Monday, April 16, 2012
Contrary to most of my experience with the homeless, it took Jon a little while to warm up to my presence in his area. Several of my attempts at small talk fell flat right away. He wasn’t interested in the weather or the store nearby that had recently closed down. He just wanted to stare into the distance and stroke his beard.
Our conversation bumped along with mumbled one-word answers for several minutes, until he asked me if I had any siblings. I told him about mine, where they live and what they do, and then he became interested. He told me that he had “a whole bunch of” children and grandchildren.
He really wanted to get himself a place to live so he could have family get-togethers again, like they used to do. He hadn’t had much success. John went into a lengthy soliloquy about churches and their signs that had something to do with studios (whether apartments or musical, I wasn’t really sure – John is a musician as well).
Just before my wife came by to pick me up an older gentleman came up to Jon and asked him if he was hungry. John sort of half-shrugged his shoulders as if to say, “I won’t turn down food if you’re offering.”
“How about a meatball sub?” the older man asked.
“Ah, well… I sorta’ wanted to try the pepperoni one.” Jon turned and pointed at the window display decal behind him.
The old man squinted his eyes a bit. “I was going to get a footlong and share half with you. I was coming for a meatball though.”
“Okay.” John said somewhat passively. He waited for the man to walk inside before turning to me and adding, “I had one of those yesterday, and I just wanted to change things up a bit.”
Sunday, March 18, 2012
He is somewhere close. So close. So close to my home. We are warm inside and he’s not. What should we do? My wife and I weigh the options. He could stay in our small one-bedroom apartment for the night. Is that going too far? Doesn’t Jesus want us to give up ourselves and our comfort for other people? But the scabies. And she’s pregnant. And the bathroom is located in the back of the master bedroom.
But the rain. And he is so frail. How cruel would it be to let him die on my doorstep?
Do we want this homeless guy to know exactly where we live? Will he come to us for handouts from now on? How do we even know if his story is legit? I noticed while he and I were talking he would nonchalantly bring up his needs in a way that seemed a little manipulative.
“Where are you going?”
“Starbuck huh? What does coffee go for these days?”
“I don’t really know, expensive though.”
“How long has it been since I’ve been in a Starbucks? Coffee was $2.15 when I was there last.”
“Would you like some coffee?”
“Del Taco over here has a good coffee with a senior discount.”
“Alright let’s go.”
It was raining; he was cold and wanted coffee. Is it so wrong to ask in a round-about way? But, what if he just goes around manipulating people to get stuff from them? What if none of his story is true?
100% chance of rain for the next two days.
All I can think about is when James says, “If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?” Even if he is a con-artist and a liar he still shouldn’t have to sleep in the rain.
We decide to put him up in a cheap hotel for the night. I just have to find him first.
I go to his cart and find the previous bundle has been redistributed and organized throughout the cart. At least he’s seen the gift. Mason is nowhere to be found though. I search around the block. It’s getting dark now and the rain is pouring. I check the back alleys, front streets and parking lots around the barbershop. I finally catch up with him coming out of the Del Taco.
Mason is very appreciative of the things I left for him. I tell him that more rain is coming and that we want to put him up for the night. He is so humble and thankful that my misgivings about his character slowly begin to melt away. I pull my truck around, he carefully selects which belongings will come with him to the hotel, and off we go.
Mason reeks of urine and sweat. The best I can do is keep the air circulating in the cab to keep from gagging. The woman at the hotel is not excited to see us either. She reluctantly gives him a room.
He wheezes his way up the single flight of stairs, stopping twice to catch his breath. “Bronchitis,” he tells me. “And the early stages of emphysema.”
We chat for a little while. I convince him to call his friend at the mission to see about getting in as soon as he can. Mason promises to try. We chat a little more, about the Bible, about churches. He wants to meet with us to talk about Scripture soon. I think I would like that. It’s difficult to leave Mason again. He’s lonely. He just wants to talk to someone. But he’s not pushy or overpowering. He is grateful for the room. I promise to check in with him again on Sunday.
Saturday, March 17, 2012
It is raining this morning when I see him under the eaves of the barber shop, taking long pulls on his cigarette. We chat briefly, and like so many others, as soon as he understands that I mean to stay and listen he gives me his whole life story. We walk to a fast-food restaurant to get out of the cold and wet as we talk.
Mason is the firstborn son. His father was named Mason, and his father’s father. “Masons, real masons, build things, not like those freemasons. I built things when I was young. I was in construction. Drywall was my specialty. It was my family tradition to name your firstborn Mason and teach him to build.” He was born on a farm in Kansas in 1947. His mother committed suicide when he was 9, his father abandoned them a couple years before that. He was raised by his grandparents.
Mason had one sister, but she committed suicide too because she blamed herself for their mother’s depression and death. He has two younger brothers that he hasn’t seen or heard from since they were crawling around in diapers.
Mason tells me that he is only a few months away from receiving social security now. He could have collected at 62, but by moving to the streets and waiting three years he will get more money when he’s finally approved. This combined with his VA check should be enough for him to rent an apartment and get off the street again. So he hopes, anyway.
He’s very meticulous in the way he prepares his coffee. Strips the lid from the creamer, pours it in sideways, adds the sugar. He stacks the creamer cups on the tray, rolls the packs of sugar like mini cigarettes and sticks them in the topmost cup. By the time we finish talking there are three little creamer towers standing symmetrically across the tray.
He asks me how old I am. I tell him 26. “Oh to be 26 again.” He says, lightheartedly. I doubt it’s nostalgia though. When he was 25 he came home from Vietnam to find that his wife had died from a heroin overdose. No one told him until he walked in the door. Her children, his stepchildren, still blame him for her death, even though he was out of the country. “I used to be a heroin addict too. And a alcoholic. Not anymore though. Not after that. I haven’t touched the stuff since she died.” Now he’s 40 years sober. At 26 he would have dealt with withdrawal, shakes, creeps, hallucinations, and guilt besides whatever he saw in Vietnam. What would it mean for him to be 26 again?
