Home

On Being Human…

Leave a comment

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.

Advertisements

This Too Shall Pass…

Leave a comment

So I’m in NYC for a few days and staying at my usual place just off Union Square. Yesterday afternoon aa I was heading back to my room I came across this art installation by David Datuna. The reason I know who the artist is because as I was photographing the instillation a young woman who helped install it came up to first t ask if I was with the media, and then to tell me a bit about it. The instillation is made of blocks of dry ice which spell out the word Trump. It is the artist’s response to Number 45 pulling out of the Paris Agreement. What’s interesting is that the artist used dry ice, which is a frozen gas (carbon dioxide), rather than regular ice (which of course is frozen water). The instillation, as it melts, doesn’t leave a puddle. It simply dissipates into thin air…

Urban Simplicity.

The Invisibles.

Leave a comment

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.

There are reminders everywhere (and I need constant reminding)

Leave a comment

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things.”

~Philippians 4:8

The above Bible quote is one of my favorites. And yes, I am a crazy leftist liberal who reads the Bible (occasionally). I find inspiration in it in the metaphoric sense, not literally. But as is often the case when I start typing, my mind is ahead of my fingers and I jump ahead. Let me start over.


The above photo was taken last evening, I saw it at just the right time. I was on my way  home from my second job and feeling depleted physically and spiritually. Physically from working too much, not getting enough sleep, and having a cold; spiritually from the uncertain times in which we live. If you are on Facebook then your feed, like everyone’s, is likely filled with mostly posts about politics. And the negativity after a while really wears me down. It helps when I focus on good (hence the above quote).

I of course am not immune to the negativity. While I’ve made the personal commitment to not join in with the onslaught of it on Facebook, I still get caught up in it in conversations at work and else-wear. The fear turns to anger, but it is still fear. I am convinced of this. But there are reminders everywhere, all we have to do is look. And sometimes I believe they are placed right in front of me just when I need them most, such as the above sign attached to a fence on a building I passed last night. Do you have an extra coat? leave it here and we will give it to someone in need. Simple, right? Isn’t that what life should be about? 

Focusing on the anger is the easier path, I think. At least it is for me. Being angry is not fun, but it is easy. Focusing on love (for one another) and having compassion for all of humanity is more difficult. But that’s the path that I choose. Do I stray from the path? Yes, of course…daily, hourly, by the minute. So I draw myself back. And sometimes I simply forget. That’s why I need guideposts and reminders. People are good and there is good all around us. But we need to look, all the time. Here’s a few more examples:


The photo just below is the local chapter of Food Not Bombs, which cooks and feeds people for free twice a week year round, no matter the weather. The second photo below is a building I pass a few times a week on my way the coffee shop (where I type these words). They have a table outside on the sidewalk and offer free things to whoever wants or needs them. The next photo is the Homeless Jesus statue in downtown Buffalo. People leave clothes, sundries, and food for the homeless year round. And my personal favorite is the bottom photo. I was walking to the corner tavern one evening last month when I saw the note taped to a gate in front of a neighbor’s house. Someone had apparently dropped one of their bags and it had a loaf of bread in it and the neighbor held it for return. Simple acts of kindness with profound results.

There are countless other examples of good happening all around us, these are just a few. And while I post these as a share to you, they are really (selfishly) for me. I have to remind myself to focus on the good (and I need constant reminders). Light always overcomes darkness, we simply need to seek it…to become the light.


In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.”

 ~ Anne Frank

Urban Simplicity.

I went to church today, but Jesus was outside.

Leave a comment

 “In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.”~Anne Frank

So first a couple things. The above image is of of St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral here in Buffalo. It’s a beautiful and welcoming space. And below is the life-sized Homeless Jesus statue that lies outside the church facing Main Street. The statue was sculpted by Canadian artist Timothy Schmalz; he also has a Begging Jesus statue outside the Church of St. Francis of Assisi, in NYC. I would walk past it on 31st Street (I think) as I walked to my hotel when I was studying there a couple years ago. What I found interesting about the Begging Jesus statue is that people would leave money in his outstretched hand and no one (that I saw) would take it. The Homeless Jesus statue pictured below is rather controversial (click the above link or google it), and I am really proud that it ended up in my hometown and at St. Paul’s. I have to add that I have no affiliation with St. Paul’s other than they are nice enough to leave there doors open throughout the day and maybe once a month or so I stop by in the midst of a busy day for some quiet time in their beautiful sanctuary. And I’d be remiss if I also didn’t comment on the fact that it is a rarity that a church’s doors are left open other than during formal service/worship time. Thank you St. Paul’s; you have, on certain occasions (such as today) been an oasis for me.

The Homeless Jesus statue arrived in Buffalo last spring, March I think, and that’s around the time the above and below photos were taken. To see it in person really is moving; it’s life-size and at first glance one may think it is a person lying there. But then you notice the scar on his feet. Right from the very beginning people began leaving things for the homeless…articles of clothing, sundries, food. Some people came to pray.

While the above set of photos were taken last spring, the below set were taken today. And now I have to tell you a bit about my day, without getting too personal. But before I do I have to add that I’ve heard recently that more and more people have been leaving things at the staue for the homeless that the church has built a small structure behind it (pictured below) onto which things can be hung. I went there to see that today, but I’m jumping ahead.

Last night I had insomnia. I’ve been prone to it most of my adult life, but last night was bad. Birds were chirping when I finally nodded off. My alarm was set for 5:30am; I ended up calling in “sick” to work today because of lack of sleep. I fell back to sleep and awoke around 11am. Feeling in a grog I went out for coffee. While sitting there, and feeling somewhat bad for abandoning my co-workers on what I know was a very busy day, I thought of St. Paul’s and wondered if it was open as usual (thankfully it was). I simply wanted a place to sit in silence; a holy place.   

