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This is Mark.

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We’re all just walking each other home.”

~ Ram Dass

This is Mark. I saw him drawing in the street this evening as I was walking out to my favorite tavern. And when I say in the street I mean it quite literally as he was in the middle of the street. As I love free art I stopped to chat with him. He was drawing a mermaid, he told me. When I asked if I could take his photo he laid next to his drawing. He also told me he loved all sorts of artistic expression and that he wanted to help make Allentown (in Buffalo, NY) artistic again. As we were talking I couldn’t help but notice the hospital band he was wearing on his wrist, as if he were just released. I asked him about it and he told me but I won’t air his personal issues here. Then it occurred to me that I had met him before and had actually posted about him on this blog (read his story here). We had a nice chat. He told me he was homeless but never asked me for money, though when I offered some he readily accepted. I have to say it was really nice to chat with Mark this evening. We parted and I went and had a couple beers. When I came out his mermaid was complete but Mark was down the street being interrogated by police officers (his drawing below is actually illuminated by the headlights of a police car). I don’t know what the police were questioning him about, nor do I know his real story, but what I do know is that chatting with him tonight brightened my evening. I home he finds his way. Read the previous post about him here.

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Two Guys Talking on a Street Corner

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[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.

On Being Human…

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Her voice was rather loud for such a petite elderly women, I thought when finally seeing her. I could hear her before I saw her. It’s because I was seated and the subway car was crowded. The car fell silent as she squeezed through people while belting out her spiel, “I’m homeless and my only income besides begging on these cars is collecting bottles and cans,” she said. “Please, from the bottom of your heart, anything will help. I’m a human just like you,” she added.

There was no loose change in my pocket and I knew that the only denomination in my wallet were twenties, which I would not hand off. When she passed by me I was surprised at how average she looked. If not for her pleading I would never have guessed that she was homeless. “There’s probably 75 people in this car and no one can find it in there heart to offer me even a small amount of change,” she questioned? The car was silent, not a single person gave her anything and when she passed I couldn’t look her in the eyes. I was on my way back downtown after visiting the largest church in Manhattan, the Cathedral of St John the Divine.

In a recent philosophy class we were taught to question everything, especially our actions and motives. The German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, is said to have gone so far as to question his questions. So what is it, I sometimes question myself, that draws me to offer the homeless and street people compassion?

Spending my formative years in a public housing project, our family was poor but I didn’t know it. It wasn’t until later, after my dad had passed and we were living in the suburbs, when I received free subsidized lunches that I became aware of it, embarrassed by it. It was while living in the projects that a young friend of mine (we were probably 10 years old) told me that before moving into their current apartment, his family lived in a car for 6 months. It was also around this time that I first saw someone sleeping under a bridge, which was on my way to grade school. But still I question my motives.

In New York City this past weekend I was overwhelmed by the stark contrast between wealth and poverty. Homeless encamped outside stores that are telling us we need what they have, some sleeping in the city’s beautiful parks, and also sleeping in churches whose steeples seem to touch the clouds. Most were not as vocal as the women on the train, some simply sat behind handwritten signs, but her voice still rings in my ears. 

I met Jeremiah on 14th Street. His signs caught my attention…they were biblical passages with a message of hope. As I spoke with him I squatted down to be at his level—people rushed past—both of us invisible. He’s worried about his future, he told me, but he also has hope. That is what is really sustaining him, he also added, hope.

There was also David, who was sitting in a wheelchair at Union Square. He had no legs below his knees and his sign read, “Veteran. Please help.” I spoke with him very briefly and I felt tears welling in my eyes as I did. Though I am a pacifist I have the utmost respect for our soldiers that protect us. And now here one was on the street with no legs asking for money. When I put a couple dollars in his cup and thanked him for his service it felt trite. How arrogant of me, I thought, and I was fully conscious of my legs as I walked away. 

When I met Michael, who asked not to be photographed, he was sitting behind his sign on Broadway in Lower Manhattan, not far from Ground Zero. What caught my attention with him was one of the sentences on his sign, “Just want to feel human again.” This was the second time today someone made this reference to being human.

Michael was reading the Bible when I offered him a dollar. When he looked up to thank me I asked him what he was reading. Romans, he said with a smile. I told him that Romans 12:2 was one of my favorite passages and he quickly thumbed through his Bible to find it and recite it. He’s been on the street about 8 months he told me and is hopeful, but at the same time is finding it difficult to find work (I cannot imagine trying to find work without a place to live).

