[This is part of a series on Faces of the Homeless and street people, for more in this series click here.)

All things are linked with one another, and this oneness is sacred; there is nothing that is not interconnected with everything else.” ~Marcus Aurelius

At first glance one would not likely think that Gary would be asking for money on the street. Dressed in khakis and a turquoise colored Polo-style shirt embroidered with a little sailboat insignia, he would appear to be just an average middle-aged guy waiting for a bus. But there was something in the way that he scanned people as they passed that I new he was panhandling. I was on my way to a local tavern when I first noticed him as I crossed the street. He looked both shy and a little scared when he asked politely, “Excuse me sir, can you spare some change for a disabled veteran?” Knowing the only money I had on me was a twenty dollar bill, and I was on my way for a beer, I looked him in the eyes and politely but selfishly replied, “No, sorry buddy, I can’t.” As the words came out of my mouth I thought to myself, “can’t” or “won’t,” but still I walked over to the tavern which was just a storefront away.

After the bartender brought me a pint she set my change on the bar, and as I looked at it I couldn’t help but think of Gary who was standing just a storefront away. So I set my book next to my beer, grabbed a ten from the change, told the bartender I’d be right back and walked over to Gary. He looked a bit startled as I walked back towards him, and without offering any money I introduced myself and asked if it would be okay to ask him a few questions and possibly take his photo. Not surprisingly he was leery and wanted to know why. I gave him my card with my blog address and explained to him that I was doing a sort of research with people on the street, that I wanted to hear their stories. He agreed, so here is Gary’s story.

Gary is 49, he’ll be 50 next month. He’s not homeless, he has an apartment which is subsidized. I asked him why he is on the street asking people for money and he told me to help pay his bills. His apartment is subsidized but it’s not free, he told me, and he also added that he doesn’t drink or do drugs. He’s only been panhandling for a “short while,” he also told me. When I asked him what it was like when he first started asking people for money, he averted his eyes, looked down and said, “It was humiliating, it still is, but I have no other choice.”

Gary is a veteran who served our country but here he was on a street corner asking people for money. In the age of affluence in which we live, how can this be, I wondered? He didn’t look physically disabled, I knew it had to be something else, so I asked him. “I hear voices,” he told me, “that’s why I can’t hold a job.” It first started while he was in the Marine Corps, back in 1989. Doing the math, Gary would have been in his early twenties, the age at which schizophrenia often emerges in a person, and this is what he is diagnosed with.

I have found that often people just need someone to listen, and that’s what I did. The two of us on a city street corner on a beautiful summer evening. Just two guys talking.

“I have tried so hard,” Gary told me. He asked me to imagine what it would be like to try to hold a job while people were talking to you from inside your own head. I cannot imagine, I told him. “I have fought back with this disease,” he added. He earned his associates degree from Alfred State, and also holds an electrician certificate. He’s tried to hold jobs, but he can’t. “I’m scared,” he said, “I try so hard but I just can’t do it.” His voice changed and there were tears in his eyes as he said this, which caused tears to well in my own eyes, and now it was me looking away uncomfortably.

It was getting dark now and I asked Gary if he has ever been harassed. A little, he told me, but nothing serious. I encouraged him to be as cautious as he could on this street. It is popular with panhandlers in the evening and I have witnessed some being verbally abused by young college kids coming here for the bars. He knew that he said, and he was planning on heading back to his apartment soon.

Before parting I handed Gary the ten dollar bill and asked again if I could take his photo. I took one of him and was surprised at the big grin he offered to the camera. “I smiled,” he said and then asked to see the photo. On an impulse I asked if we could take one together, which we did. Before parting I offered Gary a bit of encouragement and that I hoped he stays safe and that things will keep getting better. He hoped so also, he replied. Uncharacteristically of me, I almost asked Gary if I could say a prayer for him, but I didn’t, I couldn’t. Instead we talked some more, and I listened.

Back at the bar as I sipped my beer I thought of Gary and hoped he was safe as he made his way back to his apartment. I also thought of how we are all connected in some indescribable way. All of us. Most the time this is difficult to remember, but other times—such as tonight—it is not. It’s as if we enter a thin space, as the Celts call it. That place that is thin enough to get a glimpse through the veil, to see the reality of life and what it means to be alive. While I didn’t offer Gary a verbal prayer, in many ways our conversation—him talking and me mostly listening to his story—was a sort of prayer, something sacred. I need to remember this more often, the sacredness of human interaction. This is what I thought about as I sipped my beer on a warm summer evening with a breeze blowing in the opened front door.

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