March 31, 2015

Talking to Strangers: Sometimes We’re Not Meant to Help.


“When I was a beggarly boy,
And lived in a cellar damp
I had not a friend nor a toy.
But I had Aladdin’s lamp.”  

~ James Russell Lowell

I had gone to a downtown business to do some shopping and when I got to the doorway I was stunned to find a body lying under a filthy blanket blocking the way.

I stood for a minute staring down at the inert form, watching to see if it was breathing.

The business owner came around the corner and found me standing there. I looked at her face the way you look at the face of an airline stewardess when the plane makes a funny sound but she was completely calm, as if she’d dealt with this kind of thing before. She leaned down and began crooning in a gentle sing-song way to the lump on the steps.

“Get up, it’s morning…I have a business to run…I don’t want to call the police.”

The rags moved and a young man’s purple, swollen face emerged.

He looked up at us through bleary eyes, stunned and confused. He somehow didn’t look like he had experience at being on the streets. There was an innocence about him and it was a shock to me to see someone so wounded. In his pain-filled face I suddenly saw hidden the face of a boy who should have been at home in his bedroom shaking himself awake to the voice of his mother. There we were instead, however, on a sidewalk only a few doors away from Broadway Boulevard, delivery men rushing by in their brown UPS uniforms, trucks double parking, traffic lurching, where a boy, barely a man, had been beaten and left on the pavement like so much trash.

I put my hand over my mouth to keep myself from breaking into tears and turned away to gain composure. The store owner suggested I go inside with her to calm down.

As the purple-faced boy dragged himself off down the street she and I walked into the relatively quiet, peaceful environment of her store. For a moment it felt like we had shut the rest of the world away.

But we hadn’t.

I couldn’t erase the purple-faced boy from my mind. I had to go back outside to find him, to make everything right for him—to tell him things would get better and that I what I said would come true.
I went outside and saw him just a few doors down the street, standing slouched with one shoulder against a building and, even from behind, I could see that he was sagging.

I approached him carefully.

“You need to get your face looked at,” I said.

He turned around, looking dazed and hostile, as if he could trust no one, including this strange woman talking to him, and started to rant about how all his stuff had been stolen.

I told him his stuff didn’t matter and that his face was a mess but he brushed me off.

“I just want my stuff back.” he said. “I don’t give a shit about my face. It don’t matter.” He spit out the words.

“Don’t call the cops. Leave me alone!”

It hadn’t even occurred to me to call the cops. I just didn’t know what to do and in an absurd attempt to help him get his stuff back or to patch up his face or maybe even to patch up his whole life tried to hand him a $20 bill.

He looked at the money for so long that for a second I thought he might take it and wipe his bleeding nose with it.

I wanted to touch him, to put my hand on his back, to soothe him physically, but I sensed he was untouchable and hurried back to my car where I could lock the doors and pretend the world was a safe place, where boys just out of their teens had homes of their own and didn’t get beaten up and left on the street. Where they had friends and even rooms of their own. How did this boy, who could have been playing football, could have been leaning over an engineering exam, could have been doing almost anything else, end up like this?

I turned around in time to see the purple-faced boy finally slump to the ground.

Exhausted? Unconscious?

Two police officers rode up on their bikes and walked carefully over to him.

The purple faced boy began to push himself up off of the ground. He sat up, his forearms on his bent knees. His head dangling.

One of the cops squatted down nearby and the boy raised his head.

The cop put his hand on the boy’s shoulder, certainly not something you think of cops doing these days. He was nodding his head slowly up and down as the boy spoke to him.

The boy began to cry, his face a crumpled mess.

The cop with his hand on the boy’s shoulder looked to me almost like a coach looks when a kid is hurt on the field and, with that almost fatherly gesture I somehow felt the boy would be okay. They would call an ambulance or take him to a shelter. Maybe even call his family. Hopefully they were going to help him. Or they would find someone who could.

I had tried to help him but, I realized, I wasn’t the one to do it and I had to accept that.

I saw the boy point back towards the doorway where I had found him.

He didn’t even know I was there watching. Maybe he didn’t even remember me. But from where I was sitting in the car, I could still see my $20 bill—which really represented much more than money—hanging from the swollen fingers of his big, thick hand.




Nine Common Misconceptions About the Homeless.


Author: Carmelene Siani

Editor: Renée Picard

Image: DC Atty at Flickr 


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