Whenever we're in the city, I make sure to try to find an excuse to stop by Powell's. Powell's is magnificent, an independent bookstore covering an entire city block, and a popular destination. Naturally, since the store is in the heart of downtown, there are pan handlers on every corner, so I also try to make sure I'm carrying cash in small bills when I go.* Over time, I've come to learn a few of the regulars - like Jennie**, who is usually on the west corner between Anthropologie and Sur la Table. She has meth scars and a sign that says she just needs a few more dollars for a hostel. When I talk with her, her voice is high and soft and she bows her head a lot and says thank you repeatedly. Today Oden was in her spot. His mouth was visibly swollen - an abscessed tooth - and he spoke so quietly I had to lean in close. He was trying to hold out till tomorrow when the clinic will open, but the pain was pretty bad and he thought he might have to go to the emergency room tonight. When I asked, he said his parents liked Norse mythology and they named him for a god. We talked about Loki, the trickster, and he said oh no, he could never be like that.
"You're not a trouble maker, huh?" I asked with a smile. And he told me about the well-dressed man who had come by on April Fool's Day and offered a $50 bill to his friend then pulled it away when the man reached for it. I tried not to think about the space between the hope of $50 and the realization you've just been humiliated, tried not to imagine the well-dressed man later at some bar, telling that story to a chorus of laughs.
"That guy sleeps in a doorway, man. Why would you do that to someone? We're just people, man. My friend, he took it hard."
I looked him in the eye and we grieved together. His face was gentle. He must have been handsome once. I wondered about the parents who named him after a god, if they knew he was here, if they mourned the kind boy he had been.
"Well, thank you, ma'am" he said, and he bobbed his head a few times, put his hand over his swollen cheek and backed away. Jennie came then, took the sign from his hand, and took her turn on the corner. They were clearly together. Wherever people are they find a way to community, I thought.
I hope they are kind to each other, they deserve that.
* No comments about how it's best not to give money to panhandlers, please. I agonized over that decision for a long time until I finally realized that the few dollars I give to someone is irrelevant. What those dollars do is buy me a few moments to talk with someone, to ask their name, to give them mine, to look them in the eye and make them feel like a human for 2 or 3 minutes. I heard a priest say a while back, a beautiful African man from Tanzania: "You better give a dollar to EVERYONE who asks of you, because that is JESUS asking. EVERY TIME." So I do.