This sidewalk? The opposite side?
Dad was disdainful of homeless people. I was instructed not to give anything to them, at any time, under any circumstance. This was an oft-repeated lesson, and became an ingrained one. In his eyes, to give a nickel or a nod was akin to a federal offense. They should be working, he’d say, or out looking for work. Hadn’t we just passed a “Help Wanted” sign two blocks back? It didn’t take a doctorate to haul boxes, now did it? They shouldn’t be begging. Shame on them for begging. They shouldn’t beg, period. Where was their dignity? Their shame? I grew up poor. I grew up hungry. We knew lean, coarse, spare times. But none of us have ever sought a handout in the streets. Don’t give to the homeless. If they speak, don’t respond. Don’t make eye contact. They’re spongers! Refuse. Losers. Flops.
I’d nod my head to indicate understanding, though bewildered by both Dad’s vitriol and the naked lack in the eyes of the homeless we passed. I did realize that some of them were scammers, and I knew that having a dog or small child could signal a ploy. But the where-was-their-shame question gripped me. By the time I was 13, I couldn’t help but wonder that, if a person felt ashamed when begging, they were likely not hungry enough. Perhaps any residue of shame had evaporated in tandem with their dignity and all of the soaring attributes Dad felt should attend their plight. Maybe the shame had vaporized right along with income, homes, food, opportunity, and hope.
Any defense I raised was met with round dismissal. My sympathies, while touching, were misguided. Honest, diligent people wouldn’t be on the streets in the first place. They are trying to leech off those of us who work for a living. If they’d just get off their idle butts and work…
After college, I made my first foray into independent adulthood, living on my own in New York City. First jobs, first apartments, first bank accounts, first credit cards, first missteps, barbed consequences, first late charges, last chances.
By the time I was 25, I was treading the heady waters with aplomb, if not with ease. New York can be a callous place for young people starting out, but it has its benefits. Via an edgy, no-nonsense education that doesn’t suffer fools gladly—if at all—-the city toughens you. It dispenses knowledge. If you’re smart, attentive, resourceful, you graduate cum laude with a diploma in street smarts. This diploma serves you well wherever you venture.
You’ve learned to turn a corner and read the street: the people on it—who they are, the number of them, how they’re moving in relation to one another, where their eyes are, what’s in their hands. You can read objects—cars, doorways, signage, brick walls. You can read what’s not there: lighting, lifelines, lookouts. You know whether you’re going to walk down that street, or run. Or whether you’d like to run, but should walk. And if you’re going to walk, what kind of walk you need to effect. Where you should walk. This sidewalk? The opposite side? The street? In a straight line? Should you peek into a window, wave as though you know someone within? Should you jaywalk across a busy avenue because you can read either that a) it’s what’s expected on this block, and doing what’s expected will preserve you, or b) it’s not what’s expected, and doing the unexpected guarantees that you don’t look like prey. You’ve learned to determine which people, if any, to look in the eye, and prime the look to fit your study. You know to use the eyes in the back of your head, with both your peripheral and visceral visions. In the midst of this calculus, you find that it’s challenging to traverse any part of the city without encountering the homeless. You grasp that you can be one, two paychecks away from being in their position. The city can kick you to the curb in less than a heartbeat.
I began to feel differently about the displaced: people, not objects, not “its,” not snakes. Not lower than animals, not even, necessarily, lower than myself. Despite my early tuition, I couldn’t blur past the homeless like they were squashed cigarette butts. Certainly, some were bound to be the scalawags Dad had suspicioned. But I came to appreciate that some of them had been in my shoes just a few years (or months or weeks or days) ago. And though deceased, Dad prevented me from giving. His frown’s wraith, his ire’s echo, partitioned me from merciful acts. Clouds of guilt and shame curtained me off from upturned palms.
Manufacturer’s Hanover changed the pattern. New York’s Avenue of the Americas, not far from 42nd Street, was the backdrop. When I entered the ATM vestibule I found a three-person line waiting for one of the two machines. An older gentleman, in a mangy tan suit, his pants semi-buckled, wearing a stained, outdated jacket two sizes too big, small thread coils swaying from the hem, asked each person joining the queue whether they could “spare any change.” He didn’t say he was homeless, and I don’t know that he was, but what was evident was that he had been snared in some wretched ordeal. His ripe gray hair fanned out in all directions. His teeth were sallow and askew, featuring nodular banks of vacant gums. Two sooty palms harbored a worn paper cup. His dark eyes, dewy and jaundiced, blinked slowly as he appealed to our profiles. We were oblivious to him, to the clamoring avenue outside the glass. We adopted perpendicular stances, the learned stance of ATM dawdling. Eyes for the machine only, the machine only, ears primed for the all-hail triple beep signaling the end of a transaction. When that customer left, our line would crease forward like an accordion pleat.
As I left the machine and headed toward the exit, my hand slipped into my denim pocket and pulled out a fistful of change. In one smooth motion I transferred the coins from my right hand to my left and dropped it into the man’s cup as I passed. He murmured several thank you’s and patted me twice on my shoulder. Ignoring both the pats and his thanks, and without breaking stride, I booked it out of the bank.
On the sidewalk, I effected a nonchalant gait as I headed uptown. I was painfully conscious of my betrayal. My face burned, my throat closed, and my shoulders hunched forward, skimming the mutiny off of my body. I had done it. Committed high treason and disrespected both my father’s orders and his memory.
Wasn’t helping someone the right thing to do? Maybe Dad had been right. I was enabling the spongers and the refuse. I had just encouraged a leech. He shouldn’t have been inside of Manny Hanny’s, panhandling and glad-handing. He should be walking the sidewalks, searching for Help Wanted signs. What I had done amounted to a Class B felony.
