I read the Bible very day
Trying to keep the demons at bay
Thank God when the sun goes down
I don’t blow away
— the prophet patty larkin
“I’ll have that right out to you, sweetie pie!”
I sort through the dustbin in my brain. No, I’m fairly certain this is the first time I’ve ever been called sweetie pie. Mind you, I’ve always fancied myself a sweetie pie, but I’ve never gotten anyone to call me that. I am pleased.
Mo and I are at the burger joint that prides itself on carboard crowns. Don’t judge. My choices for work food are limited to the Subway and this place. Unless, of course, you do things like “prepare food at home” and “remember to bring the food you prepared at home.” I have no idea where people learn how to do those things. Probably by watching Martha Stewart back before the shooting spree at Luby’s over bland mashed potatoes resulted in her Sing Sing stay.
We settle into our booth while we await the joy that is the No. 4 combo. I wait for a proper song over the intercom for a few verses of dancing feet in the new Altras, but it apparently is Gregorian Chant day. The place is almost empty. Just us, a family, and him.
He’s here almost any evening I come here. He’s a homeless guy in the classical sense. Bushy hair, big beard. Old beyond his years. Grjmy T-shirt, jeans, work boots. If you saw him at the Lowe’s, you’d just think he was a construction guy buying a hacksaw in an attempt to break out Martha Stewart. But I know.
He sits on the other side of the restaurant, nursing his cup of coffee. This Burger King gets a lot of homeless guys, being warm and only a block from the waterfront. They’ve always treated them respectfully from what I’ve seen. It must be a tough decision, since it can’t be good for business. But they keep the coffee pot on the counter, and I’ve never seen them throw anyone out. Even him.
He holds a constant conversation with himself. Sometimes quiet, sometimes loud. If you gave him a bluetooth, he’d just be another annoying jerk sharing his phone conversation with the world.
What causes this? How has he fallen though the cracks of society to the extent that this is his respite in life? Does nobody recognize that he needs help? What the hell is he talking about? And does the woman up front call him sweetie pie? He’s a loose cannon, and not the tiny kind. Poot poot.
But it’s OK. He’s across the room. We shrug and go on with our lives. Mo tells me about her current magazine project. We debate whether broccoli can ride a bike or not. I ponder how the Egyptians built the food pyramids.
He comes walking across the empty room. And sits down in the booth next to us. He is literally 2 feet from Mo. Their backs are almost touching.
We do that eye thing that couples who have been together a long time do. A controlled panic. We continue to eat as if nothing has happened, because that’s what proper liberals do. He is having a loud conversation about his brother. He seems to be oblivious to us, but why has he come over here? I’ve seen him a million times and he’s never hit me up for change, so I don’t think that’s it. We’ve never exchanged a word, so not that either. In all the times I’ve run into him here, he’s never changed from that seat in the opposite corner. Why now? Does he want to weigh in on Paul Simon vs. Sting in a Knife Fight? Discuss dangling participles? Is it purely a coincidence, and he has no idea we’re here? I don’t know.
We finish quickly and walk out, pretending not to notice him. He’s still discussing the state of the world with himself as we go out the door. I guess he stays there till they close up, then it’s another icy night on the waterfront. I hope he has something warm stashed somewhere.
We had a long discussion yesterday about a puppy who was left on my brother’s farm. How could a helpless creature be abandoned like that? Something must be done. We are bombarded constantly with commercials and news pitches for helpless animals. Our hearts break.
But the two-legged strays among us just draw a shrug and a nervous glance. We move along. Can’t save ’em all, we think. We’ll give to some charity we can’t recall because that’s what we’re supposed to do. It’s so much easier than caring. It’s what sweetie pies do.
Between 2009 and 2012, states cut a total of $4.35 billion in public mental-health spending from their budgets, according to Mother Jones. That’s the equivalent of the entry fee AND travel expenses for Badwater. Incredible.
According to a report by the National Alliance on Mental Illness, cuts to state mental health agencies have translated into a severe shortage of services, including housing, community-based treatment and access to psychiatric medications. “Increasingly, emergency rooms, homeless shelters and jails are struggling with the effects of people falling through the cracks,” the report says, “due to lack of needed mental health services and supports.”
I read this stuff all the time at work. But it’s different when you’re sitting there eating your french fries while watching a guy fall through the cracks.
