking about?” It was crazy to me that I knew EXACTLY which National Geographic image he was talking about. I used to collect them and I’ve probably looked at hundreds of covers, but that one stands out in my mind. I explained that my camera is digital, that somebody gave it to me, and that I can shoot as many photos as I want and it’s free. They were fascinated. They didn’t mind me taking pictures one bit. When I started shivering, Memphis wrapped a red fleece blanket around my shoulders.
Memphis asked me why I walk the streets if I have a truck. I told him that I believe in karma. That we get what we give, and what goes around comes around. “Don’t it!? I hear that…” he said. “I pray a lot, and then stuff happens. We was just askin each other what we were gonna do about socks.” Memphis and Nashville smiled at each other and Nashville said “that’s real shit” under his breath. I told Memphis I survive off of God. He told me that he has a Bible that his momma gave him a long time ago, and that it’s back in his tent. He told me that God says to do what I am out here doing. He said, “the bible says to give to the poor, and it will come back ten fold.” I nodded and then I told him that there is a scripture says “Give, and it shall be given unto you, pressed down and running over.” I couldn’t remember exactly how it went but he got the point. I told him about my friend, Aaron, who has been talking to me lately about the church, and the role of the church. I said that Aaron says that being on the street is church, and that he doesn’t go to church service. “He don’t?” Memphis asked. “Well, ain’t that something. I agree, I mean, if the homeless people in your town can’t recognize your face, then you can’t call yourself a Christian.” I made a mental note to quote that, and he continued. “Being a Christian is being Christ-like,” Memphis thumped his hands when he spoke to emphasize the words ‘Christ’ and ‘Like’. “Where did Jesus spend his time? He didn’t go to church service. He was chillin with us, under this overpass.,” and Nashville and I agreed. He muttered, “He was out to save the lost…”
When another man walked passed us and crossed the road, Memphis told me he was as crazy as they come. I could see the man talking and gesturing to himself from across the underpass and wondered. I felt no evil coming from the man when he walked by. There was no ugly vibe. He was probably fine, just alone too long. Nashville confirmed “He’s really cool though, like a really nice old man.”
I made up my mind and told them I was going to go give him some socks and stuff. Memphis warned me, “be careful over there, he’s drunk and you don’t know what he’ll do. Don’t get too close.” I noted his caution and crossed the street.
For the next 30 minutes I listened to a man named ‘Splinter’ talk to me about his years as an associate for numerous biker gangs, and the crimes he committed on their behalf. He told me about life on the streets and that it was his choice. He repeated 5 or 6 times that some people choose homelessness. He told me that he wrote his name on the signs that are on either side of the underpass, so that people know that this is HIS strip of sidewalk. He showed me his very wet, cardboard sign that said ‘We Heart Louisville.’ I’m convinced that he’s not sick, he’s just unstable. He rambles incessantly, but he’s funny and coherent and when I said I needed to cross the street he said his goodbyes. He kept saying “put me on TV so you can turn me off” and then he would giggle and put his hand over his mouth. He has been on the streets for a long time. More than 10 years, just like Memphis. But it does different things to different people. Splinter is 63. He says he gets SSI, and that he could live in a house, but he doesn’t care. He wants to be untraceable, un-findable. Splinter may be managing some delusions and paranoia through homelessness. But how much of that is delusions when he’s watched people kill each other. Biker gangs aren’t pretty, and I don’t have to be in one to know how dangerous and full of violence they can be.
When I got back to the truck and looked at my phone, I realized it was after 3 o clock. I needed to get my stuff together before going to meet my friend’s family. There was a text with the address. When I saw it, I sat back in my seat and swallowed hard.
It said to go to the Country Club. Really God? Are you serious? There’s that gap again. An afternoon under an overpass and an evening at the country club. What a messed up life I live. I had to acknowledge that God is probably snickering at my reaction to this, and that in fact, I had challenged him more than a month ago and told him I was ready for this gap. I’m the one that asked him to throw me in there head first. Duh. This is what I get.