So, I question in this public place, why? Why do I feel the need to speak with street people? Is it because it makes me feel good? Possibly, at some lower psychological level, but I don’t think that’s it. Do I feel sorry for them? That’s not really it either (compassion would be a more appropriate word). I don’t know why, I really don’t. But when I think of all the people I’ve met over the years I do know that we are all children of the same source. And in some ways, I believe, that when I speak with people from all walks of life—and offer a little bit of myself—it makes us a little bit more human.

This is Jay (and he was a bit of a challenge)

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This is Jay. I met him on my way home this evening. But before I tell his story, or what I know of it, I have to tell you mine. At least mine from this evening.

Earlier this evening I was on a phone call with a professor for a class I am currently taking. During our conversation I told him how I feel we are all equal. All of us. No exceptions.

On a side note, if you’ve been to this blog before then you know that I sometimes profile people on the street.

Anyhow, I had stopped out for a couple beers and was on my way home when I heard him. He was across the street sitting on a stoop. I couldn’t see him because from my view he was hidden behind parked cars. But I could hear him, almost wailing. He was asking for help to get something to eat. So I walked over to him.

When I first approached he immediately asked me for money. For what I asked? I am really hungry, he replied. He was going to the store down the street for a sandwich, some chips, and–he added–a beer if he had enough money. [Note the beer sitting next to him.] I thought about taking him to the store to buy a sandwich for him, but I was tired (life, sometimes, can be so exhausting).

I asked him his story, he was somewhat guarded, but this is what he told me. He was released from prison very recently, July of 2016, after 23 years. That’s a year ago, I thought, but after 23 years that’s pretty recent. I didn’t ask him what he was in for because I really was afraid to know. But he told me that when he “was in” he was beaten so badly he now has memory problems and seizures. This, I suppose, also explains his halting way of speaking.

Anyhow–and this is a true story–when I reached into my pocket for change I pulled out not just change but also a small pocket rosary that I had purchased last summer at St. Paul’s Chapel next to Ground Zero in NYC. I sometimes carry it with me when I travel. I don’t remember putting it in my pocket today, but there it was. What, is this a test, I thought to myself? I had intended on just giving Jay a couple quarters but gave him what I had in my pocket, which was nearly two dollars.

Jay was challenging, there is no question. The way he spoke. His assertiveness. But he is still a human on planet earth, and one who has some problems (as we all do). Yes, he had a beer sitting next to him and was hoping to get enough money for another, but I had just come from a tavern where I had three. None of us would hope to end up on the street, but some of us do, and that doesn’t necessarily make them a bad person. So now, as I get ready to sign off on blogger and log onto Netflix to watch a half-hour of something mindless before crawling into bed, I hope and pray that Jay also has someplace to sleep on this unseasonably chilly spring evening.

This is Mark.

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This is Mark, Mark Buffington. Like Washington only with Buff like Buffalo in front of it, he told me. I had stopped out for a couple beers tonight and was on my way home. That’s when I met him. The tavern I had gone to had an open mic and I was enjoying the impromptu musical creativity. Then when I left and began to cross the street I heard another rhythm, a sort of tapping. So I went over and met Mark. He was “playing” all these random things. The only actual instrument was a harmonica. Resourceful, I thought. He’s been on the street “for a while,” he told me. Ever since his girlfriend kicked him out. “It doesn’t make me a bad person, I’ve not done anything bad,” he also added. And I concur, being on the street doesn’t make you a bad person…things happen. He told me he felt things will get better soon, that he’s okay. I asked him about his health (because I could see that his one hand was crooked), and he told me that he was doing okay, that the doctors at Roswell (cancer institute) are giving him a clean bill of health. We talked for a while, and he played me a couple numbers on his stuff. Never once did he ask me for money. When I offered him a couple dollars worth of change he took it. And when he did he shook my hand with his bent one and said “Thank you brother; God bless you.” Then we parted. As I walked away I could hear his tapping…on an old tire, a wooden crate, and also I heard his harmonica. A couple blocks later as I put the key in my front door I felt grateful. Not only for my ramshackle house I call home, but also that my path crossed with Mark Buffington this evening. My life is enriched because of it.

“Love your neighbor as yourself.”

~Mark 12:31


Urban Simplicity.

This is Micheal (and me, too).

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Okay, first let me say that it is rare that I post photos of myself. Like many people I really do not like it. But anyhow, that aside, let me tell you about this photo. I had gone out for a couple beers this evening at my favorite watering hole, and when I came out Micheal was standing there. He timidly asked me for money while he looked away. I gave him a dollar and asked him his deal…how he found himself out here on a cold New Years Day eve asking for money.

