Thursday, July 14, 2005

The Least of My Brethren...

I think of them as “The Regulars.” They stand at the same locations nearly every morning or every afternoon. It’s almost like they are assigned morning shift and evening shift.

One stands next to the Federal Reserve Bank. He’s quiet, holding his sign and occasionally shaking his cup to get our attention. For awhile, he looked like he was getting his life together. His clothes were clean and neat, he had shaved, his hair was combed, when I made eye contact and smiled at him, he saw me and smiled back. Lately, though, his clothes have been rumpled, his hair has been matted, his eyes have a glazed-over look. He was not there yesterday morning. I’m worried something might have happened to him.

Another works the afternoon shift, selling The Street Sheet, a newspaper by and about the homeless. He chats, sometimes with other people, sometimes to those only he can see. His movements are awkward and jerky. He reminds me of an ostrich.

There is the guy who calls out, “Help a transplanted New Yorker!” He also asks for a smile. When I oblige, he responds, “Ah, that’s beautiful, girl. Have a nice day.”

One puzzles me. She is an elderly Asian woman and usually stands by the entrance to the BART station. She, too, doesn’t say much, just sort of smiles and shakes her cup as I pass. I’m surprised that she’s there because in the Asian cultures I’m familiar with, taking care of the elderly is a serious responsibility. She is always clean and neatly dressed.

There is the couple that trade off standing in the middle of a busy crosswalk, just passed the bus stop island. Their bag or bedroll is plunked just in front of them. Of those I see on a regular basis, they are the ones who look to be in the worst shape. I am amazed they haven’t been hit by oncoming traffic or a bus.

I wonder what their stories are, how they got to be standing in The City with a crude sign and a cup, begging for change. What happened in their childhood? Do they have brothers, sisters, children, ex-wives or –husbands?

They tug at my heart. These are fellow souls, in pain, in need. But I do not know how to help them. Dropping a few coins in their cups isn’t the answer, even if I had spare change.

So I pray. I contribute to St. Vincent de Paul or the Souper Kitchen. I wish I could do more, but I cannot ignore the needs of my family and my children. I look the street people, the homeless, in the eye and smile, acknowledging their dignity as fellow human beings. For now, that will have to do.