Mason and I talk for several hours. I find out that he was a web designer and computer programmer. He had to sell his computer a few years back for cash. He is a member of the generation that played with home computers in their infant form and learned by tinkering them as they grew. He told me about systems he developed for companies all over southern California. Websites, inventory software, logistics solutions that he designed himself. I remember a programmer friend of mine once describing his job as the need to categorize and organize everything around him regardless of its significance. So the creamer towers make sense.
The rain lets up, so I offer to take him to the 99cent store to replace the reading glasses and books that someone stole from his cart a few days ago. Mason loves books, pens and notebook just like me. As a fellow writer it seems like the least I can do to help. I leave him at the restaurant and go up to my apartment to put my bag away. I call my wife to help me find a shelter for him tonight. I couldn’t stand the thought of this frail old man shivering in the rain all night. The search is fruitless. All the local cold-weather shelters have been closed since last week. When I get back to the restaurant Mason is gone.
I go to the store without him and buy some of the necessities he mentioned as missing. Socks, soup cans, water, a notebook with nice pens, a little umbrella. I leave them wrapped in plastic on his cart behind the barber shop. The bags look so trivial when I see it bundled up on top of his wet clothes and blankets. I look around for him again without any luck.
I go up to my apartment and stare out at the falling rain. I think about coming home to find my wife dead. What would that be like? It would probably drive me to drink instead of away from it. What if the rest of Mason’s life is so terrible it actually made 26 something worth pining for? I think about never seeing my family again. I think about the fact that my first name is the same as my father’s and my grandfather’s and that my wife and I are expecting our firstborn son. Mason never remarried. He has no children of his own. He will never pass on his name.
I think about sleeping in the rain, and it makes me cry.
I can’t remember the last time I cried about anything. I’ve talked to hundreds of homeless people. Only a small fraction of their stories make it to this blog. I’ve never been affected like this. Maybe it was the rain. Maybe it was the fact that this guy literally sleeps a stone’s throw from my apartment. Maybe I’ve been out of the loop for so long that I am not as jaded or calloused as I was during previous posts. Mason shouldn’t have to live on the street until his social security comes through.
I hate homelessness.
Tuesday, November 30, 2010
It's been a while since I've posted any stories. This is due, in part, to the fact that I've moved to a different part of Los Angeles where there are fewer homeless individuals to be found. Yet even here I have seen several and met a few. There is a flamboyant character I hope to speak with soon who flaunts his live pet macaw while panhandling on the corner of Beach and Imperial, not far from where I met Lady Roma. I suppose it's just a matter of knowing where to look.
Tonight my wife and I went to the Chick-fil-A in La Habra, right over the border in Orange County. It was in the upper forties tonight, just chilly enough to make you uncomfortable. As we were walking into the restaurant we noticed a lady standing to the left of the door. She was in her mid to late thirties, decently-well dressed for the weather, and had bathed recently.
She held the tell-tale, hand-made sign replete with misspellings and confusing sentence structure. I didn't read the sign, both because it was smaller than normal (little larger than a post card) and because as soon as we approached her she asked for money. Aside from the fact that I am the world's worst multi-tasker, it seemed rude to read the sign while she was talking to me; as though I were appraising her written message against her spoken one. The only thing I can remember reading was the phrase, "I aM a sinGuL Mom." A boy about eight years of age stood obediently next to her as a physical validation of the claim.
My wife and I spoke with her briefly then went inside to decide what we should do. We chose to ask them to eat with us. Once the food was ready I went back outside to invite them in. I had noticed that she spoke with an accent earlier, now I learned that she was from France, and only knew a few phrases in English.
I reverted to sign language and large gestures, squeezing my brain for anything useful left over from the semester of French I took in junior high. We wanted her and her child to come in from the cold and share our meal, but they refused to budge. The boy even shook his head and chimed in French phrases at excited intervals explaining why that wouldn't work. I even tried a poorly enunciated "Pour quoi?"
but this only elicited a longer stream of French than I had managed to get before, none of which I understood any better than her English. After several minutes of fruitless coaxing we took them the food we had purchased and went back inside to eat our own.
It was frustrating, in part due to the language issue, and in part due to the fact that they couldn't be convinced to come inside. Judging from the way she gestured toward the doors of the restaurant I wondered if she had already had a run-in with the store's management. Perhaps she just felt uncomfortable eating with us. My wife and I wondered if she was a gypsy. That might explain why her son was so well coached in the dialogue and party-line. Who knows?
I was unable to learn her name. By the time we left the restaurant she was gone.
Wednesday, December 9, 2009
After my interesting encounter with the iPodster I decided to approach the other man in the park, someone whom I have met several times. He frequently loiters around the church premises, but to my knowledge has never participated in any of our meals, services, or ministries. He also has multiple names; nearly every time we meet he introduces himself as someone else. I suppose this makes him the ideal candidate for me to blog about. Maybe I should set his picture as the homepage.
I greeted him in the latest iteration of his identity just to see how he would respond. "Hey, DJ how's it going? It is DJ right?" I said, and was surprised to see his posture straighten, his face brighten, and his attitude change from despondent rejectee to cordial host. "Yeah, that's right," he said with a smile. He welcomed me into his section of the park like a playground acquaintance in grade school. We aren't close enough for him to trust me entirely, but maybe he could someday, if I keep showing up.
One of the things that intrigues me the most about homeless people is their ability to embody poignant irony in a way that would be hard to replicate elsewhere. Unlike the last time I saw him, DJ now owned a shopping cart. But it wasn't stacked high with mountains of junk or survival tools for living on the streets. From where I stood it looked like mostly old clothes, sheets, blankets, and pillows all neatly folded and arranged from smallest to largest. The side of the cart was imprinted with the name of its previous owner: "Linens 'n Things."