It was/is an incredibly beautiful day today. And as I approached the church I came upon the scene below. There were two or three women placing things on the statue and offering them to people as well. As I got off my bike I could hear the one woman say, “Take what you need; that’s why we are leaving it here.” Tears welled up in my eyes. I snapped a few photos. And before leaving (to go around to the front of the church at the sanctuary entrance), I approached the women who where now talking to someone else. I gave them my card and asked if I could post pictures on my blog later. I also asked if they were affiliated with any group or organization. The one women didn’t here me and asked what I had just asked, so I repeated the question. Then she smiled, “No, it’s just us.”

When I went into the sanctuary I was the only one there. It was just what I needed; I sat there for probably a half hour in the chilly stillness. Though I am a Christian it is rare for me to write strictly from a Christian perspective as I feel that the omnipresent consciousness that we call God transcends all religions and is equal to all (and equal to all in non-religions, if that makes any sense). 


And as I sat there in the quietness of this beautiful sanctuary in the heart of a city at lunchtime, I couldn’t help but stare at the altar and the windows behind the altar. Because just beyond those windows–in the rear of the church and facing downtown–was where the statue of the Homeless Jesus lay. Yes, of course I realize that it is only a statue in the same way a church is only a building. But I also believe that material things can be manifestations of the Spirit. If, for example, that statue were not there people would not be bringing things for the homeless; people would not be standing on a city corner and praying. And yes I also realize that people would be caring for the homeless elsewhere, but because of that statue they were caring for them right there; right now, on this beautiful day just a few weeks before the day we celebrate the birth of the light that shines in the darkness. 


As a Christian I would not be telling the truth if I didn’t add that I really am not sure what to think about Jesus. Was he truly the Son of Man? The only begotten son of God? I have a difficulty believing that (literalists, please do not send me hate mail). More so, I believe he was one of a handful of enlightened masters (messengers or teachers) that came to help us learn and grow…how to be fully human. And on this day people were following his example, they were outside doing his work. I think we all can learn from the actions of others. And on this day I learned what it meant to offer selfless service–selfless love–to strangers on the street.


I was sitting in a comfortable pew, but Jesus–or at least the spirit from whence he and we all came–was out on the street, working through common souls like you and I. Even in the midst of the confusing world in which we live today, there is still good. So much good. I just have to look for it sometimes.

And this is what I thought as I sat alone in a pew in a really large and ornate but chilly and incredibly silent sanctuary today.

“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.”

~Matthew 25:35

Urban Simplicity

e·qual·i·ty

Leave a comment

 e·qual·i·ty

əˈkwälədē/

noun

noun: equality

the state of being equal, especially in status, rights, and opportunities.

So these are a couple photos I took yesterday on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village. I happened to be in NYC when the marriage equality act was passed and had heard that there was a gathering down there so I went and took a look. The “gathering” turned out to be thousands. It was in front of the historic Stonewall Inn. And it was really moving. People were crying, people were smiling, people were congratulating one another. There were local and state media speaking. And in the air there was hope.

I mentioned this earlier on Facebook, but I have to tell this brief story again. When I first got there I—being a somewhat smallish man—couldn’t see because of the crowds. I held my camera in the air above my head but still couldn’t get a good shot. I saw a guy standing on a wrought iron fence nearby, so I hopped up as well. I was just about to snap a photo when I hear, “Hey…you can’t be up there. Ya gotta get down.” Turning, I saw it was two NYPD. Somewhat intimidated I jumped down and apologized. I told them I was trying to get a good photo. “Well, did you get the photo,” one of them asked? Nope, not yet, I told him. He then told me that I could get up there to take the photo but then I had to get down. I snapped a couple photos. And when I got down I thanked them and they both shook my hand. I found it very moving and it only added to the positive feeling of this historic event.

 

 

Urban Simplicity.

This is Bob…

Leave a comment

This is Bob (Bob Dendy to be exact…sorta like dandy only with an “e,” he told me). Just when I thought I’ve met every eccentric person in Allentown along comes Bob…wearing striped shorts, wide tie, suspenders, colorful sneakers, and socks pulled up tight. I was out doing one of my favorite pastimes (though I haven’t in a while)…going out for a few beers and taking photos of my eclectic neighborhood. Anyhow, I had a beer and was waiting for the light to change as my favorite time to take photos is but there is still light in the sky which gives it a lovely blue hue (hence it’s designation). And there I was, a pint of beer in my belly and feeling somewhat stunned from lack of sleep, setting up my tripod, when I hear, “Hello…hi…what are you doing?” It was Bob. He was carrying a milk-crate full of stuff and told me he was an educator. When I asked who he educated he told me anyone who would listen. So I listened; I love to hear peoples stories. It turns out Bob is from Toronto; apparently grew up there and here. When I asked if I could take his photo he darted in front of the camera, “Well if you want to. Just tell me what to do.” And when I asked him if he would hold his crate of stuff he grabbed it and said, “Oh, now you want to make it real.” We talked for about 20 minutes, and I enjoyed it thoroughly. It turns out there are a lot of coincidences in our lives. When we parted and shook hands I could tell by the callouses on his hands that he has lived a life of hard work. He never did tell me what he taught, but I learned a few things from him. I learned (or at least remembered), that everyone has a story, and this is what I find fascinating. I declined his offer to stop by his place for a beer (turns out I know the person that owns the house he lives in), but nonetheless, people like Bob are what keep life interesting, at least for me.

Urban Simplicity.

Older Entries Newer Entries