She sat on the curb waiting for the food line to move forward. Sleeping outside the night before Elizabeth was famished and out of sorts. “I’m so damn hungry and sleeping out here last night was chaos,” she told me as she played with the rings on her fingers.
“I’m sick of this shit, for real.”
Then as we chatted about how her life lead her to homelessness a girl on a bike rode by flipping off a young man near us. “Fuck you!” she yelled as she pedaled by. We laughed. “There’s some drama out here.”
The man the girl yelled at laughed too.
Love, arguments, despair and laughter–it’s all out there on the streets just like it’s in there in the houses. It looks different because it’s open in front of everyone and because frankly, it is more dramatic. Go without sleep for a few nights and scrounge for your next meal and see if you don’t get dramatic. I know I would.
But once you settle into the hum and rhythm of life outside it begins to take on other values beyond the obvious. You begin to see the subtle- deeply held humor between people, the alliances that form of loyalty and protection, the willingness to share a last cigarette or an apple.
You see this other thing too–the art of the story. As a story teller myself I admire the way many homeless people tell their lives with vibrant description and then sometimes spare, bare bones agony. They will watch your reaction and respond either bringing more heat or laying low, moving in quietly or getting louder. It’s like a symphony of words. They get paid for their stories and they’re often in the lab sampling what works. As the great writer Norman Mailer famously said, “There’s no such thing as nonfiction.”
There is also time. Buckets and buckets of time just sitting and observing. You can learn a lot by watching, especially if you’re a disregarded outsider. It’s like being a servant in a household, invisible yet privy to all the secrets. Many homeless people know what their towns are really like under the fresh paint.
If you want to know something, ask the guy hanging out on the street–he usually knows the real directions, the diners who have the best, cheapest food and who is kind enough to offer water on a hot day.
Generosity exists in ways I can barely fathom. That woman I started the story with had three bracelets. She insisted I take one, a guy selling rings he created gave me one when I said I liked it and most homeless musicians, many of whom are very good because they have all day to practice and try out their material before a live audience will share their money with other homeless people. If they have a pet that buddy will have better clothes and food than they will, most of the time.
It’s been said you can never know a place until you’ve walked it. Think about the times our homeless residents have walked our towns and cities. They know it in a way I never could. They often love it in a way I couldn’t either. They know the streams and the trees, the plants and the critters by name. They often create from that place of knowing. Many are writing stories, sketching on the backs of tossed out paper, making art out of things people throw away and creating music–all day every day.
Imagine what they know.
The profound connection with nature is different even from the hikers, runners and campers on Earth. Many sleep under the stars each night and wake with the sun. They lay on the ground feeling the heartbeat of the planet. The grass is their carpet and the tree their chair. For music there are crickets and birds. They know the water the way we know a brother or sister. Nature is not something out there..but right there. The dirt under their nails and on their feet becomes part of who they are. They do not pull from the Earth, they ask it for what it has left over.
Just that difference can be all the difference.
So, what am I saying? Should we all be homeless? Am I denying its difficulty?
But I would be living with a lie if I didn’t express the beauty I find among homeless people and the fact that I learn from at least one homeless person every day. I would also be lying if I didn’t tell you that the homeless friends I’ve had have brought me some of the best days I’ve had to date. When I was chasing my newest homeless acquaintance through the streets of San Francisco to meet his street crew I smiled so long and hard that day, my face hurt. I can think of few other times where I felt as free and welcomed and where the jokes were as funny.
We can learn and grow and allow everyone we meet to enrich us if we are willing. My advice: be willing.
That guy on the corner whom you’ve never looked at and hope he doesn’t ask you for money has a story and a life which is probably interesting. If you pulled out of your plan and gave him ten minutes–he’d change your life.
Hanging out with homeless people doesn’t have to be grim and sad and all about “solving the problem.” They get burned out on that as much as you do. Sometimes it’s about enjoying the moment and the company–just like that-just as you both are.
Because the things we carry are the same. His are just more heavy.