DJ was also in a different mood than before, and his appearance was quite improved. His voice, though depressed, was more cheerful. I didn't have to strain to hear what he was saying, and it looked like he had bathed within the past couple of weeks. During our conversation he made several off-hand references to medication, perhaps that's what helped. He also mentioned several churches and missions in the area.
He talked a lot about prison. About people wanting to fight him. How he hates the Church. About wishing he could get back to his wife and family in New Jersey.
Toward the end of our conversation I asked him what was on his hand, I had been wondering the whole time we had been talking.
"Oh, that's a wedding ring I made out of gum wrappers," he said. "I want all the ladies I meet to know that I am married. I want them to know that I already have someone I love."
Sunday, December 6, 2009
I spoke with DJ again today (more on this later). My wife had noticed him sitting in the park behind our church and asked me if I wanted to take him a blanket.
When I walked through the rod-iron gate, blanket in hand, I noticed that there was not one man in the park, but two. They were sitting on benches about 300 feet from one another, each apparently oblivious of the other's presence.
I decided to take a gamble and walk toward the man I had never seen before. He certainly looked homeless, at least initially. He had his hood up and was slouched against the bench with his chin on his chest. A couple of couch cushions were set up beside him as a make-shift bed. Now that I think about it, the cushions looked kind of new, not like the worn-to-threads dirty kind that homeless people generally find lying outside apartment complexes. He was wearing a dark jacket that looked a little worse for wear. What really caught me off guard, though, was the reason he didn't hear me when I approached him.
I tried to get his attention a couple of times without any luck, and succeeded only when I physically stood in front of him and thrust the blanket in his direction. That's when I realized why he was slumped over in such an oddly familiar pose. He was swiveling his thumb back and forth around the white circle of his iPod, blissfully unaware of the rest of Los Angeles.
He looked at me with a quizzical expression and popped out one of the earphones. "I'm sorry? Can I help you?" he asked. When he understood that I was only offering a clean blanket he politely declined and said that he would be fine. It was clear that I had disrupted the serenity of his self-imposed isolation. I decided to move on.
Monday, November 16, 2009
Friday, September 11, 2009
The link below leads to a fantastic post from a friend of mine. Her family has gone out of their way to befriend several homeless individuals. The heartfelt elucidation of her feelings about her homeless-addict friend digs to the heart of what it means to love anyone, homeless or not. C.S. Lewis said, "To love at all is to become vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken."
"All the people saw this and began to mutter, 'He has gone to be the guest of a 'sinner.'' But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, 'Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount. 'Jesus said to him, 'Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost." (Luke 19:7-10)
Thursday, August 20, 2009
Sam is not a Deist. I was wrong. He is about as vehemently Muslim a man as you could find. He is just not practicing.
I spoke with Sam again today, this time both before and after the service/meal. He was dressed exactly the same, his beard was exactly the same length, the difference this time was that someone had pulled out all of his stops.
There is no doubt in my mind that he sought me out today because he felt like he could carry on a decent semi-intellectual conversation with me. He started right away, pulling me aside as soon as he walked in the door. I reiterate, once again, that he is a very intelligent man, this time we moved away from politics into religion plain and simple. It was fine in the beginning. The man is capable of hanging onto vast libraries of knowledge, and displayed it readily. He recounted to me word for word conversations he had had with preachers down through the years. Then, seemingly without warning, he went from amiable to polemical.
He started off by attacking Hindus for being illogical. "How can you worship monkey gods or elephant head gods, like that? It is the stupidest thing on earth." He grew up in India, where Muslim/Hindu relations still leave much to be desired. Not surprising.
It was the next move that caught me off-guard. "You know, I was talking with a pastor once who said to me, 'You become the kind of thing that you worship.' I said, 'That must be true. Look at how the Hindus worship these animals, and they act just like them.' Once I was speaking with a Jew who looked up from his lunch and told me: 'You know Jesus was a bastard right?' completely unprovoked. So I said to this preacher, 'If you become what you worship is that why so many Christians have babies out of wedlock?" Sam went on. "You know Josh. More than 85% of births in the US are babies born out of wedlock."
I challenged him on this point. "I don't think those numbers are quite right. I know the number is high, but I don't think it's that high."
He became incensed. "I do not lie to you! I read it in an Encyclopedia Britannica." Here he proceeded to list off the percentages he had read for other "Christian" countries. "I go to AA meetings all the time just to hear their stories because I think they are interesting. Alcoholics ruin their lives and get pregnant and do terrible things because of alcohol. In Muslim countries we do not have any problems like this." In America you cannot even pass a constitutional amendment to keep people away from alcohol. Muslim countries are far superior.
"Look at all the evil that Christian countries have done… crusades, genocide, etc." I tried to interject at this point that Muslim countries have done similarly bad things too, that it is best to compare the ideal of each religion to the ideal of others or the reality of one to the reality of others. Bad idea. "Lies, those are all lies! He was getting quite heated at this point so I tried to cool things off, but the train was already moving. Back and forth he went from a bastard Jesus to Alcoholism for minutes on end. Finally I made up a reason to go to a different part of the room.
We were able to part company on a cordial note. I gave him a copy of the book of John, which I am sure he will not read, but I did confirm one thing with him in the end, "You know Sam, for someone so proud of Muslim accomplishments, all your talk about Jesus doesn't square too well with the Koran. Are you really a Deist after all?"
"Yeah, Thomas Jefferson is my hero. I want to be like him. He read the book of Revelation and said it was written by a crazy person. I believe there is a God somewhere, at least I am not an agnostic or atheist right?" He chuckled. "I am just too much of a free spirit to go to the mosque." That's as close as I've gotten to finding out why he is on the streets in the first place.
