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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.

The Invisibles.

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Oh no I’ve said too much, I haven’t said enough.”

Michael Stipe

I saw him coming. He was walking his bike towards me and eyeing me, but I really wasn’t in the mood; I wasn’t feeling generous or giving. Brandon Lee, that was his name, he told me when I asked. “I’m not homeless,” he also added, after asking me for money. His bike was loaded down, not in the way someone does if they were touring, but more so it was loaded down with what looked like everything he owned. His bike, he told me, keeps him young. He’s 54, he also added. I’m just a year older than him, I told him, and that I also ride bikes. Such similarities but so many differences. He asked me again for money, to which I skirted the subject by asking him a question, “Hey Brandon, if I wanted to offer food to the homeless, where should I go?” “Outside the bus station would be a good place to start,” he said.” “Really, I was thinking about the homeless Jesus statue,” I countered. “Naw man,” he continued, “That’s just where people go to grab stuff that church people leave for them. The bus station, outside the City Mission, under the bridges by the Mission, that’s where you’ll find them.” I reached for my wallet and handed him two dollars, I felt like I was paying an informant. When I handed him the money he thanked me, called me his brother, and then started rattling off other places to find the homeless. He was still talking as I rounded the corner. I could no longer see him but I could still hear him.

It’snothing new for me to offer street people money, or at least engage with them and offer a little dignity. One person talking to another person. But this was different, in a way. This is a project I am doing for a class I am currently enrolled, Society and Religious Belief. Truth be told, I’ve thought of doing this in the past on my own but never have. This, I thought, would give me the initiative. I was given much leeway with this project and this is what I chose, and now I questioned myself. When offering change and conversation on the streets I’m familiar with, that’s on my terms, but in some ways what I was about to embark on was theirs.

My original plan was to make sandwiches and coffee and carry them on one of my cargo bikes. But I wasn’t sure what to expect and didn’t want things to go to waste, so as a start I opted for bottled water and snack chips. So armed with a case of water and a 24 pack of chip varieties, I headed out by bike.

Against Brandon’s advice, I thought I’d stop at the homeless Jesus statue first as it is only a couple blocks from the bus station, but I stopped before I arrived. Though Buffalo is going through a great renaissance, downtown on a Thursday night after 5pm still turns into a ghost town.

I was stopped at a traffic light at a major intersection and to my right was a guy sitting on a ledge with bags next to him. We were just a few feet apart. I looked over at him and our eyes met, “How you doing, man,” I asked him? He looked down, started shaking his head from side to side and was speaking but it was so soft I couldn’t hear him. He looked to be about my age and was a rather large guy. So I said, “I’m sorry, I didn’t hear you.” Now he looked up directly into my eyes and said, “I’m hungry.” I asked him first if he new of the soup kitchens around the city and then recommended a couple. I pulled the bike over and asked if he wanted some chips and water, which he did. After handing him a couple bottles of water I asked him what kind of chips he wanted. “Whichever kind you don’t like,” he responded. He didn’t want to eat the ones that I liked. When I handed them to him he opened them immediately and started eating. His vice was barley audible. His name is Jeff and he’s a veteran of the Air Force. He’s been on the streets “for a while.” I shook his hand and asked if he wanted more chips or water. He didn’t. He never asked me for money or food, or anything.

When I arrived at the homeless Jesus statue there were a few people there so I sat down on a ledge next to the statue. After a few minutes a guy I saw earlier on my ride came by. He was wearing sweatpants and bright orange sneakers that seemed too large for his feet. Walking in a hurried manner somewhat anxious manner, he carried a garbage bag which I could tell was filled with empty bottles and cans, which one person referred to as “homeless currency.” They’ll steal that shit the same as they steal money, he told me. Anyhow, when he approached he started rummaging through a garbage can for more empties. One he pulled out, I could see as he examined it, was full with the tab intact. He popped the tab, I could hear it’s fizzy release from where I was sitting, and then chugged a little. I decided to head to the bus station and as I passed him I asked him if he would like any chips or water. “Oh, no thanks brother, I’m just collecting cans.”

