September 1, 2017

“I Only Want People to Look at Me.”

I often see the homeless on the streets of Santa Barbara, California.

Many people try not to see these individuals; they ignore them or make believe they don’t exist. But, for me, they are as much a part of beautiful Santa Barbara as the tall palm trees and the blue Pacific ocean.

They want to be seen and, in most cases, to interact with us.

And despite public opinion, most of them don’t want money to buy drugs or alcohol. If we can’t spare a couple of dollars, I believe they would greatly appreciate a friendly smile or a conversation.

The homeless man without teeth was one such person who I had the pleasure of meeting and the subject of this narrative poem.


The homeless man without teeth
in the Whole Foods parking lot
smiled at me.
When I smiled back,
I thought about giving him money.
But instead, I talked with him,
shook his hand,
and listened to his story.

He told me why he had no teeth.
When he was young,
a black man living in the South,
racist people
treated him like sh*t.
There was no dental care, health care,
or any other kind of care.
“You understand?” he asked,
and grabbed my arm
to anchor his fall.

He held up a cardboard sign
with the word “help” written in big capital letters. 
“Help a disabled veteran,” he kept saying.
“You believe me, don’t you?”

He waved his discharge papers
from the marines
like an acceptance letter from Harvard
and gave me a toothless smile.
“There, see!
It’s written in black and white.
Read it again.”

The homeless man without teeth
was abused by two armed men
in military uniforms.
He showed the papers to prove it—
“An honorable discharge
on account of a mental illness,” he said.
“Lost my mind, couldn’t serve our country anymore.”

People don’t understand brutality.
They think he’s just a homeless man
without feelings,
a typical drug or booze addict,
just asking for money.
He’s better than that—
worthy of our respect.

“I believe you,” I said,
looking into his bloodshot eyes
and beaten-down spirit.

He trusted me.

A woman rolled down her car window,
passed him a nutrition bar.
He put the bar into a plastic bag
with a hundred other bars,
the expensive kind.

Several other people
just drove by,
made believe the toothless homeless man
was invisible,
treated him like a stray dog,
an unforgivable pariah.

“I only want people to look at me,
that’s all,” he said.
“You believe me, right?
You’re not like all the others?”

I said I was different
and hoped that I was kind
and would always see him
as a man who fought for our country.

Before I left,
I shook his cold hand,
felt his tortured soul
touch mine,
and didn’t turn away.



 Author: Mark Tulin
Image: Author’s own; Vero Photoart/Unsplash
Editor: Nicole Cameron
Copy Editor: Danielle Beutell
Social Editor: Travis May

Leave a Thoughtful Comment

Read 0 comments and reply

Top Contributors Latest

Mark Tulin