You know… it is one thing to sit here online and pontificate the various “sides” of the debates on homelessness, and the poor and/or destitute in this country. We all do it, for whatever place on the spectrum of opinion we happen to land (I myself am a socialist in this regard, and believe that it would be for the betterment of all if the entire country followed the lead of UTAH -of all places-…and gave the homeless shelter, especially since there are 24 empty homes for every homeless person on the street) but it is quite another to come into head on contact with it from the perspective of a comfortably middle class life.
I can’t even really put into words right now just how upset I am with humanity in general, and with one specific deli owner in particular. How horrible and despicable we are as a group of primates. Even I, who sit in the lap of solidly middle class luxury, who once did things that many of you would cringe at because of being poor, who has had the brushes with homelessness, can indeed forget, or gloss over, the loss of humanity that being destitute brings, in our fight to save the masses of people who are falling further into poverty every day.
Even when I was poor – even when I was whoring my body out for money to pay the bills, I was still a white girl-woman who came from solid enough middle class that I didn’t ever *look* that bad off. I still got to take showers at my grandmother’s house, or sleep on her sofa from time to time… I still had food in my belly every day, even if I did have to fuck random to get the last of the money I needed to pay my car note to my grandfather because it was the one piece of real security I had – the one thing that kept me from ever being *that kind of poor*, because that car meant I could work, that I never had to sleep in the open, or lose the few belongings I kept with me. It was a super-luxury, even if it was a geo metro.
Today, in my solidly oblivious middle class life, I was running late to get to the coffee shoppe, to buy a tin of overpriced tea for a gift swap of completely frivolous things. So, they were already closed when I got to the door.
I had my hair braided, my glasses on, a black and white striped “dressy” tank top, an ankle length hand embroidered gypsy skirt, and black sandals. I only tell you this, to give you an idea, that for once, rather than bumming around in jean shorts and a wife beater, that I actually LOOKED like the solidly middle class white woman that I am.
So, as I’m turning away from the shop, I let out a sigh and said “damnit, now I have to come back again tomorrow!”… and as I was saying this, a man was walking up onto the sidewalk from the other side of the street.
He was quite obviously unkempt. He was wearing a black t-shirt with a gold design on the front… it was obviously in need of a washing, but it was in solid condition, no rips or obvious holes or tears. He was wearing dark denim jeans that had seen better days, but again, no obvious rips or tears. His shoes were worn through in several places, however, and you could see what used to be white socks peeking through the toes. His skin was flaky, his eyes were swollen, and his teeth were yellowed. His hair stood up on end in clusters of spikes, wild, not unlike what you’d expect Albert Einstein’s hair would have looked like if he were a black man.
“Missed last call?”
“Yes, apparently so. Guess I will have to come back tomorrow.”
“It happens. At least its a nice day”
“Yes, that it is… You have a good night, k?”
… At this point I turned and started walking back to my truck. I had parked halfway up the block.
“Ma’am? I hate to ask you, but, well, you wouldn’t happen to have some spare change would you? I don’t need a lot, but even a quarter would help me.”
“Well, I don’t carry cash, but come with me and I will dig out what I have in my change cup for you”
“That’s ok… I’ll just wait here, I don’t want to get in trouble for walking with you, or have your boyfriend jump out of the car and attack me or think I’m following you or something”
I turned around to look at him, and waved with my hand… at this point I started to feel a bit as if I was talking to a child…
“No, really, it’s ok, you can walk with me. I’m only parked half way up the block, and no one is going to attack you, I promise. Just come with me so I don’t have to walk back down this way. I don’t know how much I have, but I will give you the change out of the cubby in my car. K?”
Rather than waiting for him to respond, I turned back and continued to walk, figuring he’d either follow or stay put – either way, I was going to give him change, I just didn’t want him to feel paranoid about walking with me. Turned out, as I was digging through the cubby for all the silver change (I never give anyone pennies, though I suppose it all spends, I always try to give anyone who asks at least silver if I don’t have cash… it was always my experience that counting pennies was one of the most humiliating things to do when I was poor – nothing screams “I can’t take care of myself, pity me!” like counting pennies on a counter.) he walked past my truck and was standing in the brick space between the restaurant I had parked in front of and the shoe store next door. He had his hands together in front of him and he was staring at his shoes. I honestly now wonder if he thought I was going to “forget”…
I turned around to look for him, spotted him, and walked over to him. As I held out my hand I said “Hey! I’m sorry this is all I have. I never carry cash with me any more. But it’s at least $2, so it will hopefully help you a little bit.”
