3 Confessions from the Streets
Mary’s forehead is dried blood. “He did this to me,” she says. John Jacob is uneasy. He’s not on his game. It’s getting late and he hasn’t sold a paper for an hour. “I bet that bitch told the police,” he says. He is speaking to me but looking at her. I try not to look at her. I look instead at the ground. In my mind, however, I can’t look away. He pauses. A woman in a business suit nears. “Street Sheet tonight, ma’am?” No luck. Her eyes close and she walks on.
“I told her not to smoke that shit around me. It’s her own damn fault.” Under her breath Mary protests. This makes him angrier. “You know what I’ll do? I’ll find out where she sleeps and have someone light her on fire.”
I think he might be serious. He slams the papers on the concrete planter we’re sitting on. Mary pulls out a pocket knife and says she’ll cut his throat open if he tries to. “And I don’t care if the police see me do it,” she says. “See, honey,” she says, looking at me, “I can stick up for myself. Let me help you with your studies.”
“Tell me something good, honey. I need to hear something good tonight.” Steady, like cars on the highway, people walk past us. We are shrubs. There is nothing good to say. I see no daffodils; I have lost their defense. She begins to cry. She falls down. Her knees blanket the concrete. “There is no love on the streets,” she tells me. “There is no love here, honey. Let me help you with your studies.”
“Honey, do you want some tea?” Mary reaches into her bag. Gently her fingers wade through McDonald’s napkins and blue cursive on torn pages of white paper and a half-eaten bag of potato chips. She finds two teabags. I cringe as she pulls them out of her purse. I fear the germs in her purse and on the teabags and what might happen to me if I ingest them. I fear this fear and am ashamed of who it makes me. “Let’s see. I have green and chamomile. Which do one you want? No, have them both. Honey you take both of them, for your studies.”
I haven’t seen Mary for four years, but she remains present to me. She seared my soul. Her affliction called out to me like it was the voice of God. I left the San Francisco Bay Area for Seattle a few months later to continue doing ethnographic research with people like Mary experiencing homelessness. I thought it my Christian duty to understand how to share God’s love.
University Avenue Northeast is a popular street in Seattle. Locals call it “the Ave.” Situated a few blocks from the University of Washington’s idyllic campus, it stretches a mile long. In days gone one could ride a streetcar on the Ave to a mom and pop shop. Today it is lined mostly with commercial restaurants, bars, and retail stores. Mom and pop are going out of business. Many locals lament that the Ave has fallen as prey to gentrification. You’d be lucky to get a smile on the Ave today.
At the north end of the Ave are Cowen and Ravenna parks. In these parks there are 60 acres of Bigleaf Maples, Douglas Firs, and Western Hemlocks. Daffodils bloom there in the summer. There is a creek that flows between the trees and which you can hear through the sound of your footsteps if you are quiet. At the entrance of Cowen park is plaque. Inscribed on the plaque is a line from the book of Deuteronomy, which Jesus quoted in Matthew 4: “Man shall not live by bread alone.” It is an apt teaching to consider after walking through all the bullshit and avarice on the Ave. It gets under your skin. You can’t help but ingest it. You could go to the parks and imagine that you will become like Henry David Thoreau in Walden.
I met Rebecca on a warm summer afternoon. Her and some of her friends, all of whom were living homeless, were sitting in front of Kroger’s on the Ave. They’d hangout and do business there all day and, when they could, walk to one of the parks to sleep under the stars.
When Rebecca found out I was trying to understand life on the streets of Seattle, she invited me to sit down and hangout. She said it would be the best way for me to understand. I accepted her hospitality and returned often. One of the first things that really struck me, sitting on the sidewalk with Rebecca, is how she spoke to the complete strangers who’d walk past her. She’d say things like, “have a nice day,” and “enjoy the sunshine,” and “smile, it’s a beautiful day.” She’d thank people enthusiastically when they gave her their spare change or leftovers.
Here, dear reader, I must make my first confession. I can be more like Holden Caulfield than Henry David Thoreau. What I mean is that the whole thing seemed Goddamn phony at first. Like a charade. Like Rebecca’s kindness was really just a shrewd way to trick “yuppies” into giving her free food and money. It didn’t take long for me to realize who was being phony, however. Me. This yuppie here. Not that tricking yuppies isn’t entertaining. I learned that it can be rather fun to wake someone with means from a materialistic stupor. But let me tell you, Rebecca’s kindness is no charade; she is not for want but she is generous to the bone.
Rebecca became my teacher. She taught me that the universe is like a delicate “love web” that we are all suspended in. It is governed by a natural law, she thinks: “love multiplies when it’s spread, and it diminishes when it’s ignored.” Love came forward to her on the streets, she said, because she came forward to Love. Love did not let her down; She did not abandon her. Her kind gestures and genuine smiles activated the inherent goodness in our universe and in our species; it carved for her a kind and inhabitable space in the radical pain and suffering that is constitutive of life for a person experiencing homelessness. All the better that it rendered material possessions, but that’s not the point. The point is not to possess love but to share it. Love is sharing.
I came to the streets thinking I knew what love was and that I was the one who needed to share it. In Rebecca I discovered a love that dwarfed my own. She is not religious, but she has more faith than I do. I don’t have the trust in the goodness of the universe and in our species that she does. I am too afraid. This is my second confession.
And love is not loving. ~David Bowie
Hank sat alone in the afternoons on a park bench in the middle of Seattle’s historic Pioneer Place Park. A controversial homage to Chief Seattle, whose name and lands the city took and made its own, stands erect at the cusp of the park. One day, walking through the park, I waved at Hank and smiled awkwardly. He asked if I wanted to hear a song. “Oh, I’d love to.” He brought his guitar out of its case and pulled a black composition book from his backpack. “Pick a song,” he said. I picked “Soul Love” by David Bowie. He baulked at my choice; he said that the song has a special meaning for him. I got the sense that it would be hard to play. Hank played it anyway. On five strings he strummed and sang:
Soul-love, the priest that tastes the word and
Told of love, and how my God on high is
All love, though reaching up my loneliness evolves by the blindness that surrounds him.
I thanked Hank for the song and left Pioneer Square in nascent despair. What did Bowie mean about love being unloving? Did Hank feel that way too? I stopped hanging around Hank’s neighborhood and so, regrettably, I never followed up with him about it.
A few months later, in May 2018, I came across an absurd headline in the Seattle Times: “Homeless man probably crushed to death after sleeping in recycling container.” In the article there is a question underneath a picture: “Have you seen this man?” The man’s sister was contacted by the paper for an interview. Her brother had been running from the past, she said. From pain. She said he liked to play guitar and that his favorite song was “Free Bird” by Leonard Skinner. I don’t know for sure—my memory is hazier than the picture in the newspaper—but it sure looks like Hank.
The Christian tradition is steeped in love. We are loved to be loving. Or so we like to believe. What is love? Is our love loving? What difference does it actually make? Should we be sharing it?
I offer these as queries. May they not become immaterial debates and religious abstractions. May they lead us onto the streets to share simple acts of human kindness. May they lead us to the halls of power where we can create a new economic bill of rights to help prevent people from ending up on the streets in the first place. May our religion be pure and lasting. People are buckling under the weight of an affliction that smiles won’t fix. I smile too much and not enough. This is my final confession. By grace may we come to understand how our love might become more loving. People are sleeping in recycling bins—and worse.