Four hours later, I walk out of the newspaper. There’s another guy wandering down the street. It’s really cold. I pull up the hood on my jacket. I come home and write the same homeless guy story I’ve struggled with a hundred times before.
I drink an Ugly Pug and listen to Death Cab and try to remember back when I thought we could save the world.
I was wrong.
Life is funny …
p.s. I also posted this on the loop, a blog forum at runner’s world. as usual, the responses were way better than my post. This is them. Thanks, guys.
■ Remember when life was less complicated? It wasn’t, but it sure seemed like it was.
■ Thanks for sharing. This is a story I’ve struggled with a hundred times as well. Statistics don’t mean much until they sit next to you.
“I am a one in ten, a number on a list. I am a one in ten, even though I don’t exist. Nobody knows me, even though I’m always there. A statistic, a reminder, of a world that doesn’t care” UB40
■ I’ve thought about this a lot. It’s no secret that nyc has a huge homeless problem. It got even worse with our last mayor. It’s a tough situation when you see people who are in so much need of help on such a regular basis. You’re afraid if they get too close, try to interact. You pity the masses but ignore the individual.
My dad spent his whole career as a psychiatric social worker for the state. A majority of the people he worked with were homeless. They’d come in, get medicated, get well enough to leave, go off their meds, and get brought back and start all over. He saw funding get cut, his colleagues burn out and go on to private practice, he spent 30 years trying to catch people falling through the cracks.
Did he ever succeed? I don’t know. Is there an answer to the problem? I don’t know
■ My niece is schizophrenic. She ran out of the house and was homeless for several months. Finally, a hospital called my sister to ask if she wanted her daughter back. So many homeless are schizophrenic. My niece was one of the lucky ones. Someone at a homeless shelter took her to the hospital. They all need help. But we are uncomfortable. We don’t know how to help. So sad.
■ Yes, it is sad. Americans have thrown so much money at this and other sad social issues in the last 50 years that you would think that all of them would be nonexistent today. (This in itself is a sad social issue).
Sometimes the solution being used is not the cure but a feel-good patch.
Now don’t think i am being cold or mean, but i have to take care of my family first and have little left over for all the sad issues out there. My wife and I choose what or who to give extra $$ and time too. You can’t save them all and bad things do happen in life to people.
At what point do we draw the line and say enough already?
How do we set the level at what is to be considered needy of help?
Who is to decide what is or is not worthy of help?
■ When I was younger I thought I could help save the world as I thumbed through my social work textbooks and listened to lectures. Gawd, did that ever bite me in the ass.
■ It is sad to think that before the government started all the welfare programs people used to help each other out. Now, we are taxed like crazy and can’t afford to help out alot while the government programs are not managed well.
■ Thank you for sharing. We have a significant homeless population here, too. When you figure out how to help them all, will you pass along the info?
I give money. I make eye contact. Smile. Wave. Each person I see on a street corner, I can’t help but see as someone’s son or daughter. That used to be their baby. How did it get to this?
■ There but for fortune …
■ You’re right, there are an awful lot of people like that, who clearly need help, and there’s no one to help. (takes place on the north side of your border too, plus up here it’s really cold in the winter).
■ This is a very sad problem. Does that person have family? Do they have children that don’t know what has happened? How do they survive out in the elements day after day? If we all just helped one person, would this solve the problem or just create more problems?
Tough to digest when you live in a “superpower” country that won’t take care of their own.
■ Perhaps he has been offered help but chooses to hang at the BQ lounge. Money, warm places to go, and psychiatric care doesn’t necessarily mean a person can be “fixed” to meet our expectations of a contributing member of society.
I’d say I think maybe some (most) of those tax/charity $$$’s need to be focused on teen and preteen kids who are just being gripped by mental illness. Help them find a way before the options get too dark.
■ I see the homeless on my runs and often feel like I should do something. But I don’t. And I’m also a little scared of them even though most are harmless. I’m not proud of any of this.
■ This strikes very close to home, to0 close to go into on the Interwebs. Suffice it to say this, real people with real problems are often jettisoned to the streets or worse. We can do better and it is not only money that is the problem.
■ One person can’t save the world. But one person can save one other person, and then together they can save two more.
■ It’s very hard to care but it’s impossible to not care.