After reflecting on our conversation, I find that I am not as much offended by what he said, as I am frustrated by my inability to reason with him. I am not sure if I want to talk to Sam again. I just hope that I do a better job becoming like Jesus, than he has done becoming like Thomas Jefferson.
Tuesday, August 18, 2009
I have gotten some e-mails from readers recently that have contained personal anecdotes about homeless experiences and/or accounts of their own lives on the streets. Some of them are pretty interesting in their perspective and detail; so I decided to extend an opportunity to anyone who reads this blog.
If you have a story about homelessness that you would like to contribute to the site, please send me an e-mail.
NOTH's new e-mail address is: firstname.lastname@example.org .
I am looking for anything that honestly describes people's condition, that movingly tells their life-stories, and that includes the name of the individual. Names are essential because they bring the homeless into the realm of humanity. It is easier to love someone when you know their name, it is harder to fear or hate them. Knowing and remembering someone's name shows them that you think they matter as an individual; and that they're not subhuman or a meaningless statistic. What would you think if I told you that President Obama knew me, and called me by my name? That would mean that to the Commander and Chief, I stand out as a unique, knowable entity, and
not just another face in a crowd of 300million citizens. I am worthy of special attention, worthy enough for him to memorize the most elemental feature of my person: my name.
Think about how different Reagan's speech would have sounded if he had said: "Whoever-you-are-Soviet-leader, you ought to tear down this wall." Names are powerful. Think about the first time you heard the name of your beloved. Remember how it tingled in your ear and intoxicated your insides? Now you could call to the person who had been distracting your mind all day, and they would turn and acknowledge you too. (Amazing!) Think about Mary, next to the tomb, trying to find the body of her Lord. It was not until Jesus sweetly whispered her name that she recognized him.
If you are interested in talking to a homeless person, but are intimidated by the idea or are unsure how to start, feel free to shoot me an e-mail and I can send you some suggestions.
Thanks for everyone who has given me honest feedback on this project thus far. I appreciate your comments.
Thursday, August 13, 2009
My congregation helped serve hot meals today. They did a great job (as always), and I was impressed with their hard work and great attitudes.
I translated the brief sermon from Spanish to English and afterwards spent some time milling around and talking with the people who came. After the meal a certain gentleman waved me over to his table from the other side of the room.
His white, week-long beard stood in sharp contrast to his russet-colored skin. Some curling silvery hair spilled from under his baseball cap and over the back collar of a faded blue jacket. His clothes were in bad shape, and his hands were grubby from living outdoors. His eyes, however, were very much alive.
He asked, "How do you say 'carpenter' in Spanish? Because, you know, Jesus was a carpenter right?"
I was somewhat taken aback, as I expected him to be Hispanic. I asked him to repeat the question and noted that his accent didn't quite fit with my preconceived notions. I answered his question, and then learned that he was from India.
If I've done the math right Sam came to the United States in the mid 1970's. He grew up in Delhi and graduated with a double major in Economics and Political Science. He moved to Chicago because he wanted to further his education by studying computer science.
He told me, "I remember when I first moved to Chicago. I got a job as a quality inspector at a local factory. I was always a perfectionist so it was the perfect job for me." He laughed. "You know it's cold in Chicago. I stepped outside one day and the wind-chill factor was -87 degrees. The first meal I ever had in the US was at Denny's, and that day I wanted to go to Denny's again. I went to the restaurant and looked inside, but no one was inside. I looked up at the sign and it said 'Open 24 Hours' so I walked right in. It took a while to get service that day; I think there were only a couple people working."
Sam and I talked about all kinds of things: politics, religion, and the Vietnam War. He told me that he grew up as a Muslim, but wasn't one any longer because the founders of the United States were brilliant men and they were Deists, so he figured he should be a Deist too. I don't mention this to slight him at all. He wasn't a dull man. He told me when he first came to LA he would spend all day in the library at UCLA and eat meals they handed out at night with outdoor moving screenings.
I tried different ways of asking him why someone as educated and intellectually capable as himself would choose to live on the streets, but he deflected my question each time. He chose to tell me instead that he grew up in the Merchant/ Business caste in India. "My family always told me that if you work for another man you will be poor your whole life. That is the way we were brought up, to have great success in business." Even though he was a Muslim it was supposed to be his destiny.
A well-read man, literally bred for monetary success, had a degree in economics, and was sitting before me homeless. The most ironic part for me though, was he had rejected a personable, knowable God because he wanted to emulate Benjamin Franklin, but didn't seem to follow any of Franklin's maxims about wealth or hard work. I hope I get to speak with Sam again.
Wednesday, August 12, 2009
I recently had an idea to start a podcast on this blog. I thought, "I could get a nice digital recorder, have homeless people tell me their stories, put the whole thing to music, and voice-over some narration like "This American Life" or "All Things Considered". It'll be a big hit!" Because I also interview people for my work at uwemp, it seemed like a win-win. A new recorder, a new feature for the blog. It sounded like a good idea at the time anyway.
I spent several months writing articles for Demand Studios to raise the money for the recorder and my great technological leap forward. After countless articles and rewrites I finally have enough money. Today is the day. I go to Radio Shack, pick the one I want (I had already spent several hours comparison shopping online), and walk out with my head held high. On the way to my car I realize that I need to go to the bathroom. I made a b-line for the Wendy's across the parking lot.
Who do I see waiting for me outside the door? John. Scraggly hair, mustache, blue sweatshirt; he's asking for another dollar to even out his change for a double stacker inside. "YES!" I think to myself, "Providence has struck! I've only had my new recorder for a few minutes and I will have a chance to try it out."
I offer to take John inside and buy him what he wants with the little cash I have left-over. He graciously accepts. We chit chat for a little while in line. When he gets his food; we sit down, and I rip into my package like a spoiled brat on Christmas. I couldn't get the batteries into the machine fast enough. He told me a little about himself as we sat. He had originally come from Ann Arbor Michigan and had lived in the San Fernando Valley for a while. He was talkative and asked me questions about myself.