I tried to fix my hair, but realized that there wasn’t much I could do about the wave that comes with a rainy day. I changed into some dry socks and ran the heat on my feet to dry my shoes, put on my make-up and drove out to their house. I snapped a picture of the sign as I drove passed, laughing at the words “country club” in gold lettering. When I parked at the house, and went inside, I was disturbed by the crystal glasses on the table and the fine china. The ‘real silver’ silverware and the white couches. Who the hell buys a snow-white couch? They let Zuzu in the house, and after my formal introductions I had a seat in the living room. The elderly couple seemed very nice and curious about my round-the-country adventure. I was entertaining small talk while they finished setting up the dishes of food, and I looked at my phone again.
I saw a picture of my friends in Little Rock, Joey and Donny. They had showed up to Canvas Community for Thanksgiving, and Aaron had caught up with them. I guess Joey had moved out into the woods. But his smile told me that he was doing just fine. I love that man so much. It made me breathe a little easier when I sat down around the table. Everyone was awkward, as though they didn’t know what to do about the prayer. They are Catholic, but the elderly man said a quick sentence and I wondered if it was to be polite to me. The food was amazing.
For some reason, the man next to me, Stanley, really wanted to talk about his understanding of homelessness. He is obviously well educated, and I found out later that he’s a medical doctor. He is heavily involved in politics, and he likes to have politically charged conversations. He’s under the impression that wisdom comes with age, and therefore thinks that I am naïve and idealistic. I’ll agree with the idealistic part of it but I am far from naïve.
He told his mother (the elderly woman) a story of snapping a picture of a homeless man in the city once. He said that the homeless man got up and confronted him, and said ‘how dare you take my picture, you better pay me for that!’ I think the story would have ended there, as some sort of sleezy dinner time tale in which everyone laughed at the sheer awkwardness of telling that story while sitting around a table full of fine china. Everyone did laugh, and I glared. He drew in his breath as my friend defended the homeless man. “That’s all he has!” she said indignantly. He was poised to create himself a saint as he practically interrupted her to explain that he realized now that what he did was rude, because that may be the only way for that man to make money. I glared.
I firmly asked a question. “How would you feel if you had just sat down in your recliner to read your newspaper and someone walked up to the living room window and snapped a picture of you in your bathrobe?” Stanley stopped chewing his forkful of turkey to stare at me. I continued. “Would you get up to protest? Would you expect an explanation? An introduction? Something?”
His mother snickered as he tried to save face. “Well.. yeah.. I know. He’s not a zoo animal.”
I rolled my eyes as he went on to discuss how people should try to empathize. He told a story about being 19 and wanting to hike the Appalachian Trail. He left with a 65 pound pack on his back and his mother dropped him off. He hiked for 2 weeks on the trail and met some interesting people. He likened this to a ‘homeless experience.’ My friend interrupted him. “yeah, but you also researched it, and planned it and figured out what you would need to survive.” He missed her point and wholeheartedly agreed with her. “I was SMART about it! You’re damn right.” He went on to explain that eventually he ran out of supplies. His mother picked up the story. “He called me saying that the pack was hurting his kidneys and that he only had 17 cents left.”
Stanley wrapped up his story. “I gave that 17 cents to someone on the street right before I got on the bus going home, because I suddenly knew what it was like. I know how it feels to be homeless. I ran out of supplies!!”
“And then you quit.” I stated. My friend laughed. “And went HOME.” I finished.
I balled up my napkin and pushed my chair back. I needed to walk away for a second, just to breathe. I took the battery out of my camera and plugged it into the wall as Stanley changed the subject. I was so angry. I wanted to shout at him. “You idiot!! Homeless people can’t quit! They can’t go HOME. You have no idea what that feels like, to not have a safety net. You could not survive one freakin night as Memphis or Nashville! You’d cry like a little girl!!” but I said nothing. I bit my tongue.
