Driving and Biking in the Big City

Homeless on the big city streets for the sake of a story

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I have respect for all human life and have a particularly soft heart for the homeless. I believe that’s always been true because I’m a chameleon and an empath.  But it may have teetered toward obsession in my reporter days when my newspaper at the time did a series entitled “The Haves and the Have Nots.” I, of course, had taken the “have not” position and actually spent three days as a homeless person on the streets of a big city where the homeless problem was growing. It changed me forever, as did most every story I wrote where I sometimes spent weeks of interviews, trying to put myself in another’s shoes – whether it was victim or culprit.

In this case, the memory I still hold most upsetting is of a friend I made at one of the soup kitchens who I saw occasionally while frequenting the common places for the homeless – street corners, underpasses, parks and public attractions. Eventually, we spoke a few times after I’d made him comfortable with my regular presence.

It was one of my few assignments where I had to keep my pencil far from reach and in the bottom of a deep dusty bag that was my constant companion. My suffering over those homeless days came mostly because I didn’t have a sharpened pencil in my hands, behind my ear, twirling unconsciously from finger to finger. Ironically, I never was as attached to paper and didn’t mind writing on anything at hand – envelope, napkin, back of a check book, although when I left the profession, I still preferred the skinny reporter’s notebooks that fit easily in a jeans pocket or skirt.

On the night of my memory, I had come to a high school football stadium to hear a preacher who would then serve us supper. I got there early to soak up the atmosphere and potentially sneak out the pencil for some details that I might not remember later.  My new friend came near and but sat several feet away. I was up a couple of rows higher than the seat of his choosing, but we were nearer to each other than any of the other homeless people who came eventually to somewhat fill the stadium.

He was dirtier than me, literally. More smudged and smelly, always with a bit of a runny nose. I never quite got homeless dirty but had found some battered jeans (not hard to find in those days), kept my hair unwashed and never tucked in my shirt (not blouse.) He, likewise, was in jeans and was pretty much blue all over. His bluejeans, his work shirt, his bizarre and ruddy blue complexion. He had some wire-rimmed glasses that sat askew on his face and were in fashion at least a decade ago.

What overwhelmed me and has stuck to me over the years was the simple fact of his age. He said he was 17 years old. He looked like a man of maybe 40. Not a day younger. And I didn’t remotely detect a lie nor any realization on his part of how old he looked.

His face was lined and rough from outdoor living but also from something deep and desperate. He was a runaway, he said. He said he had no one and nowhere to go. He’d been on the streets of Fort Worth for at least five years. (I calculated when he was 12.) He mostly slept in vacant cars and in junkyards. I simply couldn’t believe it.  I always expect tragic stories when I take on an assignment like the homeless, but somehow I am never quite prepared for reality. Facts are always worse than the fiction we conjure.

My second most haunting memory comes to me almost daily.  It is the face of a beautiful dark-haired girl of about 4 years old. She wields a soup spoon in her fist and shovels almost clear broth into her too-hungry mouth. She’s so heartbreakingly pretty and so sweet mannered and inviting that I want to sit by her immediately. She has a beautifully smooth complexion and long silky brunette hair that curls a little at the ends.  I want to touch its perfection. I wonder this decade or so later, “Is this truly how my homeless, hungry girl looked?” Or is she forever superimposed over my same dark-haired daughter who was about 18 months old at the time I was doing this backgrounder for the newspaper series. I see my own child, sitting at the kitchen table with her similarly dark-haired doll, and the two merge in my memory. It makes me weep and weep again.

I was a relatively new mother and all my feelings and empathy had been turned on its head by the experience of being a mom. My homeless child’s parents spoke only Spanish, and I practiced my Texas public school and state college training on them when I joined them at their table. We could talk about hunger, what they were eating, how beautiful their daughter was in her pretty dress. But the emotional details escaped me. I couldn’t get to the root of their pain at being on the streets. “Only three days,” the mom said.  The cultural difference, “I have work,” the father said. Clearly, this little family was simply pleased to be in the United States and what I considered suffering was not even on their radar.

So, I settled for telling the little girl that I had a daughter “la misma” as her.  Both she and my daughter were both “muy bonita” and I liked my new little friend very much.

Later, and after a six-month series I did on teen-age suicide, I’d be offered a transfer to Washington, D.C., or New York -– a reporter’s ultimate goal back in those days. I was eventually to turn down the offer so that I could spend more time at home with my baby girl and later her younger brother.


Written by commuterchroniclesdbh

February 22, 2014 at 7:54 pm

2 Responses

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  1. What a prolific life you have lead so far.You lived your words first before putting them to paper. Many would not be so brave. When I was much younger I wanted to be a reporter. At 50 years of age, I finally manage to write a monthly column for my little local paper and I’m blogging away (a few weeks now).
    On top of being a decent human being and intelligent writer you appear to be quite selfless too. I’m sure your children are in their glory having you home-child rearing is a novel waiting to be written wrapped in a diaper.
    Thank you for sharing…

    March 7, 2014 at 4:09 pm

    • Thanks for the kind words, AnnMarie. A writer’s life is great for having kids and being in love with them at any age. I don’t think I’m selfless but having kids certainly makes you a lot more selfless than you ever think you can be.


      March 7, 2014 at 5:36 pm

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