Monday, February 13, 2012

Look Homeward, Angel

No one should have a local homeless man but in big cities, that's often the case. I only lived in the neighborhood a month before I saw him, sitting and leaning against a wall. His head usually lowered, a blue knit hat on his head. He didn't beg for money. If he was looking up, I said hello. He would nod back and sometimes choke out a word. I think it was Hello but I can't be sure.

One day I asked him if I could buy him breakfast at McDonald's, which was across the street. He said yes but didn't tell me what he wanted. So I asked if I could get him what I got myself and he nodded. Didn't he know what was at McDonald's? Or was he too proud to tell me what he wanted? Afraid it would be too much?

After that day, I became very aware of how often I walked by him. Was I supposed to buy him a meal each time? Coffee?  If I'd had the money, I would have bought him food every time I saw him. But I didn't. And when you're down on your luck, what do you offer someone else down on theirs? My recent financial situation had been shaky and I no longer thought my hellos were enough. So every now and then I crossed the street before I got to him. Or cut through a parking lot to avoid seeing him. I was ashamed that I couldn't help this man because I had to help myself first. It bothered me every time. I felt horrible and hated myself on the days I ignored a man so down on his luck that he sat in the same place each day, head lowered, waiting for what? My hello? Any hello? A sandwich?

And then one day a month ago I saw this:
I live in a Hispanic neighborhood and like the ancient Egyptians, they believe you need to leave food, water and light to guide the deceased to their final destination. I completely lost it when I saw this makeshift memorial. He was found by the manager of the McDonald's, who had come over to offer him a cup of coffee. The police came. The ambulance came. It was all over.

A man walked by and saw how distraught I was and he said he was too. That he passed the man for months and never said a word to him until a few days before he died. He asked him how he ended up on the street and the man replied he had come to California to better his life. I cried the entire way home.

This is what remained of his things:
 The last possessions of a man who was lost in Los Angeles. And in the world. The memorial is still there, the candles lit every night by some thoughtful people trying to guide his soul home. If he had no family, no identification, where would he be buried? Who would take care of his affairs? Or did he have any to take care of? So this memorial may be all he ever receives. All that marks his place on earth. At least until he returns in another lifetime.

I hope he sees it and knows how sorry I am, how sorry we all are. And that we hope he's at peace.


  1. There are 2 or 3 homeless people I see regularly. It is a tough call - you don't want to feel obligated to buy them a meal every time you see them, but you want to help. I've taken to carrying Starbucks gift cards in my pocket. I try to leave them when the person is dozing off on his/her bench, so I don't have to have a relationship with them.

    How lousy is that, anyway? But I just don't want to strike up a friendship or anything, I'm not extroverted enough for that.

    I also use the gift cards for people begging for money at street corners, when my car is stopped at a light. By the way, I live in an extremely upscale suburban setting, not a city. Times are HARD out there, people.

  2. You don't need to feel badly, if you don't take care of yourself first, you could have the same unfortunate circumstance. You were kind to him and gave what you could, that's the most important thing.
    It warms my heart to know there are people like you out there. You're an inspiration Suzy.

  3. This teared me up. I know the feeling you describe. I'm sad for this guy. It makes me ache - that feeling of lostness.

    But your small acts of kindness were not nothing, and you know it.

  4. I really love SC's idea about carrying gift cards.

    I don't know what to say--we can't save everyone, but it wouldn't speak very well of us if we didn't hurt when something like this happens.

  5. Thank you for a well-written, thought-provoking post. I never know what to do about homeless people. In downtown Jacksonville, if one doesn't look carefully they tend to look like piles of rags. It's important to remember these are human beings who seek something better.


  6. Anonymous3:38 AM

    I am sorry for your loss.
    There are simply too many needy people every twenty feet and you are only one person with two limited pockets.
    Like you, I never give money, I just buy food, usually a whole barbecued chicken for 5.99.
    One could go broke, only to be left broken hearted, as you were. What counts is that you tried and I love you for that.
    There is no profound lesson to be learned from this experience, we can only continue to give what we can and hope for the best
    X David

  7. My father always wondered about his father...what happened to him, where did he pass away. I hope someone showed him some kindness as you did to this man.

  8. Oh, Suzy.

    Oh, Suzy.

    I am hit so hard by this story.

    We all matter, each of us matters.

    Oh, the guilt I'd have but what can you do when you can barely take care of your own life, right?

    I remember the year my husband was without work and I had 3 jobs to make the mortgage and buy food and we had to stop all extras and I had been helping a newly single friend with groceries for about a year, she had a daughter, and I could no longer help her.

    I think I cried harder than she did when I told her.

    I had to use any money I had for my own.

    I hated that feeling.

    I am so sorry.

    I can't even imagine the sock to the gut you felt when you saw that.

    I am so sorry, Suzy.

  9. Occasionally God sucker punches people like your homeless guy in order to make better human beings out of the rest of us. By posting this story, you have magnified the effect. Next time I see a person in need, I am engaging them on a personal level and taking them with me to eat. Hopefully this will happen before I am homeless myself.

  10. Beautiful, devastating post.

  11. Years ago actor Ellen Burstyn was on Oprah and talked about how she pretended to be homeless. She'd be in disguise, walk up to people and ask for money and they would take money out of their wallets or purses and never look her in the eyes. She said it happened over and over and over.

    So look a homeless person in the eye. Say hello. They're not invisible.

  12. I've been afraid to look them in the eyes unless when I couldn't afford to do any more than that. I didn't want to see them as people in trouble that I couldn't help because that made me feel powerless and useless. And that's wrong. Even if I can't afford to give them something tangible, I CAN afford to give them my attention, if only briefly. I can afford to give them humanity. We all can.

    I'm sorry for your loss, for everyone's loss. And thank you very much for showing us this.

  13. a beautiful, sad piece. I'm sorry for your loss but I'm sure he was grateful for the help you gave him!


  15. Wow Suzy! I understand and I hear you loud and clear... Best memorial he ever could have recieved!

  16. Suzy -

    I would have done the very same thing. I often do those sorts of things - make the initial gracious overture, but then lack the time, focus, money, whatever it is to make a sporadic kind gesture a force of habit. It's totally something I'd like to change.

    But, take heart, you did more than so many would have. And I hope he is feeling peaceful, too.

  17. oh Suzy.

    you are an incredible person. Don't forget that.

  18. oh, Suzy - don't beat yourself up.... You did what you could. If everyone who walked by had done the same , according to their ability, he would probably have eaten well, at least... So sorry for your loss, al of our loss, really...

  19. Oh are a kind hearted woman. You gave when you could sweetie. Hugs to you xo

  20. Jeez suz, i thought this was supposed to be a comedy album.

    Haven't been by for a while but I still follow. Noticed a change in ...


    I think everyone has a story like that; i know i do.
    Everybody ought to.

  21. what's this blogstress approval, comment, visible shit?

  22. Such a beautiful post Suzy. Of course now I'm tearing up.
    I feel that same guilt when someone I know is in need because of some catastrophic event, and I can't give as much as want to to help them.
    You did what you could. I'm sure that's more than what most did.