I stopped in front of the bus shelter for just a brief period as there was not much happening there. But while I was there, and as I passed a statue of a buffalo (as in Buffalo, NY), it reminded me of another time I saw this statue after taking a bus from Nashville. I had just returned from externship from culinary school. Both of my parent were already deceased and while I was gone our family home was sold. It was an odd feeling. I remember seeing this statue at night while waiting for one of my sisters to pick me up. I was an adult, of course, but I felt like an orphan. And in some ways that feeling has never left me. I can not imagine the loneliness one must feel when they are on the street. Alone and invisible.

I don’t want to paint this with rose colored glasses in that the homeless are all gentle street people and nice. On the contrary. Many have problems that keep them on the street and being able to function in “normal society (what is normal?), but it doesn’t mean they are not fellow equal humans on planet earth. No one, as little kids, intends to or aspires to end up on the street, but many do. Anyhow, as I coasted to another stop at a red light at a rather deserted intersection there was a person sitting on the sidewalk reading a book. With many bags next to them, they were so bundled up head-to-toe I could not tell if they were a man or women. I look over at them, say hello. “Fuck you,” is all they blurt back without looking up from their book. I was just going to offer you some water or chips if you’d like some, I say. “Fuck you. Get the fuck away from me,” is how they replied. So I rode on.

Then there is Ann. I’ve seen her on a few occasions but just learned her name yesterday. She was in a doorway with her belongings next to her on a particularly desolate and somewhat dangerous street. She was shivering and looked scared. The clothes she wore would be more appropriate on a younger woman but she may have been younger than she looked. I coasted to a stop in front of her, said hello, and asked if she would like some water or chips. Yes, she said. I handed her two bottles of water and asked what kid of chips she wanted, “Any kind is fine,” she said. After talking with her for a couple minutes she interrupted and asked abruptly, “You married?” Taken aback, I smiled and blushed a little by the surprise of the question so out of context, “Nope, divorced,” I told her, “How ‘bout you?” The same, she said. 

 

Night was falling and I wanted to head home, but on my way I thought I’d stop by the bridges that Brandon had mentioned. I’d seen them before as I’d ridden by on bikes or in cars, the people sleeping under the viaducts. When I approached the first bridge it was empty, except for some trash and other evidence. But when I surveyed the upper ledge where they would sleep—where I would sleep if I were without a home—I could see that there were steel bars installed to keep people from laying there.

I pedaled on, and at this point (sorry to be so graphic) but I had to urinate. This is not a problem if one is part of normal society but what if one is homeless. What about defecation. Such basic private bodily functions I take for granted. 

 

At the second of the two bridges there was a small encampment at the top of the bridge. Not at the very top—the shelf, as I’m told it is call—but the next level. This bridge had double metal bars to keep people from laying in it’s most secure spot. I called up, “Yo, you up there?” No answer. I stood there for a minute, trying to imagine that this was my home, temporary or not. The smell of sewer wafted in my nostrils and I shivered a little. I walked up the incline and set two bottles of water and two bags of chips next to the sleeping bag. I pedaled on.

I’m almost home and stop at a bar for a beer, mostly to relive myself but also because I know there is free live music and I need some beauty. I feel fragile. After ordering a beer I retreat to the restroom. I’ve been here before and know that as I stand at the urinal there is a large mirror behind me. A passage of the book, Down To This, by Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall, comes to mind. The author voluntarily spends time in Toronto’s shanty town, which at the time (early 90’’s) was the largest in North America. He panhandles and plays billiards in bars for money. Anyhow, there’s a passage where he talks about flirting with a person in the bar. He then goes to the restroom and sees himself in the mirror and almost doesn’t recognize himself. He had forgotten, for a minute, that he was homeless and was surprised at how disheveled he looked.

After relieving myself and washing my hands I walked past the mirror but consciously looked away. I didn’t know who I would see.

We’re all just walking each other home.

~Ram Dass

Urban Simplicity.

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.

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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