Saturday on the way to a friend’s house for dinner, I decided to take a few pictures of the Robert’s Tower, a luxury condominium building under construction in downtown Saint Louis. The building itself is beautiful. The landscaping with its reflecting pool, waterfall and umbrellas creates a wonderful sense of ease. It is an extraordinary example of present day urban architecture. More than the building, I wanted to take a photograph of the partial head and torso metal man that is the centerpiece of the picturesque setting. More about the metal man in a future blog.
While I was standing across the street from the building taking the picture, a man rode by on his bicycle and glanced at me so I said hello. He immediately stopped and jumped off his bike, “What’s going on here? I need to check this out.”
He ran up and placed himself right next to me, shoulder to shoulder as if he was going to look through the camera lens with me. I felt slightly uncomfortable, but l stayed pleasant.
“What are you taking a picture of?”
I answered, “I’m just taking a picture of this building here.”
“I hear the guy who owns that building is a bad guy.”
“What, the Robert’s brothers? What do you mean?”
He went on to say some things that I will not repeat here because I’m don’t think he knew what he was talking about.
“Well I think this a beautiful building so I thought I’d take picture of it,” I said to him.
“Yea it is nice. You want to see a cool spot for pictures?”
“Follow me I will show you.” He grabbed his bike and headed down the street. “Hurry up.”
“OK. Let me put my camera away. But, I’m not running,” I said with slight agitation as he walked quickly ahead of me.
I was a little apprehensive following this somewhat strange man I just met to who knows where. But there was something innocent and eager about him that made me feel like I should be patient and spend some time with him. He led me to the tenth floor of a building overlooking the plaza in front of the Robert’s Tower. While I was beginning to feel more and more comfortable, I stayed alert looking for any signs of an ambush.
Hey was right. It was a nice view. He sat down and invited me to sit with him. We began to talk. I asked, “How do you know about this place?”
“I’m homeless and don’t have anything to do all day, so I know about a lot of places.”
“I’m sure you do,” I answered. We shared names. He told me his name is Tim and asked me if I wanted to hear his story. “Sure, what happened?”
“I use to be somebody before I was homeless.”
“Wait, you still are somebody. Everyone has worth. Why did you say that?”
“Because a lot of people don’t want to talk to homeless people and think we are nothing.”
I replied, “Well I don’t think that way. We all have value. People who think like, that are…excuse the language…fucked up” His words and tone of resignation to the belief he is worthless was heartbreaking.
“I did floors,” he went on. “Then I had a car accident. I blew out my knee.” He showed me scars on his right knee from stitches. “And I hurt my back. I couldn’t work, so I fell behind in my child support. They put me in jail. I got out and all I have is here in my backpack, plus a multi-tool, that was stolen yesterday and this bicycle.”
“Good thing you have that bike.”
“I keep it with me. But loosing the tool really hurt. I had that from before all this happened and it was $80. It was a good tool.”
I told him why I was in Saint Louis and that I recently spent some time visiting a tent city in Camden NJ where I met a number of homeless veterans. I asked him if he was a vet?
“No, unfortunately I’m not, but I always thank vets.”
“I’m a veteran.” I pointed to the Veterans For Peace logo on my sweatshirt. “I was once this organization’s Executive Director and our mission is to abolish war.”
“That will never happen. There will always be war.”
“Well in the work I do I have to believe differently.”
“Uh oh, now we are really talking,” he replied.
“It’s good you’re not a veteran.”
“No it’s not. I thank vets for what they have done for me. I say thank you all the time and they don’t even know why.”
“It’s good your not vet because wars are a bad thing and I’m glad you did not have to experience it.”
“Will you still talk to me even if I’m not a veteran.”
“Of course I’ll still talk to you.”
We talked more about a few other topics, but the thing that got me most was a simple request I could not fulfill.
“Can you stay and talk for awhile?” He asked. “It’s so nice to have someone to talk with.”
“No, I can’t.”
“Why?” He looked at his watch. It was about 6:15 pm. “You have about five more hours.”
“No I don’t. I was on my way somewhere when you met me on the street and I’m running behind now.”
“Well I would have rather we had not talked at all if you can’t stay and talk more.”
“That’s not fair,” I replied. “Now you are trying to lay a guilt trip on me.”
“Yea, your right,” he conceded. “But it feels so good to talk to someone.”
“Yea I know.” I began to gather my stuff to leave.
“No you don’t. “
“Yea, I kind of do. I tell people all the time. I was just talking to one of my nephews about talking to the homeless.”
“You don’t know how much I miss talking to people and how good it feels. It’s almost as good as having a shower.”
“Almost as good as a shower. Hmmm, I have to remember that.”
Once we were back on the street he asked me, “So when you see me again will you say hello?”
I answered, “Of course I will.”
“Don’t ignore me if you see me.”
“I wouldn’t do that. My mother taught me better. You take care Tim.”
I share this because there could not be a better example of what I have been trying to explain for years. How a simple acknowledgment of a person as a person can be a huge act of kindness. My nephew related a story of giving a homeless person some money and the person wanted to express his gratitude with a hug. Like most of us, my nephew did not want to accept the hug and felt it was inappropriate. I would submit to you that seldom will you find such sincere gratitude and never for the small amount that is usually given in that situation. The hug is a gift from the heart. It’s an attempt to affirm their humanity from us because we are not homeless and seem to care. I told my nephew that hug was a kind of gift from God(dess).
I know how my nephew felt because I remember my 1st hug from a homeless man. About 13 years ago in Saint Louis, I was entering a grocery store when a man approached me to ask for money. I told him to wait until I come back out. It was night time, he was not alone and I did not want to pullout my wallet in front of him because I was aware that I needed to be careful. On the way out, my hands were full with grocery, so I said hold on, I’ll be back. I put the bags in the car, pulled the money out of my wallet and drove over to him. I don’t think he thought I was really coming back. He was so grateful he hugged me. It was uncomfortable, but it was genuine. That began my understanding that the homeless need more from me than money. They need something that is easier to give, but much more important; recognition of their humanity.
What am I saying? Hug the homeless? No, only if you feel OK about it (and if they want a hug, most don’t) and for women there are other issues to consider. I am saying that we must remember to treat all people with respect. That advocating for the oppressed means looking a homeless person in the eye and saying, “I can’t help you today,” instead of ignoring them because you don’t want t give them money. It means sometimes shaking hands asking their name and sharing yours. It means taking some time out every now and then to share in a homeless person’s life. Every time we pass a homeless person by without a hello or a nod it confirms they mean little. Every time we ignore a homeless person who has politely approached us, we peel away another layer of their humanity until one day like Tim they begin to believe, “I use to be somebody.” Remind them with a simple smile, a hello or a honest, “I can’t help you today,” You Are Somebody.