My new friend, the poet Melody said this last night and it struck a note with me.
This idea is something I think about a lot, with regard to how vulnerable we all are. I think that I am probably one major event or tragedy away from being viewed as crazy or from standing on the street corner, asking for change or food. Maybe we all are and that’s why it’s easy to look down on the homeless, I don’t know. Maybe it’s a fear of a similar fate befalling us.
I think about it whenever I remember my uncle Mike who died of pneumonia on the street last summer. We hadn’t seen him since my Grandpa’s funeral a few years ago. We lost touch with him and found out that he was living first in a shelter then on the streets.
My first memory of him was seeing him onstage playing the ghost of Christmas past in “A Christmas Carol.” But the memory that haunts me is the one my grandma tells me. On the way into the theater, all dressed up in my holiday tights and holding her hand at about age five, I saw a row of people in the theater begging for food, for help. My grandma told me I started to cry and couldn’t understand that they were just actors- that it was all to create Dickens’ world of street life and sadness. I couldn’t understand why they didn’t have a home. As an adult, years later, I am still baffled by the same thing.
But this time, it was my family not members of his cast. It was the uncle who used to catch my attention from across the room and keep it like a ball twirling around on someone’s fingertip. My uncle, who taught me how to ride a horse. My uncle, who talked about theater with me and had a loud, booming laugh that cancelled out all other noise in the room. My uncle, who didn’t want me to be girly so he bought me a green Tonka truck which I slept with until my Brownie troop made fun of me when I told them. Mike, who we would give the “5 Golden Rings” sign to on Christmas Eve.
We have a tradition on my dad’s side which is that everyone must hold a 12 days of Christmas sign while my grandma plays the piano and sings.When it gets to your number, you have to stand up and do some kind of action while you hold your sign. Newbies get a high number like eleven lords a leaping. Significant others are silently rated on their willingness to play along. And though not a scientific process, I noticed that those who shied away or were lame about it usually didn’t come back the next Christmas Eve. I never once brought anyone to it- never had anything serious enough to want to put them through the 12 Days of Christmas approval hearing. But Mike got five golden rings because he would milk it until everyone was in tears of laughter and his face was beet red from a combination of singing and booze. Booze, I learned as I got older, was his downfall.
I can’t speak for anyone homeless, but I think that Mike lived on the street because he wanted to live on his own terms. Shelters didn’t allow alcohol. He wanted to drink so he left. And he died on the street, probably with a bag full of well-loved books and a drink to keep him warm. Mike read constantly. He could argue any subject, on either side. He was self absorbed and probably a little bit pretentious. He was a person, is my point. Like you or me, full of quirks and beauty and things to work on. The last time I saw him, he awkwardly told jokes after my grandpa’s funeral in a rumpled shirt and tie he probably dug out of a clothes box in the attic. His hands shook as he looked to his nieces and nephew to affirm him. When he didn’t find that because we were all too worried about him to laugh it off, he found my grandma’s white zinfandel. This was the last time I ever saw him.
What makes me really angry is when people judge the homeless or treat them as less than human. To me, it could be any one of us at any moment.
He once had a farm and a wife and two horses. He once performed onstage and sang in choirs. And he died homeless. I don’t know how it went.For Mike, it’s just something that happened along the way. Addiction and solitude and who knows what else contributed. And I could feel guilty for not doing more to help him, like I did when I was five and saw the actors in his cast begging for food. Sometimes I do. And because I am also human, I’ve definitely avoided eye contact in the past with people asking for money because it made me feel guilty.
I try not to anymore. Anyone homeless I’ve talked to told me the thing they appreciate most is eye contact and human decency. Even if I have no money. I don’t know that much but I’m trying.
When I found out he died this summer I didn’t cry. I went to Montrose Beach and flew a kite. Then I called my sister and a homeless guy told me he would propose to me if I’d get off the phone. His eyes burned with honesty and when we looked at each other for a long moment, I smiled. I knew my uncle Mike was in on this somehow. We didn’t end up getting engaged because I was talking to my sister and couldn’t end the call. For some reason, I think Mike would have loved that scene. Two people being themselves in all their weirdness.
I don’t know how else to end this. But here are some great articles on artists who choose to think of the homeless with consideration and compassion that I really like and whose work I borrowed in this post.