“Hello, young man.”
“How’s it goin’ today?”
“I see you running. It’s good to stay in shape.”
“I used to be in good shape—I’d run in the army all the time.”
Roger’s front teeth are almost all gone. He doesn’t remember things like he used to, and he thinks that it’s a result of being knocked out for two days when he lost his teeth. “My head was stuck to the ground…” he paused and we said, at the same time, “because there was so much blood.” Mine was a question, his was a statement.
Seven years ago, he lived in Wisconsin. He had a job, an apartment, and coworkers who cared enough about him to come and knock on his doors and windows when he didn’t show up to work for the third consecutive day.
“I got very, very depressed. I started hearing voices through the vents. It sounded like a radio had been left on. When my coworkers knocked on my door, I was so scared of them, I didn’t move.” My friends who are in grad school for psychology described this as “textbook schizophrenia.”
He grew up in Chicago and went overseas for the Gulf War in 1991.
“Seems like it was just last year, but it’s over twenty years now.”
Roger is wearing a navy blue jacket, walking through traffic about 500 feet from my apartment. Almost every morning he’s out there, holding a cardboard sign that says, “Homeless Vet anything will help.”
We have different ways of handling a guy like Roger. Some don’t make eye contact, some roll up the window, some give him a buck, and every now and then somebody brings him a sandwich. There are a lot of folks like him in the city. Downtown, people are camped on the sidewalk, bundled in a blanket with signs. Younger women will have “pregnant, homeless, need help” written on a piece of cardboard. Sometimes they have a three or four year-old child with them. Sometimes there’s a guy my age sitting on the ground with a cup of coins, which is always a sobering sight. There but for the grace of God go I.
“Yeah, Bart, those people are scammers. See the news stories about how many tens of thousands of dollars these people make? And it’s all tax free! They’re makin’ out like bandits!”
“If you’re so poor, where did you get the MARKER?! Or the cardboard?!”
“You know they’re just going to buy drugs or alcohol with that money.”
I asked him if he was healthy and getting enough to eat. He said that he was fine except for his leg. He suffered a burn on his shin. He told me it was infected.
“I can’t go to the hospital, because if I go, somebody will take my spot.”
Not far from our place, there’s a street that goes under the highway with cot-sized raised concrete barriers separating the street from the sidewalk. Typically, three to four people will sleep there. They have mattresses, blankets, and a cart with stuff in it. I was amazed when I first saw this, because everything was organized. The beds were made in the mornings. One guy even had a small bookshelf with a few books. ALL OF IT RENT-FREE!
I talk to him, say hi to him, and call him by name. Sometimes he’s walking in the middle of stopped traffic and I don’t make an effort to say hello. What the hell are you supposed to do? If you give money, maybe you just enabled this guy to get more drugs. More alcohol. If you don’t give money, you’ve done nothing.
I get irritated when friends point out the people who are holding up the signs.
“Ohh, I feel so bad.”
“Really?” I snapped back one time—one of those times I realize I’m being an asshole, but I’ve already committed to it. “Why do you feel bad?”
My friend answered me the way you answer your friend who is being an asshole.
“…I dunno, because it’s cold, and he looks miserable.”
I get annoyed with comfortable sympathy. It’s like we have to say something to make ourselves feel better, to acknowledge that there is a human who is in rough shape right in front of us. And to acknowledge that we’re not going to do anything. Ohhh—I’m a good person. Listen to how bad I feel about this.
Four years ago I was driving the Crown Vic. It was a full car—all six seats were taken. We were on the way back from something, and we were still a mile or two from where we needed to be. Tina was in the middle, and she recognized someone on the street. The person was holding up a sign, looking for money.
“Hey can you pull over? I’m going to jump out here.”
“Okay…” I was frustrated because I didn’t want to wait for her to help people because I’m selfish.
She walked over to them and started talking.
“Hey Tina, UM…Wha—”
“—I’ll walk home. Go ahead.”
Tina, I’m too selfish to stop!
“Oh that’s Tina! She’s so good.” Someone said. That’s just what Tina does. She’s a social work major. She worked for an organization that helped people who were dying of AIDS. That’s her role. Thank goodness for the Tinas in the world so rest of us can wait for Tina to be good to people. Someone oughta help that guy…but ah…I helped this one girl last Friday. YEAH, I GOT PAID TO DO IT, SO WHAT? AND SHE WAS SHOPPING AT THE STORE I WORK AT, SO? SO?
Seriously, thank goodness for Tina. I hate that I was so frustrated with her jumping out of the car. What an inconvenience for me to have to pull over! How frustrating is it when someone does good, or makes a right decision when you’re making the wrong one? It’s horrible. If you’re someone who doesn’t like to help people, who is selfish, and who is like me, you hate reading this stuff. “SO what, Bart? Make me feel bad for walking past a homeless person? Because you had a conversation with one guy? You’re no better.”
I’m no better. If writing this means that I have to change how I act, I don’t want to write it. What am I supposed to do? Stop at every homeless person and take them out to lunch?
I started writing this about six months ago when I first met Roger, and I’ve been thinking about these questions. Roger and I haven’t had more long conversations, but I have continued calling him by his name. We shared Gatorades once. I know his shoe size. No breakthroughs to report. No life-changing events have occurred. For some reason, I feel like he needs to hear his name—that hearing “Roger” will somehow bring him back.
Bart Tocci (’11) lives in Boston where he writes essays, performs at open mics, and threatens to start taco restaurants. He’s been told that he looks like the kind of guy who stands up for what’s right. And who goes to the store before the party. Read more here: barttocci.wordpress.com