“Without the sleeping bag I’m just somebody up early in the morning, sitting under a tree. With the sleeping bag I’m nobody up early, sitting under a tree: a slight, but important difference in how I’ll be perceived.” – Craig Stone, The Squirrel That Dreamt of Madness
“Hi, do you have a moment for the environment?”
Very seldom could I get the entire sentence out. More often than not, my attempts at interacting with passers-by ended somewhere between “Hi, do you…” and “Hi, do you have a moment…” On the busy sidewalks of Manhattan, very few people were willing to grant more than a few seconds of their time to anyone trying to get their attention; let alone someone working as a street canvasser for Greenpeace.
Of all the thankless, minimum-wage jobs that I cycled through when I was in my early twenties, the canvassing gig was by far the most brutal. We spent four to five hours a day on the sidewalks of New York City, trying to convince people to sign up for a monthly donation subscription with a $15 minimum. We went out in teams of four, a different intersection every few days. If we didn’t meet our quota of two sign-ups a day for three days straight, we were automatically fired. It was an uncomfortable, stressful, pressure-filed job, where one’s income, as well as their status as ’employed’ altogether, was completely dependent on an often hostile and skeptical public.
Prior to landing the job, I had spent lots of time on street-corners, both as a busker and a tarot reader. I knew full well that trying to solicit money from the public was often a frustrating and futile task. When folks would ask me how I fared as a street performer, I would usually tell them that if smiles were a form of currency, I’d be very well off. I never made much money, but at least I had the smiles.
I usually had the smiles as well while on the street corner on behalf of Greenpeace. That is, until one day a few months into the gig when our director decided to send my four-person team down to Wall Street, an area that had been avoided up to that point due to the perception of political hostility. She warned us that it might be tough. I thought back to my days reading cards and playing music on the streets and figured that I knew what I was in for. I can handle this, I thought to myself.
Oh, how wrong I was.
“Hi, do you…”
After the first hour, not only did I realize that I was probably going to have a zero day, but I was starting to feel desperate for even a smile. Very few people would even make eye contact with me, let alone stop. Over the next four hours, I couldn’t get a single person to actually pause and listen to my pitch. A few folks gave gave me nasty looks, one man even spit at my feet as he passed. A woman who worked for Exxon took it upon herself to scream at me, telling me that I should get a “real job” and stop trying to “destroy the oil industry.” But mostly, I was completely ignored. I couldn’t even get people to look at me, let alone open up their wallets.
For the first time in my life, I literally felt invisible to everyone around me. And by the end of the day, not only did I not sign up a single person for the first time since landing the job, I was so psychically numb that the only thing I wanted to do was go straight to the bar afterward. I had many unsuccessful days before but at least I got the smiles; I experienced human interaction and my humanity was acknowledged. But that day, I had never felt so invisible, and I was taken aback by how deeply it affected me, especially considering that I had only experienced it for a single afternoon.
The next day I was sent back to Wall Street again and, as I walked downtown toward my destination, I was overtaken by feelings of anxiety and dread; feelings that only increased over the next few hours. I stood there once again, completely invisible, and as the hours passed I felt every more desperate. Thousands of people walked by me, almost no-one would look me in the eye, and at the end of the day, once again, I headed straight for the bar. At that moment, drink was the only thing I could think of that could possibly numb the indescribable feeling that grew throughout the course of the day.By the third day, I knew as I was walking downtown that it would be my last day on the job. I was already so broken that I didn’t even try. At that point, I actually looked forward to name-calling and insults. The experience of being ignored for the past few days was so psychologically stressful that the insults at least served as a reminder that I actually did exist; that I actually was seen; that I was really standing there in the flesh and was not in fact an invisible spirit.
Toward the end of the afternoon, knowing that I was going to be fired anyway, I simply couldn’t take it anymore. I felt I was about to break, and I abandoned my post on the corner and walked a few blocks away, looking for somewhere to sit with my emotions.
I walked past another corner and saw a homeless beggar sitting in a doorway, an older man that I realized that I had walked by dozens of times before, and yet I had never actually seen him. I stood there, staring at him, processing what I had experienced in the past three days. I realized that not only did this man experienced that same invisibility every single day, but for him it was a fixed condition, not something that ended when the work day was over. Had I always done to this man what others had just done to me? How could I not have seen him before the way I saw him now? He looked up and caught my eye, and I walked over towards him.
“How long have you been out here?” I asked.
