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.