I answered politely, but was waiting until I could record the conversation before I asked him about the 'good stuff.' I tested the recorder and it worked beautifully. I told him that I like to learn and share people's stories. I asked him if it was okay with him if I asked him some questions and he said it was. Then I asked him if I could record the conversation and his demeanor immediately changed.
"I really just need to be walking. I don't like to sit in one place for too long."
That was it, conversation over. He finished his meal, I walked with him out the door, and we said our goodbyes. The end.
In the hours since this colossal failure I have begun to examine what went wrong. A number of things might have incited his abrupt departure: 1. Maybe John was genuinely asking for cash, and not a meal, and felt my coziness with him was an intrusion. I doubt this, as he was rather friendly in the beginning (though maybe he felt that he was obligated to be). 2. Maybe he was comfortable talking about his story, but not having it recorded. If a complete stranger asked to record stories from my life I would most certainly turn him down. 3. Maybe things just moved too quickly, and he felt like I was trying to manipulate or get something out of him. 4. Maybe his reasons for becoming homeless, or something else in his past were too shameful, painful, or otherwise private to discuss in such an unanticipated way. 5. Maybe he just didn't like sitting in one place for too long.
In any case, I hope this will prove to be a useful lesson for me. Because I don't think it would be ethical to record their stories without their consent, I think that I will need to build more rapport before offering to record them. I will probably need to have a substantial trusting relationship with them first. That is happening with the people I know from around the church, it will just take more time and patience. I certainly don't want people to feel used. I enjoy their stories and want other people to learn about them. Perhaps I shouldn't try recording them at all.
I welcome your thoughts or comments about these concerns. I fully acknowledge that I have plenty to learn. Speaking of which, while trying to download what little I had recorded to my computer, I accidentally erased all of the files. Alas, the podcast that will never be.
Tuesday, July 28, 2009
I have had the privilege of helping our church's food ministry serve hot meals over the past couple of weeks.
Hispanic women clack and clatter away in the sweltering kitchen (Hermano, ya estas sudando?) serving up delicious plates of food that would easily pass muster in a local restaurant. The can-opener went down this week so we had to use psycho-sized knives to free the canned carrots, corn, and cranberry/apple juices for consumption.
Stir that rice. Cut the bread. Oh, look they're already at the door. We are ready to go.
The homeless file in, one after another. They are mostly men, mostly Hispanic, and mostly middle aged or older. Their first stop in the air- conditioned basement is by the counter where they "sign in" and then receive their utensils: one napkin, one Styrofoam cup, and one plastic spoon. Some of them are amiable and greet the workers, others are apathetic, staring sullenly down at the paper and pen, still others are mentally incapable of any response beyond sticking to the routine as best they know how.
Everyone attempts to write their name, but some are more successful than others. There were Mikes, Albertos, Eduardos, and Johns along with Ms. Park, only the second homeless Korean I have ever seen. There were exotic names too: Angel de Maria, G, XX, along with various lines and squiggles. Some wrote their names quickly and sat down, some bit their tongues and forced the pen down in the painfully laborious strokes of a first grade education. A couple took up more lines than were necessary, straying into other names and margins, like drunk drivers in the world of the literate.
The jobs in the kitchen and serving the food kept me from getting to spend time with many of them. I spoke briefly with John, who was so excited to have someone to talk to that he continued the conversation even while he left the table to get more to drink. He was still talking when he sat down again; I am not sure how much I missed. I did catch that he used to work in construction up in Fresno, before he lost his job. He took some classes at LA City College studying, "a little bit of everything."
I met up with Mr. "G" as well. Thick jacket and a braided beard. He says he is staying cool even with the recent heat. "It doesn't bother me at all."
Hundreds of names, hundreds of stories. Can't wait to begin exploring them all.
Monday, June 1, 2009
Yesterday, for the first time, a homeless person came and found me instead of the other way around.
“Am I bothering you?” he asked.
“No.” I answered. But it was not completely true. I was trying to write a sermon in a prayer chapel, looking for some solitude and silence. I figured that if he kept to himself we could both talk to God without any problem.
“Hey, can I ask you a favor?” he asked after a moment of silence, “Can you take me to the nearest train station?”
Travis is from north-eastern Tennessee and is about as good as a good ol’ boy can get. He has red hair with freckles and brown eyes like coffee with just a little too much creamer. He wears dress shoes with his worn-out jeans, a blue “USA Olympics” sweatshirt, and a Boston Red Socks baseball cap with the edges of the bill curled down around his temples.
His southern drawl was more endearing than obnoxious, it brought back my childhood in Mississippi. As we spoke, my own sentences began to slow down uncontrollably. Southern idioms came to my lips without me asking, as well as the memory of very sweet tea.
Travis had come to California by train so that he could enroll in the seminary that I am attending in the fall. He had previously attended Liberty University. A few things struck me as odd, though. First, Travis had made no plans for accommodations while in California. He just hopped on a train and hoped things would work out. He stayed at the train station for his first two nights in LA, then in the school’s lounge for another night before he and I met. He had not been accepted to the seminary yet… He had not even enrolled.
“I just don’t like talking to people through e-mails,” he told me. “I would rather just talk face-to-face, ya’ know?”
Apparently he sat down with an admissions counselor and tried to deliver his application orally, only to find out (to his disappointment) that he was too early. Classes do not begin again until August, so the University could not accept him or find him housing for another several months. He tried his best to execute a plan B and find a job and a place to stay for the summer, but the man only had $380 to his name. That was not nearly enough for rent, and without a car, his prospects for finding a job were slim.
Now he had given up hope and wanted to go home.
