Thursday, April 22, 2010

Gimme Shelter

Oh, a storm is threat'ning, My very life today; If I don't get some shelter, Oh yeah, I'm gonna fade away

As record-making snow from major blizzards melted away, a body was discovered in the woods near my apartment in Washington, DC.

Word on the street, which means Esther at the Korean convenient store, it's Bruce.

It was a tough winter for the homeless.

It was especially tough for people like Bruce who live in the woods. With a foot of snow, I struggled just walking down the sidewalk past those woods. Where he lived and where his body was found was under at least 3 feet of snow.

The remains were unidentifiable. So, I guess there's a very slim chance it's not him. But it's Spring, people are filling the streets of Mt. Pleasant and I have yet to see Bruce. I always see Bruce. And only a fool would doubt Esther about such things.

My apologies to Bruce for my drawing of him because I don't know how to draw.

More importantly, my apologies to Bruce if he's not dead.

Maybe he came into some money and moved to a kinder climate. Like California. Or Mexico. Maybe he's sitting on a beach enjoying the warm sun on his face and a clean pair of socks.

Or maybe he laid down in the snow and died in the woods alone. I wonder if he has family still living, a brother or sister. And do they know he's dead.

Bruce always nodded or smiled hello. He talked to himself very animatedly sometimes and walked with a crutch. I heard a woman once ask him about his feet. I think he had serious health issues. Not surprising.

He always said, "Thank you, Sister," when I gave him food or money. But he never really asked for anything. He just sort of stood in the right places at the right times.

He also sold things. I bought one of my son's favorite trucks from him. Looking out my kitchen window as I prepared dinner, I would see him sitting in Lamont Park with a stroller or toy or painting to sell. Once I saw him hobbling on his crutch with a huge, pink stuffed teddy bear slung over his back looking like he just escaped from the Island of Misfit Toys.

Once in awhile if I didn't have anything to give or simply didn't want to be reminded of homelessness, I'd busy myself with my son or my purse. We introverts do that sometimes to avoid engagement. But what did Bruce care about my Myers-Briggs personality profile? He just wanted to get something to eat. Not have an engagement.

You'd think I would've known better.

Dean, one of my half-brothers, was homeless in San Francisco for nearly 20 years. Anyone can hit hard times. "Dean, Dean, The Jellybean," I used to sing to him when I was a child. We thought he died in San Francisco's 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake because many highway bridges collapsed and we knew he was living under a bridge.

But he survived.

A few years ago when another of my brothers found Dean and tried to convince him to move back in with family, he said no. All his friends are in San Francisco, he said. And with the weather and social services, it's easier to be homeless in California than in West Virginia.

Hard to argue with that.

We used to be able to reach Dean by calling a pay phone near a diner. Anyone who picked up knew him or knew of him. Even the police. In a good way. But I think that phone is out of service. It is so hard to find a pay phone that works these days, isn't it?

When I ask my mother about Dean she always says the same thing with the same far-away voice, "He's doing his own thing and isn't hurting anyone. I have seven children and one just kind of drifted away." She also tells me that he has an apartment now and, never wanting to be a burden, has arranged his own funeral. Really, we should all be so considerate. He's to be cremated and family will be notified. Then her voice begins to crack and she changes the subject.

Sometimes it sucks being a mother.

I deliberated over whether to mention my brother and his homelessness. I intended to write only about Bruce. But then Dean came into the story and just wouldn't leave. If I imply that homeless people are just like you and me and that homelessness can happen to anyone, I shouldn't have hesitated. But I did. I thought, do I really want to write that one of my siblings was homeless? What if someone in HR reads this and doesn't give me a job someday? What if people think less of me? Or my family?

Then I came to my senses.

Nobody's life is perfect. And certainly nobody's family is perfect. Only children are perfect. Perfect little prepackaged bundles of hope and potential. Then we do the best we can. Even if every dream doesn't come true, there is no shame in that.

(Dean, Dean, the Jellybean 1957)