Its a hard life being homeless. Even in the nicer shelters, you are getting up before six every day. Carrying what little you own and making your way around your life as an eyesore to the rest of the world, unless you can manage, as many homeless do, to make yourself look somewhat presentable with what you have. There is no sleeping in. No speaking out too loudly. No morning television, no private urination. And, if you want to keep your temporary place to sleep at the shelter, no wine on a Saturday night. No one to really talk to about the memories that make you just as much of a real person as any of the rest of us. And while you are at it, please, try to refrain from talking to yourself...because not even you are listening to you anymore. If any of these requirements seem too inconvenient, you're more than welcome to pitch a tent against the icy winds of the east river with the rest.
Its 7:15am on the morning of SuperBowl Sunday. I'm on the M15 bus heading home from the shelter, with a small array of the otherwise invisibles I described earlier. As I pass 41st street going south, I see a lumbering figure with a small briefcase bag. A sight that, like the rest of the invisibles, would rarely catch my eye, even if it wasn't the only moving thing on this deserted Avenue in midtown. This morning though, I turn to catch a glimpse of the face to see if its one of our guys. I try to wave from the bus window, but John doesn't see me with his head down against the wind.
His name is Michael. "You pronounce it Mikah-el." he says. "My sister named me and thats how she used to say it." He's a stout, wide black man with a very well shaped head and closely cropped hair. His eyes are liquid and his skin shows only a few craggy marks of homelessness. A finely-shaped nose and a clean blue collared shirt. The most marked underbite I think Ive ever seen, with thin narrow teeth that are at least one whole tooth's length away from one another. But however Barracuda-esque that whole rig might sound, there's something rather pleasant about him. His eyes arent angry like many are. His mannerisms are far more open in nature than the rest. Strangely, homelessness hasnt seemed to turn him in on himself...yet. And he genuinely seems to like simple conversation. I guess you cant talk like that about usual stuff with some of the guys at the shelter. Because homeless life, well, isnt that usual.
Seeing three of us drinking orange juice at the table --two of us volunteers and one of the other guys who was feeling remotely social--he sidles over and slides in to the cafeteria bench. He's open-faced at the prospect of conversation, even with some spoiled rotten overnight volunteers here to work off some unspoken catholic guilt and then go back to their beds in the morning to sleep it off. He smiles with his his barracuda teeth and says nothing. I try to sip my orange juice but scoot it away when I notice the smell of feet that is filling the room from the already sleeping men around us. We are talking about South Florida. One of the guys, a small, thin guy with scarred skin, a bald spot and a big black handebar mustache, is talking excitedly about his time in the everglades and all the reptiles they would pull out of hte boat's engine when they docked after a boat ride. I am making a face and expressing my distaste for the creatures. I start to tell a story about the rattlesnakes in Colorado but realize before I get too far that the handebar mustache guy (I never caught his name) wants desparately to tell another story. I fall silent and go back to showing the utmost interest. He has long, thin, pale hands that shake violently as he holds his juice and they shake even more now as he waves them in the air in the midst of the next story.
Mikah-el listens pleasantly with his bottom teeth out and his head to the side. Then he opens his mouth and says in a barrio-thick, Southern accent "When I was a boy in North Carolina, grow'n' up near the border," his pleasant expression deepens as his mind revisits the memory, "Y' ever heard of a mulberry tree?" We all nod our heads, picturing this man as a young kid in the hot, wet woods and fields of the Carolinas, running under the big furry canopy of the swaying mulberry trees. "Big ole trees they are. My Daddy used to take our hunting rifle and..."as he says this he points an arm out as if to aim and closes one eye "and shoot snakes right out of the trees. One, two, three just like that." We are all quiet as he continues, "When I got old enough he took me out and showed me how to use the rifle, how to hold it. It was too big for me 'course and I couldnt never go huntin' with him or nothin. He was dead before I was big enough and my older brother never wanted to teach me to hunt any big game. So I just used to bird hunt with this ole bbgun we had, you know, but there aint enough meet on those things to feed nobody. Anyways, I still tried to practice with that rifle, tryin to shoot them snakes out of the tree branches like Daddy usedta. One, two, three just like that. Never got too many of 'em."