“Thirteen years,” he answered. “I’ve been in and out of housing a few times, but those periods were brief. I used to hang out up near Times Square for several years until it gentrified, but I’ve been down here in the Financial District for a few years now, since the late nineties. ”
Thirteen years. And here I was, on the verge of a mental breakdown after only three days of experiencing what it was like to be completely invisible. I stared at him for a moment, and then sat down next to him and started to cry. He didn’t understand why I was crying, but he put his arm around me nonetheless. After a few minutes, I wiped my tears, stood up, reached into my pocket, and gave him every dollar I had on me. I looked into his eyes and started to tear up again.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered. “I wish I could do more.”
“You’ve done more than you think,” he replied. “Most people who hand me a buck or two don’t even look me in the eye. Nobody actually wants to talk to you when you’re on the street. You’ve just given me more of your time and attention than any stranger has in days.”
I thought about my prior interactions with street folks, and it hit me that I had usually done the same thing that he just described. I would give them a dollar or two, but never really look them in the eye. I suddenly felt like a horrible person for not understanding how dehumanizing it was to ignore the presence of the poor and homeless. It hurt me so greatly to realize that I had inadvertently made others feel the way that I had felt over the past three days. I stood there for another moment, looking down at the man, and silently vowed to the Gods that never again would I walk past someone who sought my attention in good faith without at least looking them in the eye and acknowledging them as a person.
To this day, I have never consciously broken that vow.
I walked out of the grocery store with a croissant in my hand, and ran across the street to the corner where a man was sitting, back towards me, wrapped in a blanket.
“Hey, Sam….” I said softly as I approached.
He turned, our eyes met, and we both grinned at the same time in mutual recognition. Wordlessly, I broke my croissant in two and held out a half towards him. He took the half, and we both looked down at what we held in our hands and bit into our half of the croissant at the same time. We chewed slowly, enjoying both the taste of the treat as well as the moment itself.
I don’t know much about Sam’s life – I know he’s on the street due to mental illness and has been a fixture in the neighborhood for years. Over time, I’ve noticed that his lucidity and his ability to function varies greatly from day to day. Some days he barely seems to recognize me, which is why I always approach him cautiously. But despite the challenges, I make a point of breaking bread with Sam on a regular basis.
In a world of deep and painful socioeconomic divisions, creating moments of equality and communion wherever possible is one of the few antidotes I know of; one of the few ways that I can reach across the ever-widening divide between the haves and have-nots and reach out to those who have been failed by the system. Breaking bread on the street corner was a simple but powerful gesture, one that often creates ripples beyond the immediate reality of the two of us standing around munching on pastries.
“All day I stand here, but nobody sees me,” he told me once while we were sharing a donut. “It’s as if I don’t exist. But then you stand next to me for a few moments, and suddenly I’m real to them. Suddenly I’m standing here too, as though I wasn’t just before.”
I felt a powerful wave of sadness and empathy with an undercurrent of rage as I digested his words, as I knew that what he was saying was all too true. While I cannot personally cure or mitigate the experiences of Sam, and so many others like him, I keep them in mind in my actions and my navigations. When I break bread with Sam I always hold close the intention of fighting for a world where I do not have to hand a croissant to someone like him in order for him to be seen in the eyes of others.
“Can I tell you something? I need to tell somebody.”
I nodded. It was a common request, more common than some might think. I had seen Daphne sitting on the ledge earlier that day, and ran back home to bring her socks and hot coffee, sensing that she was in need of someone to talk to.
“I think I see the dead. And on some days, they’re everywhere.”
I nodded again. Street folks who see spirits are also more common than one might think. Sam had told me the exact same thing only a few days earlier.
“I never saw them before I was out here, but now I see them all the time,” she continued. “I think I’m going crazy, but I know a lot of other folks out here who see them too.”
“You’re not going crazy,” I quickly answered. “I can’t tell you how many folks I’ve talked to who see similar things. What you’re speaking of goes far beyond just the street population of downtown Portland.”
She looked up at me, and I could tell by her expression that I had just greatly helped in validating her reality.
“I think that the more invisible I become, the more I see things that others consider to be invisible,” she said after a moment.
I stared at her, taken aback. She had just perfectly articulated what I had always considered to be the most plausible explanation. Being ‘othered,’ being cast aside, ignored and treated as though one doesn’t exist, inevitably drives one closer and closer to being in touch with all else that is invisible and unseen – that other world that many believe also doesn’t exist.
“Yes, I do think that’s the case, although you just put it better than I ever could,” I replied. “And even if that’s not the reason, you’re still not crazy,” I added. “To tell you the truth, sometimes I see spirits too.”
