As I sit at a desk that belongs to the man who owns the house I live in for ‘free’ (in exchange for doing home improvements), working on my slightly outdated but still fully functional computer, with a space heater keeping me warm by my legs, my mind wanders to those less fortunate. A LOT less fortunate. Specifically, the homeless.
My first encounter with homeless people was when I was 17 years old; I was with my boyfriend at the time. His parents owned the salvage rights to the inside of an old ice house (where they made ice, back in the day). It was in downtown Las Vegas, Nevada and several homeless people had made make-shift homes out of either giant cardboard boxes or several put together (kind of like a MacGyver’d up Lincoln Log house). Cluttered around were tattered up blankets, shopping carts, large yard trash bags full of aluminum cans, and newspapers. The newspapers threw me off. I asked my boyfriend why they would collect newspapers. He said they were one of the most universal tools they have. He called one homeless guy RJ (named after the newspaper in Las Vegas) because he rolled them up inside his sleeves and pant legs to keep the chill off. Some would use them to keep little fires burning to stay warm, of course. Others would use them to stuff in the holes of their makeshift shelters to ward off the brisk night air.
We spent the night in the ice house one time; I didn’t sleep but two minutes, maybe. Even though we were in a less-than-luxury RV, I knew better then to be ungrateful, as I’m sure anyone of the box people outside would love to lay on a warm, dry, softer-than-concrete mattress. I peeked out the window at them the next morning. One man had found some grapes, and as he walked back to his box, several others nearly pounced on him begging for just one or two of them. I’m embarrassed to say that they reminded me of zombies vying for a nibble of someone’s brain or something. Hey, I was 17 then, I didn’t know what to think.
I didn’t really have any other close interaction with homeless people again until just a few years ago (when I was about 44 years old). A friend of mine, who is a burner (someone who participates in the Burning Man culture), owns a cool hotdog stand. One day a year just before Christmas, for the past few years, he has gone down to where the homeless usually are in Las Vegas and passes out free hot dogs with all the fixings. When I say ‘all the fixings’, I don’t mean just Ketchup and Mustard. I mean, cheese, chili, relish, etc.. He also provides water, soda, and chips that are usually donated by other Burners. But wait, that’s not all…sometimes as many as 100 Burners or more turn out to pitch in, and also pass out clothes (COOL clothes), shoes, blankets, and even cupcakes! I was fortunate enough to be a part of this event one year.
I was one of the first people ‘on site’ to help set up. I was surprisingly not surprised at how quickly the line grew while they waited for my friend to set his cart up. It would be over an hour until the dogs were ready. The first few homeless people who started the line were very patient but toward the middle of the line, there was clear anxiety, and near the back of the line, panic and worry. They were concerned there wouldn’t be enough and they would miss out. Some people in line actually grew so nervous that it was clearly an uncomfortable situation for those around them. Noticing this, I made an impulse decision.
I went to the very front of the line and said “We are passing out hotdogs and hugs today, would you like a hug while you wait for your hotdog?” The first few people looked at me in disbelief as if I just told them they had won $100 or something; totally skeptical, as in ‘what’s the catch?’. They hesitantly gestured that they welcomed my open arms by raising theirs, and then…a hug happened—over 200 times. Yup, I hugged about 220 homeless people in just about an hour. Only two people refused my hug and only because they said they were sick, and worried I may get what they had. I honored their request to not be hugged and moved on down the line. I hugged over 220 people with a $1,000 camera resting over my shoulder and not one made a move for it, or a comment about it. I had to smile at the fact that there were at least three people that I noticed, who actually left their place in line to go to the back of the line just to get another hug. My heart warmed over that like a roaring fireplace in old log cabin. I was so flattered.
A few weeks after that event, there was an article in a local paper about the homeless. One man who was interviewed made a comment that they, the homeless people, do not need food or clothes as they get that from the shelters and food banks. He made a comment that many groups who go to their tent cities to ‘give’ them things, do it to convert them to their churches or try to ‘get them to do something’ for it. He went on to say, what they really want and need is to be touched. He said that many of the people who go there to ‘help’ them, treat them like lepers and go out of their way to not touch them, not shake their hand, or even take a chance their space might come close enough to brush against each other. He said they are just dying to be touched sometimes. When I read that, it felt so good to have that affirmation of my impulse decision a few weeks earlier.
A couple years after that, I moved to Elko, Nevada. Because I wasn’t quite sure where I would be staying there yet, I got a Post Office Box. The job I had there was long hours—not convenient at all when I needed something during ‘bankers hours’. One day I got a note in my P.O. Box notifying me of an oversized package that I had to pick up during business hours. This was simply not possible without taking a day off work due to my remote work location. A few times I had picked up my mail in the early evening hours, I noticed a homeless guy sitting on the bench in front of the Post Office. I had an idea. I sat down next to him as I held my mail, including the notification slip, in my hands, and asked him how he was doing. He replied ‘fine?’ in a skeptical manner, as if, ‘why are you talking to me?’. What I said next I thought would freak him out even more. I let out a sigh and said, “I need your help.” To my surprise, he sat up and said “Sure, what do you need?”
I explained to him my predicament and that I can’t get in to the Post Office during business hours to get my package but perhaps he, just might, have the time to do that for me. I said I would write a note giving him permission to pick my package up for me, and I offered him $20 if he would hang on to it until about that same time the next night. He said “$20? Sounds like an important package?” I said, ‘No, it’s probably just my insurance paperwork from work, but it would cost me $400 to take a day off work to get it, so $20 is actually a good deal for me, and I figured you could use $20 to get some food or something.” He said “Ya, I am kinda hungry.”