More than two decades passed before I felt comfortable speaking with, smiling at, or giving to the homeless. During that time I moved from east coast to west. My deceased father’s reproach continued to assail me. Most often I came away from a donation feeling diminished, not charitable; scourged, not merciful.
Now, living in San Francisco, I count three of the homeless as among my friends.
There’s the handsome grey-bearded man with gorgeous eyes in front of
the Russian Hill Walgreens on Polk, greeting me with a heart-stopping smile.
He’s chosen an auspicious corner. The Russian Hill neighborhood has a
potent collective feel. The area abounds with coffee shops, nail salons, frozen
yogurt outlets, pet stores, and ungoverned intersections. It’s a community far too pricey for me to live in.
How well does he do here?
He sells Street Sheet, the bimonthly outreach tabloid put out by Coalition on Homelessness. Sometimes he sings, with a respectable voice. The creases in his face are reminiscent of Frederick Douglass’ regal visage. This man so reminds me of my grandfather. A jovial personality, he moves in so tight to talk that I feel like I’m receiving hallowed secrets.
There is the quiet, dark-skinned, forever-baseball-capped man in front of Cal-Mart supermarket in Laurel Heights. The first time I met him he was Al, the next visit he was Fred, then he was Al again, and the next time, he was someone else. He hits all comers and sometimes flirts. Sporting large, thick glasses too large for his face, he jiggles change in a cup. I can tell by the sound whether he’s had a good day on the corner. In this respect, he’s not as artful a panhandler as those who follow the bait-and-stash model, secreting the bulk of donations into pockets, so that just a few coins remain in the cup. That way when they shake the cup, it sounds like a death rattle.
If it’s one of the Street Sheet days, he’s got a natural front. If not, he doesn’t craft nimble scripts for an alternate cover, just “Can you help me out?” or “Have any extra change?” His immediate grid includes a Walgreens, Starbucks, 5 & 10 Standard Ace, a Books Inc. store small enough to fold and slip into your hip pocket, several eateries, and a Bank of America. Stationed before the Cal-Mart’s sliding door, he’s positioned to catch folks both on the way in and on the way out. Once, upon exiting, I told him, “You know, not many people carry money any more. Everyone’s got cards for everything—even for the bus.”
That’s the only time I saw him smile.
The opposite end of the block
And there is Tutu, the one I know best, whom I’ve encountered all around the city. He alternately stays with a sister in Oakland, at a shelter, or at an SRO. If he’s at a shelter, he laments the fact that he must report in by curfew, or risk losing his bed. He shakes my hand each time we meet and inquires about my health and family. He doesn’t haul a cart of blanketed miscellany with him. Dressed in cuffed jeans, serviceable shoes, and jacket, he sports a perpetual bandana–usually midnight blue, though I’ve seen an occasional red one—and a neat grey beard. He’s the only one of the three gentlemen that is always sitting on the sidewalk. No Street Sheet, no cup. I know for a fact that Tutu is often up to no good, but that hasn’t curbed our friendship.
When I met him several years ago, his post was in front of the Osha Thai restaurant at the opposite end of the block. Police requested he move from that spot, even though on scorching days the restaurant provided him with ice water. He has since selected the opposite end of the block which, for whatever reason, seems to be an acceptable choice in the eyes of the law. I’ve run into him in a number of other neighborhoods as well.
Tutu’s a non-aggressive auditor possessed of a shrewd screen. He doesn’t spin a catch-all net, but pitches only the most likely persons. I’ve watched him work, trying to guess which pedestrian shapes up as a mark, but I’m never right. He’s the most mobile, and perhaps the most discerning, but least creative, of the three men. He has only two lines: “Can you help me with change for the bus?” and “I’m trying to get a slice of pizza.”
If more than two weeks pass without my seeing Tutu, I begin to worry that something may have befallen him. Is he in jail? Dead on a corner somewhere, stretched prone, while folks step over his body, plugged into smart phones and Starbucks? Did he lose his shelter spot? Has his sister had enough and evicted him permanently? Does he even truly have a sister?
On such occasions, I was relieved to see Tutu slink through the back doors of a MUNI bus or streetcar. Our eyes would light up as we greeted each other enthusiastically. Riders stared at me in my business attire, questions and incredulity in their eyes. I dreaded the stares and felt as though a spotlight had gone on and I was en scene in a traveling MUNI exhibit. Over time, though, I came to relish the perplexed stares.
Once, after an especially ardent parting—because I hadn’t seen Tutu in more than a month—a group of French tourists in the front of the bus followed his exit with their eyes. They ceased speaking, stopped consulting maps and guide- books. Then, as a flock, they turned to gape at me, young and old, men and women alike. Their eyes transmitted their shock, though their sculpted faces remained closed. After several silent minutes of this, their measured peering prompted me to fling my arms upward and yell “Show’s over!” This being the 38, the locals paid me no mind, but the front flock turned their heads to look out of an adjacent window. I watched them for the rest of my ride, but they never re-established eye contact.
The evening of Election Day 2012, I found Tutu at his Geary site and asked whether he had voted. He said he had. I pressed: which polling place? Which measures had been on the ballot? Where’s your red trilingual I Voted sticker? He was unable to produce a sticker or name any measures, but he did pull a tattered voter registration card out of his pocket.
Has Dad forgiven me? It’s hard to tell. I can’t say I feel as though he has. I still feel his ghost’s glower. It’s possible. But if he has, would I not feel that? Wouldn’t I know that?
Tutu closes our curbside visits with two or three handshakes and an “I’ll pray for you.” He inevitably asks if I am waiting for the bus, and, whether I am or not, apprises me of the time the next bus is due, seemingly having the 38’s timetable memorized.
He never fails to warn me to be careful as he watches me jaywalk across the street, and against the light.