By the time I had my first one-on-one encounter with a stranger asking me for money in a public place, I already had a mental fantasy of what such a person was like and how I should respond.
He (it was usually a he) would be homeless due to a crazy twist of fate. He would have a heart of gold. He would be too humble to ask for more than a few coins. He could be best helped by being taken in by someone whose mission it was to save those who were down on their luck, someone idealistic and spiritual (like me).
The imagination of my child self, combined with a certain curiosity born of having watched my parents ignore and walk away from strangers who asked for their attention, had created this fantasy.
I believed in my fantasy so much that, by the time I was in college, I was already determined to live it out. I wasn’t in the position to start a center for the homeless, but I could certainly give money to those who asked me as I waited for my train in Penn Station (this was before panhandlers were banned). I felt virtuous.
I was 18, and naïve. My encounters with these people were limited to the transfer of money. There was no meeting of souls, no sublime recognition, no deep spiritual meaning. Eventually I caught on to the fact that some of these people were clearly scamming me. (“I really need to get on this train but I can’t afford a ticket. Anything you can give will help.”)
My fantasy lost its hold, and I became one of those who would walk away. Sometimes, if the circumstances were unusual (being approached in a place where it was rare to be asked for money), I would give a little. I once emptied my wallet of its change for a woman I met in a Massachusetts town, telling myself it wasn’t a scam because I told her that the giving was actually benefiting me; I wouldn’t likely have used the coins anyway and they were just extra weight.
Things changed in the summer of 2011.
I felt deeply vulnerable that summer. Part of me didn’t want to keep living past the death of a dream I’d had to start a business. I’d left two stable jobs, one after the other, during the previous year, on the strength of my conviction that I could support myself doing what I loved. A year passed; things didn’t go the way I’d expected. Clients didn’t come and I had no money.
I was taking a short walk before my first appointment with a new therapist who I hoped could help me back to vitality. A woman was sitting on a little ledge just off the sidewalk, asking those who passed for money.
I don’t know what made me do it, but I stopped.
I was so on edge myself at that point—perhaps the edge in me recognized the edge in her and met it with compassion.
Something fierce rose up in me and said that I would not walk away, even if all I could do was sit with her for a bit and treat her like the human she was.
The encounter moved me so deeply that I recorded it in detail in my journal that day, and therefore I am able to remember what happened. The woman told me her name was Eunice. She told me my hair was beautiful, and I let her touch it. She showed me the dirt on her skin, and the scar on her belly which she said was from being injured in a fight. She told me she’d just gotten out of the hospital and needed cancer treatment.
I was moved to ask her how I could help. She said she needed money to get to a cancer treatment place. So, I took her with me to the ATM, withdrew $60, gave it to her along with my name and address, hugged her, and left for my therapist appointment.
I didn’t tell a soul what had happened. Perhaps I feared judgment. She might have been a skilled scam artist. How did I know her story was true? And, it could be said I was in no position myself to be giving away what little financial resources I had.
I have no regrets. I don’t care what she used that $60 for; I know that for those few minutes we were together, we were sisters. She trusted me with her vulnerability and I felt my humanity.
And I welcomed it. It didn’t matter whether I’d been successful at manifesting my dreams or whether I had enough money to support myself. It didn’t matter what I looked like in the eyes of the world, all those people who kept walking by as I talked with Eunice.
Fundamentally, the connection was what mattered.
I never saw or heard from Eunice again. I initially felt passionate to connect with others like her, but then, even as I began to feel emotionally stronger, I slid back into my habitual way of seeing the world, populating my thoughts with dichotomies of success/failure, have/have not.
But last week, I made another, similar connection with a man named Bo who told me he lived in a tent and had in his past spent years in a mental institution. In his recent past he had stayed in a homeless shelter. He didn’t gloss over these things at all; he just said them. My heart went out to him. I met him at a time when I was again feeling very vulnerable myself. I connected with him out of a feeling of mutual vulnerability, but in return I received hours of interesting conversation and a dinner which he offered to pay for because it made him feel good to be the provider when he was usually the needy one.
I realized that had I been wrapped up in what I had been calling “success” (I was offering intuitive readings at a psychic fair, and wasn’t getting very many clients while others were), I would likely have missed this chance to connect with a fascinating human being.
I think in some ways we’re all homeless.
I think in some ways we all feel like aliens in a strange land with rules we hope we can manage to remember, with change coming faster than we can always keep up with.
I think in some ways we all end up falling through our cracks and living on our edges. When my crack meets your crack, we don’t have to crack up. I can meet you with compassion and we can be wherever it is we are, and it doesn’t diminish us in any way.
And yet, I wonder if I’m still romanticizing the homeless and those who are publicly down on their luck. I realize now that my earlier fantasy, while to some extent directed toward those I could help, was really all about me. My ability to help. My charity. My disillusionment when the fantasy didn’t match my experience. Encountering Bo and Eunice pulled me out of that and into unrehearsed, present-moment human interaction, and yet I wonder if I am still adding in my own fuzzy-focus idealism when I wax poetic about how deep those encounters were.
Sometimes I think there’s something about being homeless that makes it easier to drop pretenses, to simply live in the world and take it as it comes, to be resourceful—strong and vulnerable at the same time. Sometimes I think that by living externally the cracks and edges many of us only live in smaller, less noticeable ways, the homeless can face the fragility of the human condition more directly and, in being unable to escape from it, more easily find a way to become reconciled to it.
But I know that not every encounter with those who are different and on the edges can possibly be a deep meeting of souls.
I saw another man in the same place I met Bo. He was sitting on a bench for hours, laughing loudly to himself while staring at his phone, and occasionally making a lewd joke to no one in particular. He seemed to be in his own world, perhaps a defense against a larger world in which he could not find a way to meaningfully be either vulnerable or strong.
What I continue to carry is a knowing that ultimately we’re all human, with sometimes only fine threads separating the specifics of one person’s journey from those of another. Recognizing that common bottom line and acting on the basis of it, especially in situations where illusions and fantasies are strong, breaks through my mental habits and brings me right back to the place I can do the most good.
Sitting with another. Listening to that person’s story. Dropping my own.
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Ed: Bryonie Wise