“That’s ok, you’ve done more for me than anyone has. I just want to say, that I don’t know really what to say right now. That you talked to me, you said hello to me, and now you are giving me money. I think it is too much. You are doing too much. I can’t even tell you, that it was just so nice to have someone say hello to me.” And he tried to give the money back to me!
“No, no. Really, please. Keep the money. It’s the least I can do, and I wish I could do more, but it’s all I’ve got on me. Besides, if you give me back that change, I am going to take you across the street to the deli and buy you a meal. That’s your choice, the $2 or a meal.”
“Why are you being so nice to me? That’s insane, you can’t buy me a meal. They wouldn’t let you anyway… but you can’t buy me a meal, you’ve already done too much for me.”
“Because you’re a human being? Because I’m a human being. Because it’s the right thing to do. You asked me for money, and I choose to believe that those who ask, who risk asking, actually need it, so I am giving it to you. You need it, and I have it. It’s very simple. I don’t even know your name, but I don’t have to. You are a person, and you asked me for help, so I am giving it to you.”
“My name is Michael. Like the angel. Do you think God is looking out for me?”
“Well, I am here, and want to help you, so I guess he is, isn’t he?”
“Will you pray for me? And tell god I’m trying. I’m not doing to good, though.”
” You’re here. You are alive. You are surviving. I’d say you’re doing the best you can given the circumstances. And yes, I will pray for you.”
And, God forgive me, I did. I had to swallow the feeling of hypocrisy rising in my throat as I held this man’s hand and prayed out loud to a God I have never trusted… but it wasn’t for me, it was for him, and so I prayed to his god, for him, holding his hand in the middle of the sidewalk – with people gawking at me – or more likely at him… and I didn’t even care. And when I was done (it was quick… I’m not one for windy prayers, even if I am wordy about everything else), I held onto his hand and pulled him closer to the edge of the sidewalk and said “ok, now we’ve prayed, lets go get something to eat”…
And here is where things get ugly. He said to me, as we were crossing the street – “I can’t go in there with you, they won’t let me. They’re not going to like it, and they’re going to tell me to leave. I’m all dirty, and can’t shower, and they’s going to know with you being dressed up and me not that you’re not with me and they’re going to want to know what I’m doing following you into a place”…
“I don’t care. They will let you. You are with me, and I am buying you a meal. It’s all money. They don’t care who’s eating the meal.”
And we stepped into Noels Deli… and I was slapped in the face with the reality this man lives with day in and day out.
The sign said “OPEN”. The hours posted said they didn’t close for another hour. The door was unlocked. Michael walked in behind me, and stood off to the side, not far from the door. He was staring at the floor and ignored me when I requested he sit while I ordered food. As I crossed to the counter, passed the little sitting area, the man behind the counter looked up from his mop and said “be careful the floor is wet, don’t walk there”… and then he stood up fully…and looked at me… and then looked at Michael.
I stopped just at the edge of the dining area and said “that’s fine, I would like to buy a sandwich, please. I cannot read the menu from here, so what kind of sandwiches do you have?”
He replied “no sandwiches, we’re closing” – while looking past me and straight at Michael. And I replied, well, ok then, if you cannot make a sandwich, how about an ice cream cone?”, because the ice cream freezer was right there, and the cones were right there, and the lights were still on… And he again replied, “No, we are closing, I cannot sell you any food, try the Jimmy John’s down the street”.
And behind me Michael said “see, it’s ok, I told you, they’re not going to let you buy a man like me food.”
“Well, he might not, but lets just go down the street and we’ll get a sub at Jimmy John’s. It’ll be fine.”
And while we were walking to the sub shop – this man… this HUMAN fucking man… who would not walk beside me. He walked to my right and 2 paces behind me as if he were a fucking dog. He said to me “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry that I am no better than this, that you’re being so nice to me. I’m sorry I bothered you back there and started this whole thing”.
This man was apologizing to me for existing in my space. For talking to me. He asked me for a quarter and I offered to buy him dinner, and his response was to apologize to me for existing.