Pause and he's back from his memory to look around that we were all listening. "One day I was out in the field with a sickle, you know cuttin the weeds back, back and forth" he makes a sweeping motion accross his body, turning his wrist at each turn of direction, "And I suddenly saw this big ole rattlesnake coiled up in the weeds. I didn't even think, I just hacked at its head with my sickle, you know how they say to be sure to get the head off first, just cuttin at it like crazy. Maybe it was a'ready to strike, you know, but it made me think o'it when you said" (nodding to handlebar and referring to a little known fact that he had asserted earlier) "that rattlers could strike the length o their body. That sucker was, you know, like right there gettin' ready to strike.I woulda been, well..." With that, he takes a bite and munches on a piece of bread with a slice of American cheese from his styrafoam plate, his eyes still bright and lilting around at us.
After finishing a discussion on hunting, through which I keep my tummy turning disapproval to myself, we move on to gun and carrying laws in different states. My fellow volunteer, Dave, from upstate new york metions that new york just passed a law that you had to conceal your weapon if you wanted to carry it - that its illegal to have it in a visible holster. "Now whys that?" asks Mikah-el. "Im guessing that they judged it too provoking to have it showing" I say matter of factly as I tend to do when Im bullshitting about a subject of great interest. "Oh, yes yes, of course." He responds thoughtfully. Dave and handebar are now off on a heated discussion of gun laws and rights and the like, and, feeling that the conversation was getting too close to gun-toting self reichiousness for my taste, I feel it time to interject a small point of likely disonance. Mikah-el encourages me on without knowing it through his wholly-interested, genuine look of non-judgement. "Well I know that in Colorado, where I'm from, there was a big fuss about concealed weapons and liscence laws after Colombine." Mikah-el looks concerned in a childlike way at the mention of the massacre. "They blame the guns but they dont blame the parents" retorts Dave without looking at me. "Well I think you can probably blame both, dont you think? I mean with nearly 20 kids dead, I dont think anyone in our state would have been satisfied to blame upbringing alone and leave accesibility to guns as it stood before the shooting." Handlebar looks mystified and Mikah-el nods open-eyed. Dave ruffles, "well when your kids walk around looking like goths and dress
I know Im becoming heated when my nose starts to tingle from the rush of blood (I always blush when Im angry). But, given that I am sleeping here tonight on a cot with 16 of these guys, I verbally withold the hot reprimand I was giving him in my head and from announcing that I too dressed like a goth at some point in high school out of the pure pain of not being accepted. More precisely, it would have come out like "Well I used to dress like that, and you are definately right, because I personally have shot a lot of people as well." Instead, I say "More than that, no one factor could be an isolated incident, especially considering how alone those kids must have felt. I think the moral of the story is just be nice to everyone." I force a laugh and look around for the judgement I feel sure is already in their faces. I see it in Dave's but mere thoughtfulness in those of the other two, which, as two men of the street, suprises me. "It was a cry for help" murmurs Mikah-el, almost inaudibly with his eyes on his sanwhich plate. "Just havin' some'ne list'n, I guess." There is a momentary silence among us. Looking at these two guys holding their styrafoam cups and staring down in thought at a cafeteria table in the basement of a church turned into an overnight shelter in the cold winter months who are now silently thinking about those two guys at Colombine and everyone they hurt, my anger at Dave disappates and looks stupid next to a subject of this importance. Loneliness. Isolation. Underestimation. Neglect. I know they get it like a slamming door.
Dave takes his plate and starts in on clearing the table. I lean forward "You know what I think? I think that everyone that does something horrible to others, every act of violence or mean or terrible thing someone does, I think that if you look back you will always find that someone has been mean to them. Its like a chain, you know? Nothing ever happens in a vacuum. Sometimes it might just be hard to look back far enough into someone's history...you know?" They both nod. Mikah-el sits back in his chair with a heartfelt, gentle look on his face and looks at me forlornly. Handlebar's hands go on trembling as he weaves his fingers together in front of him on the table.
I continue. "Most people that do bad things are, well, really..." I pause. "Hurting." says Handlebar.