He has mental illness, he told me, has had it all his life (schizophrenia, but he’s on medication) . And because of it is unable to work. He has not received his disability check and was hungry. He was trying to get enough money to buy a sandwich. He sleeps at a friend’s house who charges him ten dollars a night, which he paid for the night, so now he had nothing left to eat with.

I asked him if he would like me to buy him a sandwich and he looked surprised but said yes. Now you may be saying to yourself, Okay here is Joe getting duped again. But I don’t think so. Micheal was sober, if not timid. And I ask you, can you imagine standing outside a bar asking for money for food? What would that take?

So it’s New Years Day evening and one of my resolutions for 2017 is to live authentically, intentionally, and with conviction. I am usually (always) worried about money. But I also always seem to have it. And yes, to the people reading this thinking, “Why doesn’t he just get a damn job,” I understand. I have worked hard–really hard–my entire life, since I’ve been 16. But I don’t think it’s that easy. I don’t have mental illness (at least I don’t think I do). I have never been reduced to asking for money on the street on a cold January night. And even though I worry about money all the time I had some in my pocket when Micheal approached me. So if I truly want to live to my convictions, to be the person that I say I am, how could I possibly not buy this guy a sandwich? He is a human and I am a human. I have more than I need and he doesn’t.

I left Micheal at the restaurant to eat his sandwich and he thanked me and said Merry Christmas. That’s all I have to say.

James and the Homeless Jesus…

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So the above image is of the Homeless Jesus statue that is outside St Paul’s Cathedral here in Buffalo. If you want to know more about the statue read this blog post from last year (it’s a pretty interesting history).

Anyhow, this is a brief story of what happened tonight. And I’m not sure why I post this stuff but it just needs to come out. I need to share.

I had just gotten off a bus I had ridden to the suburbs where I am taking classes at a campus about 10 miles outside the city. I park my bike downtown and take the bus, which drops me off almost at the front door. It was my last meeting with the professor for the semester and I did well. I was also hungry. So while on the bus home I dialed the local hipster taco joint and ordered a couple tacos to pick up on my way home. Despite the snowy weather, the bus arrived downtown sooner than I thought and I knew the meal would not be ready so I thought I’d ride by the Homeless Jesus statue to take a photo of it in the snow.

When I arrived I saw that someone had draped a quilt over the statue. It really is a striking statue and with the quilt in the snow it looks even more real…like a person sleeping on a park bench in the snow (click here to see better photos of the statue without snow).

There was only one other person on the corner when I arrived. I could tell he was cold as he was visibly shivering and stamping his feet. As I squatted down to take a photo I could see he was watching me so I glanced over at him. He asked me if I was taking a picture of the Christmas tree, which is behind the statue. No, I told him, I was taking a photo of the statue. Statue? What statue? He asked. He hadn’t seen it under the snow, I guess. He came over and I told him about the statue and its history. He then asked me if I knew what time the bus was coming. Which one, I asked, this is a busy corner. The homeless bus, he told me.

Apparently there is a bus that comes by and gives out food and other necessities. I had never seen it but that’s what he was waiting for. I have heard of it though, it’s from a church on the East Side, it’s set up like a food truck. I looked at him and he was shivering. Do you have a place to stay, I asked. Yes, and he told me where. It was on a street in one of our city’s most destitute areas. It was a boarding house, he told me. I asked him if it was warm. He told me it was “warm enough,” but he had nothing to eat, that’s why he was waiting for the homeless bus. And then he walked away to where he was standing before. But he never once asked me for money.

I felt like I was in some sort of movie. There I was standing in front of a statue of Jesus as a homeless person, which is in front of one of our city’s more beautiful cathedrals, and it is just a couple days before Christmas. Yes, I know it’s only a statue, but I actually turned to it and spoke. Are you kidding me, I said. What…is this some sort of a test? Then I stood there for a few minutes, feeling the snow land on my face. And I looked over at James (who declined to have his photo taken). He was still shivering and waiting for his bus. So I walked over and gave him a few bucks. He readily accepted, said thank you, bless you, and Merry Christmas. As I rode away I couldn’t help but think of the circumstances in which I found myself this evening. I was worried (about money and time as usual) which takes me out of the moment. And this brief interaction broke open my heart. I was able to see what was real again. And it was just me and James on a street corner in the snow. That’s what was real.

And this is what happened on this frigid and snowy evening just a couple nights before Christmas and in front of the Homeless Jesus. Now if you’ll excuse me I believe I’ll go eat my hipster tacos.

For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.

~ Matthew 25:35-36 

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