The most basic items in our lives we can take for granted, such as a home to keep us warm and safe, and food on our table to keep us full and nourished. If we are so lucky to have these things, then, perhaps we should look out and help who we can, whenever the opportunity presents itself to give.
“Business! Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”
– (Jacob Marley, A Christmas Carol)
It rained in thick heavy sheets for days upon days. Mr. Bird and I have a fondness for rain as many have a fondness for sunshine. We were warm and toasty in the car, singing Christmas carols as we drove about town, holiday shopping; his hand on my leg. We felt drunk with excitement and gratitude.
While we waited at a stoplight, I noticed an older woman crossing the street. She had a plastic shopping bag over her hair, which the wind carried like a sail, filling it full like a balloon above her head. A black trash bag covered her back. Her many layered jackets, pants, and socks were dull and grey. In London, there is a charitable word for those who have no home, “roughsleepers”. In America, we are less charitable with our words, or rather, more direct… homeless.
I looked at Jason and said, “Oh my goodness, she is soaking wet! She has no umbrella! It’s so cold! It’s pouring.” Suddenly, the rain seemed a little less of a comfort to me, as this rain could very possibly give this woman pneumonia. “Pull over,” I pointed two lanes over, to the corner.
Without a pause, without questionning my impulsiveness, Jason pushed his way across traffic. I grabbed our umbrella from the backseat. “She can’t be left in the cold and the rain with no protection,” I said and hopped out of the car…
Now… let me first preface this in saying, I am not always the most courageous in situations like these. I blame my childhood during which a brief time I attended a Catholic school in Los Angeles. Three times a week, we would walk from the school to the Church for mass. Every time we approached the Church, the same “roughsleeper” would pull oranges, grapefruits, rocks, and an assortment of other projectiles, and throw them… at me, uttering profanities. Why at me? I am not sure. In fact, the other kids would ask: “What did you do to her?” which, as if this question could be taken seriously, I would stutter, “n-n-nothing, I swear.” I was 11.
During that same period of time, while waiting in front of this same Church for my parents to pick me up from school, a tall, dark roughsleeper with a boombox on his shoulder walked up to me. “What do you have in the bag?”
“Church stuff,” I replied, utterly terrified.
“A turkey sandwich,” he asked, grabbing the bag. He opened the brown paper bag quickly. “There’s nothing but chuch stuff in here,” he angrily muttered, then, walked into the Church, his loud boombox seeming like the ultimate sacriledge.
Cut to years later, when I was a young twenty something, dating a fellow who attended Princeton. When I would visit him, we would often take the train into “The City” (that would be New York City for all of you who aren’t hip to the Local jargon). One year, while walking around the city, we tucked into a fast food restaraunt to use the restrooms. After a long wait, a wiry “roughsleeper” exited the women’s restroom. We made eye contact.
“YOU!” she glared at me.
“Me?” I asked, pointing innocently at my chest.
“You!!! You killed Eli!!” she screamed.
“Let’s get out of here,” I tugged at my then boyfriends sleeve.
We walked two full city blocks with this woman, following us, shouting every manner of gutteral phrases. We ducked into the Subway station. At our platform, a prosthletizing roughsleeper, stood on one of the benches. There were, perhaps, twenty fellow roughsleepers all sitting at his feet, listening intently to his sermon. The wiry roughsleeper, appeared at our platform and yelled, for all to hear:
“SHE KILLED ELI!!!” and pointed in my direction.
All eyes looked towards me, and like some strange Brechtian play coming to life, they all chanted: “She killed Eli? She killed Eli.”
“Who’s Eli?” my boyfriend asked. I seriously should have broken up with him in that moment.
“How should I know?” I stammered.
Then, like some surrealistic action film, as the roughsleepers edged closer to us, our train pulled into the platform, and we hurriedly boarded, leaving the scowling faces who believed I killed Eli, behind us.
This is all to say… I have not always had the best experiences when it comes to roughsleepers. This being said, I should also add, that I wanted to find a way out of my fear, and be able to give.
While working for my father years ago, a man who had no shoes with crutches walked into my dad’s office. I was working at the front desk. The roughsleeper asked my dad directions to the Social Security building. My dad, without this man asking for a dime, reached into his wallet, and handed him a twenty dollar bill. “Don’t spend it on booze or drugs,” he said, “Ok?”
When the man left, I said, “Dad, that was amazing!”
Dad said: “There but for the grace of God, go I.”
Oddly, homelessness itself has always been a great fear of mine. The idea of living on the streets, with no protection, from the elements or other people truly frightens me . In ignorance, I would ask others, How does homelessness occur? There came a time this year, when, during an economically dark night of the soul, the answer presented itself… it can happen to any of us. While sitting across the street from a park, I watched the various dramas unfolding between a dozen roughsleepers, who adjusted their sleeping bags and belongings. I promised myself that I would overcome my fear, and do what I could to help, fear be darned.
As I stood in the rain, I held the umbrella in front of me. “You must be soaking wet,” I said, “Here take this. Have this.”
“No,” she said, “I have no way to hold it.” She lifted both hands which clutched two large duffle bags.
“I could help you strap your bags together, then you could have the umbrella to keep you dry.”
“No,” she said again, in an accent that could be Russian.
“No,” she said again.
We both stood there, looking at each other.
“Do you need money?” I asked.
“No,” she said.
“Well…God Bless you,” I said, which seemed the only thing I could offer her, that she could not refuse.
“And you,” she said.
I wish I could tell you that she took the umbrella, and that I felt better knowing she would be a bit more comforted in her situation. I am happy that I tried to help, and will try again. My thoughts have been so much with this woman for the past several days. My hope is that somehow, she will have a roof over her head soon, and food to eat. I hope so, at least.
There but for the grace…. In this world, I truly believe, we are all connected. The most basic items in our lives we can take for granted, such as a home to keep us warm and safe, and food on our table to keep us full and nourished. If we are so lucky to have these things, then, perhaps we should look out and help who we can, whenever the opportunity presents itself to give.
It is the true meaning of Christmastime which awakens in all of us a sense of renewal in the hope for humankind. As Scrooge’s nephew says:
“I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come around apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that — as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people . . . as if they were fellow-passengers. . . . “
Merry Chrismas Eve!