A short time later, my friend got into a heated debate with Stanley about how much good a person does. As a doctor, he equates GOOD, with SAVING LIVES. If you aren’t saving a life, then you’ve done no good. He talked about how mad it makes him that a football player who makes billions of dollars has started foundations that save millions of lives, but never had to get a bachelor’s degree. He had to study for 6 years, but the football player does MORE GOOD than he does.
I was so perplexed by his attempt to quantify good, that I couldn’t let it go. He asked my friend (who is an economics professor) how many lives she has saved. She said that as a teacher, there is no telling. She told of two students that are now studying to get their Masters degrees in international development with a focus on the Third World. He said “that’s great, but you should figure out how to track that, how to quantify that, so that you’ll know in your life time how much GOOD you’ve done.”
I don’t need to explain how ridiculous this is, but I interrupted him to talk about how Martin Luther King could not quantify his good. Neither could Nikola Tesla. But both of them changed the course of American history… (and saved thousands of lives, if you need to go there.) Their equation for success was not counting their ‘good’ but it was to follow their heart, and their passion, to the ends of the earth. Despite all odds and against all logic they believed that what they were doing was what they were CALLED to do. It was their purpose. And in our purpose lies our greatness.
He simply called me naïve and idealistic and I called him condescending and he rambled on. My friend and I could barely get a word in edge wise.
When he paused to take a breath once, I told the story of Jesus in the temple, watching people come in to pay their tithe. I talked about the widow woman and her two coins to a catholic man who says that religion is a sore point. But I made mine. I told him that her two coins were worth more than all the landowner’s silver.
He was speechless for a moment, because the Bible does that to people, but he fired back that sure, the widow woman can feel ‘oh so good’ about her two coins, but in reality it was the landowners that built the temple. I asked “who’s reality?” and he said “the reality”. I told him I was glad that he was the measuring stick for all the good done in the world and that next time I needed to know if something was good or not, I would bring it to him to ‘quantify it’ since he was God. I think some people would have called me a blasphemer in that moment, but I don’t think that Stanley heard my sarcasm anyway, because he was already ranting about something else.
I told him about my story, and that I had been told the same lies that he was feeding himself right now, that you have to be Bill Gates or Oprah to do any real good in the world, and that when I tried to do that I ended up homeless. Then I told him about the realization that when I had nothing, I still had time and talent. He wasn’t hearing any of that. He called me a child and told me to come back and talk to him when I was older and wiser. He said “You keep doing what you’re doing now and you see what kind of GOOD you do. You’ll see.”
Knowing that tonight was the first that Stanley had heard of what I do, I told him to google me. At that point I knew I was done with the conversation and I stood up from the table. I hate that my ego wants to throw that out there. Like “listen up dude, you have no idea who you’re talking to!” But what does that even mean? Who is he talking to? Nobody. The elderly man was sitting out in the other room and waved at me. When I walked in, he apologized for his son. He said that he was going through a hard time and that his priorities were out of whack. I smiled and nodded. As my friend continued to argue with Stanley in the kitchen, everyone else apologized for his behavior. I was thinking about how much better I fit in under that overpass.
Eventually Stanley slinked off to the other room and my friend came to sit with us. We discussed different books that we liked and lessons that have been learned along the way. We talked about trends in poverty and some of the solutions that we’ve seen. We debriefed about our shelter visit the day before, and I realized that she had been carefully watching my interactions with Mouse and Squirrel. We talked about fear and the concept of ‘family’ on the streets. She called me an ‘intuitive listener’. I like that compliment. My friend is a like-minded soul, and I enjoyed our conversation. The elderly couple offered for me to sleep on their couch, (which is beautifully generous) but I declined. I wanted to get on the road. Just as I was beginning to feel comfortable, and relieved that I had survived the gap between the streets and the country club… Zuzu threw up on their carpet. Nice.