This post came from a prompt from the folks at the Scintilla Project. I opened my email, read the prompt and started writing. I didn't move, I didn't refill my coffee cup, I didn't think. I just wrote. I knew this story needed to be told more than anything else right now, except silent gratitude to the birds singing out my window and the incredible privilege it is to share our stories with each other.
It was like many other nights before it as I drove through the line at McDonald’s, getting an iced tea for Emma and fries for Samuel. Over my shoulder I heard a voice say, “Excuse me, Ma’am?” and over his next phrase I layered, “Sorry, I don’t have anything extra right now,” so I couldn’t even hear his request.
Something different happened though: I looked up and into the eyes of this person asking for spare change. He was a kid. Just a kid. He shook his head and said, “Ok,
My eyes burned with salty tears forming a curtain across them. My face burned with shame about my for too long unconscious automatic response, “Sorry, I don’t have anything extra right now” may be true and yet, just because I’m paying with a card doesn’t mean I couldn’t buy an extra burger or something for this young man who looked like the boys who graduated high school with my daughter several years ago.
I got my children’s snacks and parked my car instead of rolling it away like I normally would have done, quickly wiping my consciousness of homeless people which have gotten to be like regulars in my mind. There’s the guy who sits by that church with his dog. There’s the woman who smokes while she panhandles. There’s the “skater” homeless guy.
I waved the blue-eyed boy over. I pressed a dollar fifty in his hand. “Where is your mother?” I asked him.
“She’s in Isabella,” he responded, which I knew to be a town about 40 miles away on the other side of the Kern Canyon. It is a small, somewhat isolated city who calls itself, “California’s Best Kept Secret.”
I paused and said, “Does she know where you are?” He put his head down and nodded. I went on to ask about siblings and discovered his sister was still at home and his brother was with him, in Bakersfield, which I took to mean they were homeless together. He also told me quite freely where they lived now.
My incredulity overcame my usual polite behavior when I asked “What happened?” I heard a story that is probably not all that uncommon. The stepfather beats the Mom. The sons attempt to come to her rescue and get into it with the stepfather. I imagine the local authorities know the family. The Stepdad gives his battered wife an ultimatum, “It’s them or me.”
The mother chose her abuser and sent her sons away. They had been living here for eight months now, he said. “How old are you?” I finally got the courage to ask.
Again, my politeness had evaporated and I heard a gasp escape from me. Twenty. My daughter turned twenty-one on Christmas Day.
I told him I wished I could give him more, but he understood and was grateful for the dollar and change I offered.
In that instant, my mind changed not only for my friend and his brother, but for the other homeless people had been slowly and surely turning invisible in my mind.
A few days later I saw the skater homeless guy. He was standing at the same spot with a can of tuna in his hand. “Excuse me, Ma’am, do you have a can opener I could use?” I said no, and asked him his name. Sure enough, he was the brother of my new young friend.
Again, I drove past and came back around, this time with a five dollar bill so he could go to a nearby store and buy a can opener.
Maybe the five dollars would end up elsewhere, but I wanted this kid – who is the same age as my daughter Marlena would be if she had lived – to know I was listening. Someone out here in the world had heard his request and honored it as best as she could.
I carry bags with food with me now. I offer them freely to people as I am out and about. I look them in the eye, smile and say, “I wish I had more for you” and for the first time, I truly mean it.
I have also continued to get to know these two brothers. I have discovered one is mentally ill, which doesn’t surprise me, and the other one has a primary purpose of watching out for him, to serve him, as a protector. It reminds me of my childhood protector status with my own brother who had Down’s Syndrome.
I have chosen to be a listener, a giver and a receiver to the homeless in my area who are not, for whatever reason, currently served by the homeless shelters or other agencies. This never wouldn’t have happened if for I hadn’t taken the extra moment to glance up. It was then I looked into the boys eyes and saw the reflection of both my own eyes and the entire world’s eyes in his.
I have always believed real world change doesn't happen because of government programs, it happens in the hearts of people communicating with each other. My new friendship is a contribution to world change on the smallest level.
What would happen if we all chose to be more aware and looked beyond helping at the level of institutions - if we are comfortable with that - or helping in agencies and looking at these folks in the eye and hearing what they say and who they are and sharing yourself back with them.
Be on the lookout for your micro-world-change assignment today. It's almost as if this simple blog post is a doorbell on your heart, ringing.
We believe that who we are is informed by our stories. Here, we want to offer you a space to introduce yourself, and a guide to share your history and make some connections along the way. We’ll be offering daily prompts for two weeks beginning on March 13th.
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