So, I gave him $7 that I had on me so he could get something to eat, as well as a box of cereal I just happened to have in my car, and I said I’d give him the rest of the $20 when I picked up my package the next day. The following day, there he sat, in front of the Post Office, with my package. People I worked with thought I was crazy. Most of them have spouses or friends that live in town that could help them out. I was alone; I had no one to ask for help. I knew he would be there anyway as he had the last few days I passed by him. To me, he was the most logical person to ask.
He said his name was CW. He had the most amazing deep blue eyes I had ever seen. I ended up taking him to Wendy’s to get a burger and we talked about his life. I was totally impressed with some of the things he had done and worked on as a union electrician—even business’ he’d had building houses, the kids he raised, and broken hearts he’d left behind. I really enjoyed chatting with him, and thanked him for having dinner with me (even if he did stink up my car pretty bad during the short ride there and back to his bench). I felt really odd leaving him there and going back to the million dollar home that I was renting a room in, that had four other empty bedrooms, with beds in them. And yet, I relished in memory of our conversation and how much life he had really lived prior to where he was now.
I had the opportunity to repay CW later when he made a comment that he had a government check but he couldn’t cash it because he had no ID. While I quickly thought ‘so get a new ID and cash your check’, I almost instantly realized how difficult that might be for someone like him. He has no money, no means to get to a government office, no birth certificate, etc. I couldn’t picture him going into a library, logging on the computer there, looking up the county he was born in and whipping out a credit card to order a new birth certificate… to be sent to the bench in front of the Post Office. Because I wasn’t sure exactly what he would have to go through, and didn’t want to commit myself to too much, I offered to deposit his check in my account via ATM and then withdrawal the cash to give to him. It seemed like a good plan. The catch was, his check was $700 and I could only withdrawal $400 a day. I had to make another withdrawal for the remaining amount the next day and bring him the money.
When I gave him the first $400, he immediately asked if “I” needed any of it. I was completely shocked and I tried not to sound arrogant when I told him I made that much a day at my job so I wasn’t going to take his money that he needed. He quickly responded, “Ya, but you got bills, and a car, and stuff, you need money, I don’t.” I didn’t know what to say, but in a way, he was right. Of course I refused his offer, but the next odd thing he did, was not meet me at the bench the next day to get the rest of his money. I drove all over hunting him down, which was an experience all to itself. I found him finally (after talking to some other bums and getting directions to his cardboard lean-to). He was laying on a thin piece of cardboard, covered with a nearly see-thru sheet and using an old shoe for a pillow. I teased him that he’s in trouble now that I know where he lives because I might just pop over and hang out with him now. He patted the top of an old metal barrel and said “I even got a table, we could have dinner at my place sometime.”
My most recent encounter with a homeless person was just a few weeks ago. There is a man who is always at the same intersection I go through on my way home from work in Seattle, Washington. He reminds me of my old friend CW in Elko, NV, except this guy has amazing light brown eyes. They are almost golden, but not quite that rich in color. They are more like the color of coffee with a little too much cream. Once again, I was struck with an impulsive decision. As I pulled to a stop to wait for the light to turn green, I was thankful that it had just turned red. I lowered my window, which of course prompted him to approach my car. I held out my hand and said “I don’t have any money for you, but I would love to hold your hand for a minute.” His face lit up and that is when I saw his beautiful eyes up close. He hesitated forming a smile, but he managed one nicely. I asked him how he was, and he could tell I really wanted to know. He sighed and softly said ‘ok’. I looked up and my light was green. It felt odd that I wanted to curse a green light for the first time in my life. I was not ready to let go of this man’s hand. He could tell the light was green by the look in my eye, though I’m sure he is quite familiar with the timing as well. I told him he had beautiful eyes, as I regretfully let go of his hand. He said ‘thank you’ as I slowly drove off. My heart hurt the whole way home.
A few days later, I met a milestone while at work and I was feeling pretty darn happy as I headed home. As I turned the last corner before the intersection this man is usually at, I reached in my wallet and pulled out a $20 bill. I quickly rationalized that I had purchased $20 in lotto tickets just last week and hadn’t got any return for it, at least I knew I would get something in return for this $20. I would get another chance to hold this man’s hand.
He approached my car right away when he saw me lower my window and smiled when he recognized me. I held out my hand with the money tucked inside, deliberately, so he would have to hold my hand to get it. I was so touched that when he went to hold my hand, he could tell immediately I had money in it, and yet still, he knew… he just knew, I wanted so much just to hold his hand…. And he did. He embraced my hand for a long moment while we both just looked into each other’s eyes silently until the light once again, turned green.
As I pulled away, I wept uncontrollably. Not over sadness for him, but for me. How desperate I had come to be touched that I was more than happy to pay a homeless man $20 to hold my hand, for just a few seconds. And yet, I had to laugh at myself, because I felt like I got the bigger bargain out of it.
Without me giving him any more money, we have embraced hands a few more times since that day. Today he saw me driving up and immediately tore one glove off his hand and held it out, waiting for me to pull up to the light. How awesome is that? I smiled so big at the excited look of anticipation on his face as I rolled my window down and extended my arm out to him.
His name is Joel, he is really homeless, he is divorced but he still wears his wedding ring, his daughter-in-law’s name is Teresa, and a cable hit him in the nose the other day and left a pretty big cut. He says he is trying to let the scab heal because his mother taught him not to pick his nose. I laughed hysterically when he told me that. All this, and more, I have learned about Joel (and myself), in just a few red lights.