I took him to get his belongings out of a Public Storage facility, only to find out that we were there too late. Travis would have to stay another night in LA. I sat with him at a McDonald's while my wife called all of the local homeless shelters to find him a place to stay. It was Saturday night, and they were all full, except for the ones on Skid Row. But there was no way I was taking this guy down there. They would have eaten him alive, and his $380. He talked to me about home and ministry while we waited. Every other sentence was a quotation from the Bible.
While he was very capable of carrying on a lucid conversation, it was also apparent that not everything was well for him mentally. He explained that he had a mental disability that he was currently taking medication for. After he had given me a long tour through his life and worldview, it wasn’t so hard to understand why he had come to LA without much thought or preparation. He was acting in a way that made sense to him.
We put him up in a Motel 6 for the night. In the morning I took him to the train. He’s a good guy, just a little misplaced. Now he’s on a train heading back to Tennessee.
Saturday, May 16, 2009
I asked one of my students (she’s quite bright) to look around her and describe what she saw. She proceeded to list off picnic tables, bushes, trees, and nameless shrub-like plants that surround the playground. She saw a few park benches, some trash cans, playground equipment, and a water fountain.
What intrigues me is what missed her eye. I had to physically point out to her that there was a man laying down on one of the park benches. His name is Isidro. He didn’t make the list of descriptions from the playground, not because she didn’t see him, but because she didn’t notice him. He blended in even though he looked nothing like his surroundings. Trash cans and water fountains made a more lasting impression on her psyche than this man did.
This interesting social experiment was compounded by the fact that there was a sizable contingent of Korean-speaking individuals at my church today. They were using the sanctuary to host the graduation ceremony of a nearby Korean seminary. None of them were from my church, so none of them knew that I work with the Korean congregation there. I greeted these individuals in the halls, and they responded by staring blankly forward; like well-pressed, religious sleepwalkers. Group after group of them came bumbling out of the church doors and onto the playground, looking in vain for the parking lot and their lost vehicles. My spot at the picnic table never got more than a passing glance. I was as immaterial as a ghost, and possibly as frightening, just like Isidro. It wasn’t until I went up and told them in Korean how to get to the main parking lot that they acknowledged my existence.
Now, I am not picking on Koreans, I love them dearly. I am just thinking about my appalling ability to turn fellow humans into part of the scenery, just a backdrop that is nondescript, worthless, and uninteresting. Of course I cannot carry on a conversation with the thousands of people I pass on the freeway, but maybe I ought to think less about a stranger’s usefulness to me, and more about their value to Someone else. Maybe that would dramatically alter the way I view those thousands of moments I have next to them every day.
Isidro is a unique guy. He has a physical handicap that forces him to use a walker even though he is probably only in his late thirties. He also speaks very slowly, but is quite acute mentally. He arrived from Mexico seventeen years ago and periodically lives with his cousin. His cousin is married to “an African American who is Canadian.” From all descriptions they seem like a great family, but Isidro prefers the freedom of life on the streets. He is well kept, and comes to the church on the weekends for showers, and an occasional service. He carries a Bible in his walker.
It was a genuine pleasure to speak with him. He was congenial and unassuming, just as interested to learn about me as I was him. Sometimes the pauses between our lines of conversation stretched for minutes at a time. Maybe it was the beautiful weather that mollified my soul. Or maybe this is how it always feels when two invisible kindred spirits converse with one another.
Monday, May 4, 2009
If you will remember, in a previous post I mentioned the story of Nathaniel Ayers, a homeless man, and Steve Lopez, an LA Times reporter, as presented by 60 Minutes. The piece mentions that the book inspired by their friendship had spawned a movie: The Soloist.
It has been in theaters for one week now and I had the opportunity to see it this Sunday.
I must begin by saying that this film does a great job of portraying the homeless in their own environment and (at points) from their own perspective. Director Joe Wright (Pride and Prejudice, Atonement) told NPR's Robert Siegel, that once the real Steve Lopez had taken him to Skid Row in downtown L.A. and he had seen the thousands of homeless in the place they call home, his ideas about the nature and cast of the film changed. He says, "I went back to DreamWorks and said, 'Okay I'll make this film on the condition that your lawyers and accountants find a way to pay 500 members of the skid row community." So that is precisely what they did. Real homeless people played the parts of homeless people in the film.
Skid Row comes to the screen in vivid color, and it makes you cringe. In several scenes you watch Steve Lopez's character (played by Robert Downey jr.) trying to find Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx) in and around the Skid Row section of town. He searches through human wreckage and is appalled by what he sees. Crack pipes, street fights, murders, overdoses, police brutality, and mental illness run rife through the streets and are hardly any dramatic departure from the reality that I have seen there myself. It gave me a sort of flashback to my first time on Skid Row, as a part of an Urban Research class.
We went to the Midnight Mission in the early afternoon; a small clump of white middle and upper-class students never looked or felt more out of place. We were there to speak to the director about his strategies in presenting solutions to the homeless environment, but the hundreds of people lining both sides of the street called us the "lunch crew" or the "volunteers" as we walked along, naming the two most common categories for cultural outsiders in that part of the city. We looked like suburbanites-with-a-cause, on Skid Row to assuage our guilt-ridden consciences, but we weren't even worthy of that misnomer. We were only there because of a class requirement.
It is impossible to describe that walk along the streets where these people live. If you don't live close enough to LA to see it for yourself, then you need to see this movie. People call out and cackle to one another across the street, they exchange drugs openly in full view of the authorities, and as an outsider you can literally feel yourself being strip-searched by their eyes. There is no question that you are on their turf. As we approached the entrance to the Mission, a lady and a man both in their late twenties began to have an altercation about an exchange of crack. The man came out on the short end of the exchange. The lady punched him in the eye with her fist. From where I stood it looked like she had several rings on her hand with the diamonds removed, this was confirmed by the fact that the man came running past us bleeding profusely. He walked up to the guardhouse of the Mission, got a paper towel, and continued on his way. The woman laughed at him the whole time, she held the bag in the end.
