There I was- flipping through a ragged, time-worn, cardboard box at my parent’s house. I gingerly sifted through yellowed and thinned pages, in my own time capsule, revisiting a fair amount of the two dimensional art of my youth. They kept so many of my creations. Occasionally I’ll wonder the purpose of keeping a diary other than to get the immediacy of pressures off my chest because I hardly think that there will be a day where I am driven to revisit all of my petty boy-riddled qualms of old. It seems, at least, that that’s the most of what my journal entries have seen over the years. But this- this was different. This was ART! Encapsulated. I understood the inability to dispose of it. Such richness. I totally had an eye for fashion and have apparently been designing clothes since I could pen myself a plausible idea. Lots of drawings were comprising sleep overs; quite likely an influence from every little girl’s treasured book Madeline. They were very big fun though. Yet another reason I’m glad to have the XX chromosome thing in place. Another common topic was of little girls puking. Yup- you read it right. Little girls puking. I was no stranger to belly aches- especially in the car (lo siento, padres) so I guess I just wanted to spread the love or at least normalize it so everyone got sick all the time too. Oh, yeah and kids are weird, sooo go figure. BuT- the most common theme in my drawings? Homeless children.
I drew and drew and drew this topic in so very many capacities all throughout my growing up. Kids behind dumpsters, kids under bridges, under awnings, on corners, in the snow, with a dog, kids alone with signs, kids with parents, kids with questionable chaperone. Some of them were even throwing-up too… A clear memory that I have is asking my mother why we couldn’t just take someone home with us. I thought if everyone in the city took somebody home the homelessness problem would be solved. Grown ups are so dense! Come on people, don’t you see?? And this of course was NYC circa 1980-1990′s, when the mental asylum Bellevue, was shut down and emptied onto the streets of Manhattan. I had vivid fantasies of setting up the extra room for our(?) homeless person and coming into the bathroom while they were obligingly in the shower, handing them a bag courteously, and taking their smelly clothes in exchange for new, clean ones. Problems solved! Even as a 5 year old I guess I knew that one of the larger deterrents to my Adopt-A-Homeless-Person program was the stank factor. Needless to say this never manifested.
Many years later I would wind up tutoring homeless kids for a while. It was such a tremendous experience with so much variety that I couldn’t surmise it with one quick descriptive word. Ok- intense. If I must. Bear with me- I’m building my “fretting for the homeless portfolio”.
I tried to tackle the problem from several different angles throughout the last ten years plus. At one point I worked diligently on an idea that I thought was rather brilliant. It stemmed from talking to people living on the streets that seemed unmotivated to find work. After all, it’s hard enough to find something when you’re clean and showered, let alone educated. My idea was to hook up seasonal farm work opportunities to homeless shelters, and have houses of worship do their good deeds by providing ride shares to the people. Flawlessish? I called so many freakin’ farms that did not appreciate the thought of a bunch of hobos smashing their berries or sleeping in their corn or whatever. Did everyone on the other end of the line read Grapes of Wrath? Sheesh. And to boot, I couldn’t find any churches, synagogues or mosques to do the driving. Foiled.
My fascination with homeless (housing disabled?) waxed and grew and on the side I kept a notebook full of years worth of spontaneous interviews with street dwelling folk. I wanted their stories. Badly. Occasionally I would set out with the intention of conducting the interviews, sometimes I would see someone too interesting pass up. (I told you- my curiosity might just be the death of me some day. Please play “Blaze of Glory” at my funeral. I’m not kidding. I’m working up to earning it but no, I’m not trying to die anytime soon.) I had a long list of questions and my spiel was to go up and ask if they were hungry and I could buy them some lunch or a cup of coffee in exchange for some question answering. The notebook, I regret to say, is sadly long gone, lost to the same sea that claims matching socks, sunglasses, and bus transfers, but some of the questions that I had in there went something like this:
*Where did you grow up? * What was your family like? * When did you start living on the streets? *Is it scary? * Do you get assistance? * Do you want to live in a house/ apt some day? * Drug related questions. * Saftey related questions * Adventure related inquiry * Favorite stories?…
This is a small sampling. The questions were very subject to change, depending on the person I was asking and their openness and willingness to divulge, naturally.
I’ll tell you though, boy have I heard some shit!
There is one that stands out above the rest though. I was interviewing this guy, a mid forty’s man originally from an upper-middle class home in the suburbs of NJ. Born to religious parents. Happy childhood. Good relationships with brothers and sisters. He liked partying a little too much and got turned on to heroin. He’d always been the rebel in the family; the black sheep. He’d been living on the streets of several states for well over two decades by the time I met him. He seemed happy to tell his story. He seemed so sound. Peaceful. I asked him if he wanted to be off of the streets and his response was, and I remember it so clearly: “Man, you people feel bad for us out here, but we feel bad for you! Most of us don’t want those responsibilities that you have. There’s too much to do. A house, a car, bills, paperwork. Responsibilities. They are overwhelming. Yeah, it can be dangerous, but we don’t want what you got. I believe in God. And out here- ain’t nothing between me and God.“
Take that in.
The concept of the interviews originated not just to satisfy my own forever’s-worth of curiosity. It was to serve as a bridge. Long ago I recognized people’s limited abilities to care for something/ someone at a distance. We tend to favor what and who we know. Throw another sad sap’s face into the world and if the public at large doesn’t recognize it, it’s easier to walk on by. Walk by a face on the street of someone who was in your past, who you know in a more intimate way- perhaps a friend’s father, an old neighbor, a former student, and things change. There is a sense of ownership and most of us have a built in mechanism to care for those we know. I felt that if we had people’s stories and could actually personalize them, find them relatable, then people would have more compassion and vested interest in getting people help that wanted and needed it.
So I ran off to get a sharpie and some name tags. What’s she doing now? I had a new experiment in mind. If we bore name tags there would be a missing piece of the lacking reliability solved. Like “Oh! Your name is Joey? That was my grandpa’s, name and he was really influential in my life. I love guys named Joey.” Etc. So on the name tags went the name, because knowing someone’s name is personal and pretty undeniably humanizing. Then three random things. 1. Favorite band 2. A place I’ve traveled 3. What I love. Really, it could’ve been anything. The objective was to show the public the humanity of people, as it’s so easily dismissed or ignored in our world where people are so overstimulated and walled.
I resolved to wear a name tag for a week straight to see the effects and how people might approach me and how it would change dynamics. I had visions of grandeur!
Well, I’m embarrassed to say that I wound up getting irritated with the receptivity, especially considering that I was fresh out of a multi-year relationship and going out a lot and was on one, so having my name on blast was putting me out there to a general crowd that I didn’t want all up in my business. I tried to maintain it throughout the day time instead, but I was working in a school and it wasn’t the right place either. Eventually I lost interest because my life style at the time didn’t lend itself to the particular vision I had hoped for.
Do know that I have not given up on my idea of being a liaison/catalyst for bridging the worlds. I actually still quite fancy the idea of name tag personification. Perhaps I will conduct this experiment in more refined ways and pick my project back up again. Like only do it in certain areas of the city while doing specific activities. And get some new hobos on board…?
I will do it! I’ll do it for the people sitting under awnings tonight, getting splashed by the cold rain. And I’ll do it for that little, barfy, concerned drawer me inside.
Back on the grind, baby.
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