She suddenly grabbed me for a hug, spilling the coffee in the process.
“Thank you,” she said as she hugged me. “I needed to hear that.”
I returned the embrace. In a sense, I had needed to hear what she just told me just as much as she needed to hear what I had just told her.
Walking home, I passed by Sam, who didn’t even notice my presence. He was deep in conversation with something – something I couldn’t see but could definitively sense. I thought of what Daphne had just told me and simply shook my head as I walked away.
I said a quick hello to Sam on the corner and walked into the coffee shop. I was in a sour mood that day on top of an already stressful week. I had nothing left in me other than to grab a latte and sit at the window of the coffee shop, staring out at the corner where Sam stood with his blanket and a cup.
While trying my best to tune out the Christmas carols playing in the background, I couldn’t help but to keep my eye on Sam, partially out of guilt that I was too tired and broken to engage in either conversation or croissants that day. I sat and watched as he stood there, wearing only sandals on a near-freezing windy day, holding out his cup and trying to engage those who walked by.
Person after person passed without even looking at him. One man literally bumped right into him as though he wasn’t even standing there. A woman walked by with her dog, and her dog nipped and pulled at Sam’s blanket,. She pulled the dog back and scolded it without even apologizing to Sam.
After a while, my sourness turned to rage. I continued to sit at the window, visibly shaking in anger, watching him on the corner. Suddenly, I realized that everyone else in the coffee shop was starting to notice me. A few women on the couch behind me were staring and whispering. A man came up to me and asked what was wrong and if I was okay. I didn’t hold back in my reply.
“Right now, what’s wrong more than anything is that this entire coffee shop is more concerned about what’s wrong with me than the fact that there’s a man begging on the corner wrapped in a blanket who doesn’t even have shoes. No, I’m not OK, but that has nothing to do with my own needs. It has to do with the fact that someone else in such need is literally begging to survive in a community of great affluence and people are acting as though he isn’t even standing there. If you want to help someone, I don’t need help. He does,” I said, pointing out the window towards Sam.
The man just stared at me, as did everyone else within earshot.
“Tell me,” I continued, my voice rising with my anger. “How many times have you walked past that man out there? Have you ever even stopped to say hello? Have you ever acknowledged his existence? Have any of you?” I asked, turning towards the others who were listening. “Does his life even matter to you? Does his suffering affect any of you at all?” My voice had started to shake along with my body, and I was on the verge of tears.
The man nodded. “I hear you,” he said. “And you’re right. I’ve never said a word to him. And I probably never would have thought to do so. And I don’t even know why that is, but again, you’re absolutely right.”
I watched as he turned around and walked out of the coffee shop, walked right up to Sam, and held out his hand to introduce himself. Sam looked up, surprised, and enthusiastically shook his hand. They started to talk, and as they did, the two women on the couch also got up and walked out of the coffee shop. They went right up to Sam while the other man was still talking to him, and each of them dropped a dollar in his cup. As the three of them stood there with Sam, other people started to look over. Another woman then came and dropped a dollar in his cup. And then another. Suddenly, Sam was seen, he was visible, and people were reacting to his presence.
As I watched Sam talk with the man from the coffee shop, I thought back to that night on the corner down on Wall Street years ago, and how that interaction with the homeless beggar there forever changed my perception of and behavior around street folks. Perhaps he’s learning the same lesson, I thought to myself. Please, I silently wished, let him learn the same lesson.
A day or two later, I was walking down that same block when I saw Sam on the corner again with his cup, but instead of sandals on his feet, he was wearing a sturdy pair of lightly-worn boots. I smiled, pointed to his boots, and asked him where they came from.
“The other day, a man walked up to me out of the coffee shop and shook my hand and we started to talk. He asked me what my shoe size was and then mentioned that he wore the same size. A few hours later, he came back with these, and wished me a Merry Christmas.” He looked down at his feet and grinned. “They fit perfectly. And he’s walked by a few times since then, and he says hello to me every time now.”
I grinned back. Not only was I indescribably happy for Sam, but my own wish had come true as well. I reached in my bag for the croissant I had bought a few minutes earlier, ripped the pastry in half and handed the bigger half to Sam. “Merry Christmas, Sam,” I said.
“Yes, Merry Christmas,” he replied, and we ate our croissant on the corner together.
* * *
This column was made possible by the generous underwriting donation from Hecate Demeter, writer, ecofeminist, witch and Priestess of the Great Mother Earth.