Like a pithy line taken straight from a movie script, the cigarette-smoking guard looked at us lazily and said, "Welcome to the Mission."
You see the rough side of homeless life in The Soloist, no question about it. In one of the most moving scenes of the film, Lopez spends the night next to Ayers on Skid Row, and records their conversation. As Ayers is praying the Lord's Prayer several scenes flow in succession showing the inhumane conditions of the people around him, and the nature of life on the streets. However, The Soloist also shows a sweetness and camaraderie that many of us don't know exists among these people. There are several scenes where "homeless couples" are seen in genuine affection for one another caring for each other's needs and completing each other's sentences. The film leaves you with a sense of hope for the individuals living there, at least they have each other.
As with most films, there was some poetic license taken with the factual events of Lopez' and Ayers' life stories. It also fabricated a well-meaning, but stupid Christian character who acts aloof and insensitive; which I found to be both offensive and misleading. There was no reason to go there, especially because the vast majority of the organizations that work in Skid Row are run by Christians. Perhaps that is Mr. Wright's view of the nature of Christian work among the Homeless. Maybe he feels all Christians only care about filling their church rosters or their church coffers. I would invite anyone who feels this way to view the program created by Central City Church of the Nazarene less than a few blocks from where The Soloist was filmed. The program is not obsessed with making conversions, or trying to pump someone for money, it simply gives the homeless community a chance to enjoy life for a few hours, in a safe, free environment. Need I remind the world that Christ Himself was homeless? That he invited a man who wanted to follow him to first sell all he had and give his possessions to the poor? Mr. Wright was wrong to caricature Christians as being out of step with the real needs of the homeless.
This brings us full circle to the purpose of this blog. I found myself quite moved by The Soloist's story, and am glad that I began this blog several months before I knew the story existed. The point that the film pushes is that Mr. Lopez is entirely incapable of "fixing" Mr. Ayers' problems, but at the same time was able to give him the one thing he needed: a friend. I want this blog to inspire people to get to know the homeless in their area and befriend them, because it is what they need, it is what you need, and it is how Christ Himself would approach them.
In the film Mr. Lopez is asked why he wants to write a story about the homeless Nathaniel Ayers in the first place. This is his response, "Because I am a writer and that's what I do. Everyone has a story and that story is interesting."
I couldn't have said it better myself.
Saturday, April 25, 2009
He has fringes of gray creeping in along the edges of the mustache, but it is hard to see exactly how gray it is. There are a variety of multicolored substances encrusted around his mouth, as well as in the beard down his chest, left over from meals (or other things) long forgotten. Just because this blog is here to promote the stories of the homeless, doesn’t mean that I intend to sanitize their stories for public consumption. This man stank of urine so badly it would make your stomach turn. Even when the wind was blowing in the opposite direction it smelled as though he were drenched in his own refuse; and it was hard to tolerate.
This problem was compounded by the fact that he only spoke in whispers or low, gravelly tones under his breath. Any conversation with this man made you feel like he was letting you in on some profound secret, or trying to conceal his true identity, or that he had a nice-sized rock in his pocket that he would give you if the price was right. In my opinion, it was most likely the latter. You have to stand close to him if you were going to catch anything more than every third word. Uncomfortably close.
I have met this man around the church before. Last time I talked to him he told me that his name was Peter. It was a memorable exchange. It had been raining that day, and as I pulled into the church parking lot I saw that him standing in the park behind the church’s property. I went over and pulled an old umbrella from the back seat and offered it to him. He refused it. “No I’m good.” he said, and we talked for a little bit. He asked me what I was doing in that part of town, and I told him I worked at the church.
“You got a lot a’ pretty girls in there or what?” he asked abruptly.
“I’m sorry?” I replied.
“Why is that place so full all the time? You got some hot girls?”
“That’s not why people come,” I told him. I then tried to get across at least some vague notion of the purpose of a church to someone who had no clue. I am still not sure it made sense to him. That was a few months ago.
Now he was back, leaning against the church fence, staring creepily in at a small child playing on the inside. I walked up beside him with a healthy, “Hey, Peter!” but got no response. I tried again, a little louder, and this time got his attention. “It is Peter, isn’t it?” He shifted his weight, but didn’t reply. “What’s your name man?” I asked, thinking that I maybe had the wrong guy. As soon as he started speaking in that impossible-to-hear-voice I knew that I had the right guy. “Some people call me Charles,” he said.
“Oh, Charles, I’m sorry I thought your name was Pet—
“Or they call me Calvin,” he interrupted. Now I was even more suspicious. He had a new pair of jeans slung over one shoulder, and he kept adjusting them nervously with his left hand. He looked around then leaned in so close to me the rancid breath nearly warmed the skin on my face. “Or DJ,” he said with a glimmer in his eye. Apparently I had either become privy to a personal secret that only few were given access to, or he had just lied to a naïve white kid with excessive and disturbing pleasure.
I asked him how he was (now using the most recent edition of his name when addressing him), and learned quite a bit more about his personal life and story. That is, when I was close enough to put the broken pieces of odd words and half-sentences together. I didn’t want to stand too close, because I frankly didn’t trust the man.
He had been to prison; he had a wife, and “something like fifteen kids.” Prison is where, according to his own assessment, he adopted the standoffish and unstable attitude. He quickly rolled up his sleeves to show me the scars on his arms from fighting when he was locked up. I told him that, as we were speaking, the church was handing out hundreds of items at the food bank, but he refused to go. The reason? The people handing out the food were Hispanic, and you couldn’t trust them. “They [Hispanics] make one little phone call and ‘yap yap yap’ to their buddy in Spanish, then this guy comes and whacks you. I don’t trust them. Guys like you and me gotta’ stick together.” Here he rolled up his sleeves again, baring his arm and placing it against mine. “You got blue eyes, and white skin, but we’re brotha’s we gotta’ look out for each other against them.” His arm was dark. Really dark. Especially when placed next to mine. It was darker than most Hispanics I know. Part of it was the fact that he hadn’t bathed in a while. There were even dark lines on his eye-lids where the skin oil and dirt collected while his eyes were open. It looked like mascara.
