Posts tagged ‘homeless’

June 28, 2015

I See You.

Ten years ago, I met my first street poet.

I was on a 16-day adventure of philanthropy and self-discovery, a teenager on a crusade to save the world, one soup kitchen at a time.

I had just embarrassingly offered a fresh PB&J to a person who only appeared homeless, but was not at all, when a young man, not much older than myself, shouted, “Hey, I’ll take that.”

He was sitting on a bench, wearing unseasonably warm clothing with a stocking cap and piercings. He looked fidgety, but rather unassuming and safe. I offered him the sandwich, relieved for the distraction from my pubescent humiliation, and sat next to him. At last, I thought. Someone to save.

“What’s your name?” I asked.

“Jackal,” he replied around bites of PB&J.

“Is that your real name?” I inquired instinctively in surprise, and then felt stupid when he glanced at me in annoyance.

“I’m a street poet,” he answered instead, and I nodded in appreciation.

“I love poetry,” I said in all honesty, as I got the familiar tingle of discovery. “Are you willing to share some of your art?”

Jackal pulled out his notebook with surprising speed, as if he had been waiting for someone to ask, and started rapping his words, bobbing his head to a rhythm only he heard. The poetry wasn’t great, I remember thinking. The syntax is all wrong, and these words really make no sense. But trying to be supportive, I bobbed my head too.

Jackal continued, now moving his arm in emphasis, never looking up from his little notebook of poems.

A man walked by, and Jackal stopped mid-sentence.

Homeless men sit on Denver bench. Photo by Denver Post.

Homeless men sit on Denver bench. Photo by Denver Post.

“Hey, man!” he yelled at the passing guy, leaning forward in the bench. “Do you have a light?”

I am not sure what made Jackal ask this particular person at this particular time, right in the middle of a really moving, mediocre piece of street lit when there wasn’t a cigarette in sight, but the man didn’t respond. He just kept walking by.

Jackal fell back against the bench hard and slumped down, poetry forgotten. “They all act like they can’t hear us,” he mumbled in frustration. “They all pretend we are invisible.”

And that’s when I was punched in the stomach with a great fist of conviction. Here I was, smug as cherry pie that I gave this man a sandwich, and all he wants is someone to see him, to recognize him as a person. Or in my case, as a street poet.

Like the Zulu phrase sawubona, a greeting communicating fellow humanity and understanding, Jackal just wanted dignity and respect in the most basic form: recognition. The phrase comes from a culture of small villages, in which the greeting of the day as someone who doesn’t just observe their presence, but deeply engages with another.

Rick Steves is right when he says travel humanizes each other, and that everyone has their own dream, “their own struggles that we are clueless about and [travel] grows that appreciation for it” and lets us empathize with it. To Steves, travel is about exposure, and hopefully, advocacy in the face of new or marginalized narratives.

We envision homeless persons to be lost, vagrant, and often don't humanize them, but instead categorize them as a social issue.

We envision homeless persons to be lost, vagrant, and often don’t humanize them, but instead categorize them as a social issue that needs our saving.

We went into the park, armed with our socks and Gatorades and sandwiches, ready to save someone, but what really happened, is I was saved. In this engagement, Jackal humanized a social issue, and interjected a marginalized narrative  into my worldview. Jackal saved me from the presumption that I was important enough to change someone’s life with a sandwich. It took time and recognition and investment to perhaps make the small difference of recognition.

As David Spurr says, the consciousness of interest rejects the notion of disinterested, objective writers, and the honest examination of our own interest (in my case, interest to feel good about being a savior to a needy population) to do justice to the narrative of the Others, moving from confinement within Western ideals to wider understanding of people marginalized and excluded from society. As a privileged Caucasian teenager on a mission from God and church, I saw myself as someone who could improve someone’s world with a word of grace and food. Isn’t this imperialistic vision a bit…oppressive? Egocentric? It was about what I could gather from the experience, not what I could give to those within the experience. What ideals of mine I could force on others, for their own good.

Because what did Jackal really require?

He wanted someone to hear him. To see his story. To feel who he was.

When I recently visited my mother in the Midwest, she told me a couple World War II veterans had asked if I would visit them. She had told them of my military service, and they, the Greatest Generation, wanted to thank ME for it. I was extremely embarrassed that 90-somethings who served in a devastating war would want to talk to me, someone who had never deployed for more than three months. What did I have to offer?

Recognition.

B-29 Superfortress overview.

B-29 Superfortress overview.

Orlando. Ninety-three years old. Staff Sergeant in the United Army Air Corps (back before the Air Force was born). Top turret gunner in the B-29 Superfortress bomber in the Pacific theater during World War II. In this aircraft, you had a 33 percent chance of dying before the crew could reach thirty-five missions to rotate home. He was sprightly and talkative, and thoroughly questioned my uniform and training.

“You know,” he said, “We called lieutenants like you the thirty-day wonder…it only took thirty days to train and commission you before you were telling us what to do.”

Never mind the four years of training it took to get my commission; I humbly took his criticism for all past and future LTs who didn’t know what the hell they were doing. We are often stupidly arrogant about leadership and people, much like activist Jacquelyn Novogratz and writer Debbie Lisle suggest: don’t distance oneself in the seat of authority, but instead engage and be vulnerable to your experiences and audience.

Yet, in preparation for our meeting, he had drawn me a carefully lettered and colored stencil, despite his terminally shaky hands, with my name “Lt Katrina” on it. He used my first name instead of my last name in spite of military custom. He had never met me. He had only heard my parents’ praises of my minimal service. Yet this man, who served for years in the Pacific theater during World War II, wanted to give me a gift representing his time and sacrifice.

He wanted understanding and recognition. He wanted someone to hear his story. He wanted someone to see him.

Before I left, he pushed himself slowly up from his wheelchair, and shakily stood up. He straightened his bent body and saluted, World War II-style. I saluted back, blinking tears away.

WWII veteran salutes during playing of National Anthem on Veteran's Day. Photo not by me.

WWII veteran salutes during playing of National Anthem on Veteran’s Day. Photo not by me.

Of course, he corrected my salute, although the salute I presented was a modernized version of his, seventy years later.

But I didn’t argue. I just listened.

These narratives, of Jackal and Orlando, offer a broader concept than just moments of engagement; they remind me to engage, to be aware of my cultural and selfish interests, preconceived notions, and bias…so I can better effect change in what little ways I can.

Even if it is just saying, I see you. You are not alone. I hear your story, and I won’t let someone tell it differently than you.

I see you.

I see YOU.

And I won’t forget.

Sawubona.

Pushing Orlando back to his room after a nice chat about his service. Truly blessed to learn from him.

Pushing Orlando back to his room after discussing his service during WWII. Truly blessed to learn from him.

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