I just didn’t feel like writing this morning and I had the rare opportunity to take advantage of a free parking space in downtown Madison so that, combined with the attraction of the Wednesday version of the Dane County Farmers’ Market I was lured out of a comfortably air-conditioned home and away from my three cats who always seem to be attentive on days that I write. It wasn’t until I got out of the car downtown that I realized the increasing heat and humidity but I had dressed comfortably enough for it and I had on a good pair of walking shoes so I was not to be deterred.
At the second corner I reached and had to wait to cross, there was a homeless man quietly selling “Street Pulse,” a monthly newspaper published to bring more information to the public about homeless people and their condition. Mind you, before I started volunteering at a homeless program, I had many times just walked past these vendors, afraid, perhaps, of what they were peddling and how I might get unintentionally involved. This time I engaged the vendor. I smiled and said, “Hi! I would buy one from you but I just got one yesterday,” and then, as a way proving it (although he wasn’t asking for proof), I mentioned the story on page 2 about the couple who had just gotten married. I’m not sure he had read it himself. But what I knew for certain was that he seemed pleased to be recognized and involved in conversation.
What I know about “Street Pulse” is that the vendors go to a central location and buy the paper for 50 cents each. Then they go to assigned locations to peddle them. There’s no set price. They can ask whatever they want and anything they are paid over 50 cents is a profit for them. I suspect they have to be pretty low key because I’ve never been accosted by any of them. My going donation for the monthly read is $1. Pretty cheap. I started buying it not only to theoretically help out, but because I have become genuinely interested in what’s going on with the homeless in Madison. Now I’m finding stories in it about people I know, people who live on the street and with whom I have become acquainted.
But what gave me a good feeling was the eye contact and the smiles that were exchanged in that short conversation.
So it prompted me to do a little experiment.
The Capitol Square is 8 blocks that surround the state capitol. I added four additional blocks for the farmers’ market which on Wednesday is held just off the Square. I decided I was going to count how many people would either look me in the eye or exchange some kind of pleasantries on this hot August day. Other than the vendors at the market who were in the business of making eye contact and luring people closer to their areas of business, the only people who responded to my smiles, to my nods, to my outright and spoken greetings, the only people who did say hello to me were homeless people.
Now, the Square is teaming with businesspeople weekdays from around 10 to 1. I’ve noticed before when I have been there that folks are generally taken up with their own thoughts or with conversations with others. I understand that. I’ve been there. I recall one afternoon when one block was completely empty except for myself walking up the hill and the county executive walking down the hill. I looked directly at him. We were sharing the same piece of sidewalk. When he failed to look in my direction, I said, “Hello.” He just kept walking. Strange behavior, I thought, for an elected official (I hear he wants to be governor).
But today, I came upon two other men selling “Street Pulse” and I stopped to talk with both of them, explaining why I didn’t buy a second paper. In both instances, they seemed just happy to be recognized.
I’ve heard that from the homeless people with whom I work. They just want to acknowledgment as human beings.
Now, there was one panhandler who made me roll my eyes as he took coins from passersby into his Styrofoam cup. “I probably shouldn’t be doing this,” I heard him say to several people, “but there’s no other way.” His tone of voice was whiny. He was looking for sympathy. The homeless people with whom I work don’t come across that way at all.
But isn’t it interesting that I couldn’t get any more recognition from the passersby on the street than the homeless people get? Oh, people didn’t look the other way as I met them. They do that with the homeless people. But they didn’t look at me either. The homeless people did.
While I was at the Farmers’ Market, I came upon a vendor who was selling a selection of cookies which I would usually just walk by, but I noticed several bags labeled “lemon.” Now, I’m not a fan of lemon anything, but I recalled a homeless man who I see almost every week and who absolutely loves lemon cookies. So I bought one bag and as I made my way around the Square, I kept my eyes peeled for him. I knew where he hangs so I detoured a bit to walk around a pergola shrouded in greenery. It is just steps from the Square, but most folks don’t walk down that direction because there are so many homeless people who make that their base of operation.
As I rounded the corner, I greeted the three men and a woman who were there and I asked for my friend by name. They knew him and said he had been there earlier but had left. I did get asked if I was associated with a church (I don’t have a clue why I would be asked that) and if my church had money for people to pay their rent. I did talk about the ministry with which I was involved and I said on Tuesdays and Thursdays there is a place there to get a good meal and to get out of the heat, but there isn’t money to pay rent. Then I asked them to tell my friend, when he came back, that Gretchen was there with lemon cookies for him, “but I don’t expect you to remember all of that,” and I smiled. The men all smiled back and said they would tell him. The woman who had asked for rent money said, “I’ll remember you’re the one with lemon cookies but no money for rent.” She smiled too. I think she might have been a bit inebriated.
I’m going to put the lemon cookies in the freezer and save them for the next time I see my homeless buddy.
And I think I may be more deliberate about making pilgrimages to the Square just to recognize and be recognized by the friendliest people in those eight blocks: the homeless.
6 “Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
7 “Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
8 “Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
9 “Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.” – Isaiah 58:7-9