I talked to him a little more about church, but he was clearly not interested in hearing any more about it or Christ. I eventually shook his hand and told him goodbye. I had to wash my hands four times before they stopped smelling like urine.
It was hard to get a word in edgewise during our whole conversation. As with most homeless, once he got talking, he was hard to silence. Someone to listen to their story will only last a few moments, they want to get across as much of it as possible. The Soloist is in theaters now (it actually premiered on the day I talked with DJ for the second time) I will hopefully have a review of it up in the next few days.
Sunday, March 22, 2009
Watch CBS Videos Online
This is the story of Mr. Lopez, an LA Times reporter who was intrigued by beautiful music he heard coming from under a statue in Pershing Square. The chance encounter led to a relationship between himself and Mr. Nathaniel Ayers. Nathaniel was once a student at the prestigious Julliard School of Music, but because of insufficient treatments for his paranoid schizophrenia, ended up on the street. This story, and the book that Mr. Lopez wrote about his subsequent friendship with Mr. Ayers, has inspired an upcoming movie starring Robert Downey jr. and Jamie Foxx.
I thought that this was a fascinating story and am looking forward to seeing the movie. This is exactly what NOTH is all about. Nathaniel had a story that no one would have heard or believed if someone hadn't stopped to ask. He has a name, and he is worth getting to know. He is a human being with innate value as such. It is not what someone does that makes them worth paying attention to or caring about, it is who they are. The members of the orchestra and the media have displayed a small glimpse of his innate value by telling his story, and accepting him on the basis of who he is, not where he lives. I sincerely hope that this story and movie inspire many people to see the homeless in a different light.
Monday, February 23, 2009
The guy had tons of stories of "living outdoors" as he called it. "There was this one time me and my buddies were in the back of a truck outside of Shreveport and were stuck in the rain for three hours. That was weird."
"There was this one time that me and a group a' guys were ridin' the trains around. Right when it stopped we decided to get off. It was a Sunday morning and there was a church nearby. We walked up to it and were like, 'How do you go in?' then we saw there was a sign on the door that said 'sanctuary'. I turned to my friend and said, 'That's weird.' so we walked in. It was like, a bunch of gray-headed old people. They kept turning around and looking at us; then they would smile, and wave, and come up to shake our dirty hands. I only had like 40 cents in my pocket so I put it in the basket they passed around. After the service the pastor gave me a Bible with 40 dollars stickin' out of it. Weird man, totally weird."
"There was this one time I was picked up by this guy just outside of Indianapolis. He was a real clean-cut guy in a nice suit driving a new minivan. There were no seats in the back, just a couple of boards and a lawn chair. I had a dog with me at the time, and he started going nuts when he sniffed one of the boards. 'Oh, don't worry about the dog.' the man told me, 'He probably just smells the dead bodies.' I thought to myself, 'Oh %$*&! I am about to get chopped to pieces by some crazy guy in a minivan. I don't want to die in Indianapolis. I don't want to die.' I didn't know what to do. If we weren't going down the highway I could have kicked him in the face and run away or something. I've never been so scared in my life. I thought I would just keep talking to the guy and maybe he would have second thoughts about throwing me into his freezer. While we were talking I came to find out that he's a mortician. Thank God."
I asked them if they ever missed the "normal life" of living indoors with beds and kitchens and stuff. Ricky resolutely shook his head and talked about sleeping under the stars and having the passing traffic lull him to sleep like waves on the seashore. Stephanie, though, looked very homesick, and even said as much. It was obvious that she was only going along with this lifestyle so she could be near him.
I told them that they reminded me a little bit of Jesus, that he was homeless and traveled around all the time too. They seemed to appreciate that. I shared the gospel with them, told them about our hot-meals at church, and took them up to Hollywood (they wanted to try to see some stars leaving the academy awards). I gave them a couple of gospels of John with tracts in the front, and told them the best thing they could ever do with their lives would be to give them to God, and they seemed genuinely grateful for our time together.
If you see them (the curlicue tattoo on Ricky's right cheek gives him away) tell them hi for me.
Sunday, February 22, 2009
He told me about the time he was kicked out of "that one mission" downtown. He had gotten angry at a security guard who was pounding on the bathroom door while he was trying to shave. He yelled at the guard and called him "gay." "I didn't really mean all that stuff I said. I was just angry. I've got a few anger problems." he recalled pensively. It is hard not to notice that Solomon has a big build and big hands, I wouldn't want to be around when he was angry.
He still gets a stipend from the military for his service: $900 a month. Aside from occasional meals, he sinks the money he gets into marijuana and trying to get an old astro van running again. He proceeded to tell me all of the things that he thinks are wrong with it and all the tools that he bought from the nearby Autozone to fix it. A couple of minutes later he told me that he fixed it all using "bare hands", but I'm sure he just meant that he did all the grunt-work himself.
He told me about how he refuses to do any drugs harder than marijuana because his mom did and he saw what hell that put her through. He told me that some of his relatives died in 9-11. He never referred to his mother in the present tense, or mention his dad.
When I told him that I was a pastor at a nearby church he said, "Really? Are you incognito or something?" I said, "No. Why do you ask?" He replied, "Because you aren't wearing black with that box on your collar." I told him that not all pastors wear liturgical collars, and that he was welcome to come and check out the church on Sundays. "Really?" he said again, "I've been to that church for food hand-outs during the week, but I didn't know they were open on Sundays."
Solomon and I are the exact same age.