Tom and I have this new thing we do, where anytime we see anything in our neighborhood that’s weird, or disturbing, or just annoying, we turn to each other and say, “We live downtown!” It is a bit like living in a different city from before, namely that our neighborhood has tons of homeless people in it. They live here just like we do, except we have a nice apartment to go into.
There is one lady, though, that hangs out at the front entrance of the Trader Joe’s right by our house. She doesn’t beg for money, she just sits on the sidewalk with a large sign that says, “God Bless You,” and she mostly looks like she’s praying. And she’ll also occasionally say, “God bless you,” as you walk by, but she’s never aggressive or even asks for anything. I made a comment to Tom the other night as we were leaving that having to step over homeless people with your arms full of bags of fresh, healthy food as you leave the grocery store adds new meaning to feeling guilty. But I try to acknowledge her when we walk by, either by nodding or saying hello.
The other night, though, we were standing in line checking out at the register closest to the door, when this lady swooped in angrily and practically crawled over us to complain to our cashier about this homeless lady outside. She practically demanded that he make her go away, because she made the lady feel “uncomfortable,” and freaked her out, and also “freaked out” her children. Then she stomped off and nestled her two young, obviously sort of upset looking boys to her and they walked into the store.
The three of us, Tom, myself, and the cashier, all just sort of stood there, stunned, looking at each other. We made the requisite jokes about going back to Hillsboro (a truly hideous and plastic suburb), and to stop slumming it in Portland. And that she was in a dense, old downtown area of a major city, what did she expect? The cashier told us, though, that the homeless lady had cancer and was dying, and continued to criticize the bitch that complained, saying, “That’s what happens when people have cancer. They waste away, and don’t look healthy like you and I do.”
When we left I made a point of looking the homeless lady in the eye and smiling at her, and she said, “You guys have a great night now.”
Mostly the situation made me sad (and this happened last Sunday or Monday, and I’ve been thinking about it all week) because it was such a wasted opportunity. That lady that complained could have used that as a chance to show her sons how some people have really shitty lives, but still deserve respect. And that some people are homeless and sick and have to beg for money on street corners. Why not use the situation to help your children foster a sense of compassion and empathy, rather than fear and revulsion?
The older I get, the more I appreciate so many things my parents did for me when I was growing up. The first time I recall seeing a homeless person was when we were on a family vacation in Florida, sometime when I was around 5 or 6. We were having breakfast at a McDonald’s and a homeless guy walked in and started digging through a trash can near us and pulled out pieces of food and ate them. As a child I was stunned and couldn’t stop staring at him. But did my parents freak out and go tell the manager to kick him out? No, they took that time to explain to me and my brothers that yes, sometimes in the world, people are starving and eat out of trashcans. We shouldn’t stare, but they wanted us to see it. They wanted us to know that we were lucky. They wanted us to be aware that these people existed, and it was sad.
I hope those two boys get that same kind of lesson someday.