Roosts and Nests

I have twice been mistaken for a homeless person. Once was funny, the other devastating. Both happened in college. The first time, I was wandering from my dormitory to the Student Union for breakfast, when a pleasant middle-aged woman started chatting with me about the Boston area. After several minutes of gentle circumlocution that left me uncertain what she wanted, she revealed that she needed advice on where best to solicit donations (“panhandle”). I was so delighted that she had thought I was homeless and been such a pleasant companion on my walk, that I tried to take her out to breakfast (she was embarrassed despite my reassurances, so I brought her breakfast outside the Union).

The second experience was devastating.

I got to know many people with complex living arrangements as a volunteer in a homeless shelter in the basement of the First Congregational Church on Sunday nights my freshman year of college. One of them, I think his name might have been A.J., was a kindly man with cracked fingertips and a broad, blunt face, who always carried a ukulele with him. One day I met him near the college grounds, and he was beaming with pleasure at a small plant–I think it was a white carnation–that someone had given him. He was nervous, he explained, about leaving his ukulele and his other possessions out on the corner, but he needed to get some water for his flower. Could I watch his “stuff” while he got some water from the drug store?

I was wandering home from work in no particular hurry and was glad to oblige a friendly acquaintance. As I watched him walk away in black vinyl-looking boots that extended to mid-calf with a square buckle across the front, I settled absentmindedly into his space on the concrete. As I felt the cool concrete beneath my back end, I lost my breath. I am not generally a fan of the film-making convention in which transitions from color to black-and-white signal a loss of vitality, but to this day that is the most ready description of what I felt. A long-haired boy in torn espadrilles, ripped jeans, and a moth-eaten sweater, I sat among the paraphernalia of homelessness. And I heard a chorus of negation, deafening in its silence. I felt that each person making her way along the sidewalk wished that I did not exist for the brief moment in which she had to adjust her gait to miss my debris, and then promptly expunged even the fleeting wish for my non-existence. I was a stain on the world in need of expunging, a focus for deliberate amnesia. The emotion I felt was something between sheer panic and overwhelming fatalism, a frantic belief that I might even cease to exist. I’m not sure that I have ever felt so vulnerable.

When A.J. returned, I could barely nod that he was “welcome” as I dashed back to the safety of the dormitory, to a world in which I was welcome, a world where my physical presence could elicit a warm response of human interaction.

Comments

  1. Yes you felt uncomfortable. But you being recognized from previous selfless service documents well your compassion. I applaud your kind actions and intent.

  2. Wow, this is a great post — a lot to think about.

  3. Sharon LDS in Tenn says:

    Walking a mile in another person’s shoes does the soul
    AND the sole GOOD!
    I was taught a practice by a spiritual mentor years ago
    and it bodes well for my soul often.
    Pick out a stranger as you rush through the day….Any stranger nearby and pray for them. Bless them. Streach your heart out in their direction. Love them for that brief moment unconditionally and wish them God Speed.
    It feels good. It does good….albeit invisibly.
    Love to all of you out there, it’s “Terrific Tuesday” today !

  4. Sharon LDS in Tenn says:

    I guess I should have qualified my act of praying out in public……silently in your mind…..but sincerely with your WHOLE being! You could include a smile….?? if someone looks your way???

  5. Kevin Barney says:

    Powerful, Sam.

  6. squintyclops says:

    Oh have I got a story for you. wait let me post it on my blog. The title “I picked up a bum, gave him $20 among other things including a used water bottle, a half pack of mints over a year old, and the Book of Mormon, well my phone number too…”

  7. Namaste, Sam. Thank you.

  8. Great reflections, Sam.

  9. “And I heard a chorus of negation, deafening in its silence. I felt that each person making her way along the sidewalk wished that I did not exist for the brief moment in which she had to adjust her gait to miss my debris, and then promptly expunged even the fleeting wish for my non-existence. I was a stain on the world in need of expunging, a focus for deliberate amnesia. The emotion I felt was something between sheer panic and overwhelming fatalism, a frantic belief that I might even cease to exist.”

    Beautiful.

  10. Matthew Chapman says:

    “I felt… I was… a focus for deliberate amnesia.”

    Doesn’t everyone feel like that every day?

    I thought that was the human condition.

  11. I am pretty sure I read another time you posted about the same experience (otherwise some other Mormon blogger had an uncannily similar story). That had a lasting impression on me actually, along with maybe a Mother Theresa quote about emotional poverty.

    I cannot give enough money to help everyone who asks for it, but smiles and eye contact are free and there is a bottomless supply. So I ALWAYS try to give that at least. A nod, something to acknowledge that this is another human person.

    So thanks, Sam, for sharing your perspective. It has changed mine.

    Also, you attended school in Boston? That is where I live/am from. Great. :)

  12. Newt, it is entirely possible I have posted something about this before. My memory has become more a colander than a bowl for holding the experiences that slip about my consciousness like so much cosmic fluid. I lived in Boston for many years and have been flooded with nostalgia during recent visits back. The personal acknowledgment is treasured by many of us, not just those with difficult housing arrangements.

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