And then it got worse. Jimmy John’s did indeed allow me to buy the man food. Though I think at that point, nothing about my demeanor would have allowed anything else to happen. The fact that it was staffed by 4 kids, the oldest of whom couldn’t have been older than 22 or so, made it relatively easy, I don’t think any of them would have had the balls to stand up to me with other customers in the store. While I was standing there ordering his meal, he asked the kid behind the counter if he knew of a public bathroom anywhere near by. I told him, at this point, I am sad to say, much in the same tone I use with my kids that says ‘stop being stupid’
“Never mind that, there is a bathroom right over there down that hall, go use it”… and thankfully he did… and I ordered his meal while he was gone. When he came back – he *APOLOGIZED TO THE KID BEHIND THE COUNTER FOR USING THE BATHROOM* and fell all over himself to reassure the kid that he hadn’t made a mess and that he washed up everything he touched while he was in there. And I swear to all the gods I hold holy, it was all I could do not to cry right there.
So he held that meal like it was a baby, and we turned and I sat at a booth by the door… and invited him to join me.
Most of the next 15 minutes was a stop and start. He ate, and then we talked – mostly he ate, and I talked. I wanted to encourage him. I tried to find the words to explain that not everyone thought he was worthless, that he was less than a dog. That he was a human, and that I was sorry that people treated him as if he didn’t deserve his humanity… and I asked him never again to apologize for just being… whether he was in a place, or just standing on the street… he is a human being and has just as much right as the rest of us to exist on this planet.
He pulled a little 2×4” spiral notebook out of his pocket – and that’s when I noticed the hospital wrist band. He’d been discharged sometime in the last day or two – and his name was not Michael… I don’t actually remember his name – only that it began with an R… and it really didn’t matter. This man introduced himself to me as Michael, like the angel…and so that is who he is. But he wanted me to look at his notebook, and so I did. There were sketches, rough outlines that looked like street graffiti. There were little bits of notes on the top of several pages… it was his journal. “it’s hot today. no where to go.” “sittin on the park bench with a bottle of water some man bought me n here come 50 runnin up on me threatening me cuz I got an open container” “all there is is people and trash people and trash”… and at the very end of it, a note from a man named “Glen H”… who had written a note “Michael, Never forget God loves you. You are going to be OK. Just keep trying, and don’t give up”.
So I added my own note. “Never let them take your humanity. Never apologize for who you are, or where you have been. You are a human. You deserve respect. You are a child of God. You are a child of the Goddess. And there are people in this world who will always try to do right. You keep going, and you will make it.”
And I hope, against all the worthless humanity that exists in this world who think that people like Michael are worthless, unworthy of respect, unworthy of their own dignity, and unworthy of a few meager pennies and a couple of hot meals… that someday that will be true.
In the meantime, I am sitting here with my eyes filled with tears, and my heart full of rage… that I live in a “free country”… the land of rights and freedoms… and there are people 10 miles or less from my door who couldn’t even buy a meal if they had the money to do so. And I wonder what in the hell makes this country so fucking great?
And now, to add a post script to this. Most of the above was copied and pasted from the status update I posted to facebook shortly after I returned home – it’s been edited for clarity, but not for content. Not every part of the conversations were remembered verbatim, but the gist of the conversation is there, where I couldn’t remember the details, I explained rather than quoted.
I have never used Yelp before tonight. I left a review there, and on facebook, detailing the basics of the incident inside of the deli. What I’ve left out of both, is that, I have never before in all my years, been stunned into absolute silence. What I felt in that deli was nothing less than prejudicial malice. In my search for the facebook page or website for the deli, I discovered something else entirely, and I don’t even know how I feel about divulging it… though anyone who knows how to use google could do the same.
You see – the man who owns the deli – he’s a Muslim immigrant from Egypt. And, stereotypical and broad brush though it may be – all I can think is, of all the people I would have expected that kind of behavior from, that sort of prejudice from… I am floored once more. One would think, that having experienced prejudice (and lets face it, he’s a Muslim in America, there is no way he hasn’t), that it would predispose people to be just slightly less likely to shun others for their differences – whether of race, religion, or financial situation. Maybe I am naive.
I empathize with, relate to, the poor and homeless in this world because I have been there. My experience, no matter how shallowly connected, gives me, I feel, some perspective on what they go through, day in and day out. But, shallow it is, because nothing I’ve ever experienced prepared me for the blatant malevolence I experienced today.
Part of me really wants to go back to the deli tomorrow (since I have to go back to the coffee shop anyway), and hand him a piece of paper:
And be afraid of the Day when you shall be brought back to Allah. Then every person shall be paid what he earned, and they shall not be dealt with unjustly. [Holy Quran 2:280-281]
Therefore, do not oppress the orphan, nor repulse the beggar.” [Holy Quran 93:9-10]
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
As I told a friend… I am now torn. Between scouring the internet for something to restore my faith in humanity… or hold on to my “righteous anger” (as my partner called it) and do… I don’t even know what with it…