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Friday, March 31, 2006

Sitting and ...

The office where I work is just down the block from the main library in our city. There is also a small little park on this block. It’s comprised of a fountain, a few scattered benches, some intersecting sidewalks and some raised planters. It’s a pleasant enough little oasis from the pavement and parking lots. Due primarily to its proximity to the library, it’s a central hub for the homeless in our town. Everyday, regardless of the weather, there is a scattered conglomeration of humanity to be found there with their sleeping bags, backpacks, grocery carts, cardboard boxes and other tools of the trade.

The park has odd origins. There were buildings on the site that probably dated back to the 1800s. They were mostly vacant when I first started working in downtown. One winter there was a fire. Rumor was it was started by a homeless person trying to stay warm in the abandoned building and it got out of control. The buildings were severely damaged. They were demolished; the site paved over and made into a pay parking lot. A short time later, the city bought the lot and converted it into a park. Everything was excavated out to a depth of six feet or so, then truck after truck of dirt was brought in.

So...where the homeless used to hide out in vacant buildings, they now camp out in the open. During the winter months, you see them in the morning, congregating, smoking a cigarette, stamping their feet or simply sitting in the sun trying to thaw out while they wait for the library to open at 9. For that season, they hold absolute sway. Over the coming months, the park will witness a battle of demographics as the pleasant weather will encourage professional downtown workers to grab a sandwich or box lunch and try to find a spot to enjoy their lunch. But the homeless presence will never go away entirely.

There’s one guy in particular there I see everyday Monday to Friday. He’s a black guy. Age indeterminate. He wears a tan insulated jumpsuit and has a black backpack. Sometimes he’ll be standing or wandering around. He talks to himself. If it’s raining, he may find an overhang or awning of a nearby building for a brief refuge. Sometimes he shouts or makes strange noises. From what I can tell, he doesn’t go in the library. I’ve never seen him panhandle. He mostly just sits. Facing south. Catching the sun’s rays. He’s been a fixture there for months now.
Years before him, there was another guy doing the same thing. I passed him everyday for months on my walk from the parking garage to the building. In my head, I’d nicknamed him the Buffalo Soldier. He had a distinct Rastafarian look - dreads, long beard, bright colored clothing. He was there, everyday, just sitting in the sun, till one day he wasn’t. I don’t know what happened. Did he die? Was he arrested? Did he move on? To a shelter? Another location? A job? Another city? Who knows. A year from now, jumpsuit guy probably won’t be there either.

Their lifestyle confounds me. How do you do that? I can imagine surviving the elements - living outdoors. I can imagine getting by on your wits, seeing what you can scavenge up. Some days, there is a temptation to think that you can walk away from work, from a job and spend your days reading in a library, sitting in a park and doing whatever you want. I know a guy who did that. I could imagine being homeless and wandering from city to city. But how on earth do you not go insane sitting there, doing nothing day after day for months at a time?

In the lobby of my building, there’s a security guard named Gary. He also sits there day after day for months at a time. The building management company first hired him during the holidays a couple of years ago. My building is a small 8-story office building with mostly government or government related offices. There were problems with street people or criminals wandering into the building, sometimes just to use the restrooms, but also sometimes snatching purses and even stealing laptops or other small office items if they found an empty office late in the day or during lunch. There were security cameras, but nobody was ever caught from what I could tell. So one day, the security guard shows up sitting near the elevators in an old swiveling desk chair behind a folding table. He sat there. Maybe he read the paper. Once in a while he’d step outside to smoke a cigarette. He’d speak a little to the patrons and tenants of the building as folks came and went. Most people don’t come in our building unless they know where they’re going. So there weren’t a lot of questions to answer. There were no rounds to make. Just sit there from 8 to 5 and be a deterrent.

We thought it was just for the holidays, but the building management company kept him around. It’s been a couple of years now. He’s got a more established built in counter to sit behind that came out of some office during a remodel. He chats with the maintenance guy. He may come up to our office for a cup of coffee in the morning. He reads the papers everyday. Does the crossword. I’ve never seen him read a book. He works half a block down the street from the library and I’ve never seen him reading a book. He smokes the occasional cigarette. He’s ex-military. I don’t’ know if he was ever in law enforcement.

Once again, I am dumbfounded at what sort of personality it takes to allow you to go to the same place every morning and sit down and do nothing but stare at the wall or read a paper all day for 8 hours, then go home and come back the next day and do it again. From one perspective, there’s not that much difference in what he does during a day and what jumpsuit guy does. But one of them is paid for it and the other despised.

There’s a elderly lady who is a security guard down the block at the library. Other than validating parking passes, I can’t tell that she does much of anything other than watch people come and go. There are attendants in the parking garages down the block who sit in little booths about the size of a closet all day long taking money and giving change. I’m not trying to judge or criticize these people. I just can’t comprehend them.

A guy I work with talks about a job he had in college where he worked on an assembly line and put three screws in the bottom of water heaters all day. He talks about how some days it’s tempting to go back to that if he could make ends meet on the salary. I really think I’d be dead or institutionalized after a couple of months of that kind of work. Maybe these people - the security guard, the assembly line worker, the homeless guy - maybe they have nothing more in common than each having a daily routine that is befuddling to me. But I have to wonder if they either have some capacity – patience, stamina, longsuffering-ness – that allows them to do it or if they are lacking some quality – ambition, curiosity, creativity – that allows them to endure days and days of tedium.

Is it me or is it them? Or is it our culture? We have a prejudice for busyness. Not business, busyness. In the decade I’ve worked on this block, I’ve seen major redevelopment all around the area. Some good (in my opinion) like restoring or reclaiming old buildings. Some not so good, like demolishing historic structures to put in parking. Sure, they look like they are accomplishing a lot. But from the perspective of eternity, is there that much difference between the architects, engineers, foremen and construction workers razing and raising huge buildings and structures and the homeless guys that sit on benches or the security guards behind desks? In 300 years’ time will there be any more evidence left of one of their lives than another? For that matter, am I deluding myself that the bustle and activity of my day of work (mostly spent sitting behind a desk) actually matters anymore than the activity (or lack thereof) of the homeless down the street.

Psalm 46:10 Be still and know that I am God. Not a very American spiritual sentiment. In Nepal there was a 15-year old who was gaining international renown because he’d been sitting for months on end meditating under a tree. Magazines over here run articles about the dangers because our kids are too wired and get sensory input from multiple sources at once. They probably can’t meditate for ten minutes, much less ten months. And we wonder where ADD is coming from. This kid – Ram Bahadur Banjan – had allegedly been sitting from May 17, 2005, to March 11, 2006, not moving, not partaking of food or water, only meditating. Some believed he was the reincarnation of the Buddha. He had attracted followers and worshipers because he can sit for months on end and meditate and do nothing. March 11th he got up and wandered off. I haven’t read a news report about him turning up again. Maybe the Krystal Kraving finally caught up with him.

How do I know jumpsuit guy isn’t working his way toward Nirvana? Maybe the Buffalo Solider was spending his hours in prayer for the souls of all those around him? Maybe one of those guys on the benches down the street is actually a brilliant writer immersing himself in the world of the homeless for a book he’s researching.

Does the busyness of my life simply provide me with an illusion of worth and value to my days? Or does it just distract me from noticing the lack of value in my life? Of what I do every day, how much will matter in a year, in ten, in 100, in 500? Anything? I was discussing this with my wife the other night. I have to say how I treat my kids and my wife during the common moments of the day probably has longer lasting significance than anything I do during a day at work. How far into the future do the repercussions from a parent’s love or failure to love well reach? Certainly to the next generation, but for how many more. This lead me to the conclusion that my wife’s role as stay at home mom has much greater significance from an eternal perspective than my job as a local government consultant. Mine is just better compensated. She does more to shape our children’s perspective about who they are and how they treat people. What she does all day each day (and what I do for a few hours here and there) will shape the mates they choose and how they treat their children and what they can achieve and whether they’ll realize their talents and potential. That will carry over from generation to generation as our descendants thrive and grow from the start we gave them or struggle to overcome the obstacles we created in their lives.

What else of the things I do during my days has that significance? I guess writing could. These words get tossed out into the stream of information like a message in a bottle and somebody might read them and be affected. Some writers create a legacy through their literary brilliance that grants them a form of immortality. Still you have to wonder if any positive influence they have across generations from their writing would outweigh the damage they do if they happen also to be assholes to their kids. But our influence on our kids is an obvious one. I may be excusing too many other interactions with people just because the relationship isn’t as significant as the parent/child bond. Maybe how I simply treat everyone I come into contact with makes much more difference than the productivity of my work or anything I could ever write.

I started working on this entry a few days ago. After I began, I couldn’t help but see jumpsuit guy and the others in that park a little differently. Walking up the sidewalk one morning I looked at jumpsuit guy as I passed him. Looked at him instead of avoiding eye contact as he sat there on his bench. And he looked at me. And he said, in a surprisingly bright, warm, gentle and pleasant voice "good mornin’"... And it was.


Blogger Variations On A Theme said...

Yeah sweetie; you did it so well. And I'm really glad you looked jumpsuit guy in the eye. I think he's the one who always smiles at the kids.

5:40 AM, April 01, 2006  
Blogger haptown said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

2:31 PM, April 03, 2006  
Blogger haptown said...

My church (eastwood christian church)participates in a program called Room in the Inn and during the winter months we take in homeless men, feed them and provide them with warm clothes and a warm place to sleep one night per month.
I typically sign up as overnight host or sign on as a 'pinch hitter' for someone who can't spend the night.
Just this past winter one of our homeless guests was about to board the bus that would take him back to the mission downtown when he stopped and turned to me, his hand extended. "Thank you for treating me like a person," he said with a smile.
Thank you for seeing the jumpsuit guy.
Enjoyed your essay.

2:33 PM, April 03, 2006  
Blogger valis said...

Thanks for the comments. I'm always humbled somebody spent the time to get to the end of these rambling things. I've got to get better at editing.

I find it's easier to be theoretical about this stuff in some essay than live it out practically. Unlike my wife, I'm a natural introvert with a restricted comfort zone. But so much of what's worth doing in life happens in the bloody, messy, smelly, emotionally charged world of being open to real encounters with the people you rub up against in your life. When I'm willing to close my book or open my eyes and stick myself into someone else's messy existence, I almost always find it's not like digging through garbage, but like putting your hands into the rich, dark soil of a garden. You may get some dirt under your nails, but the experience is rewarding and life-changing (even if on a small scale) for everybody involved.

3:27 PM, April 03, 2006  

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