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Posts Tagged ‘homelessness’

Yesterday I sat by the pond in Copley Square. It was just late enough and just chilly enough that few other people sat by the water that day. The light was low and golden. It bounced off the water to beautiful effect. Leaves drifted by in different colors and when they circled the concrete stretch they’d catch the light and glow.

Fallen leaves in swirling waters. I’ve photographed those a lot but that day I did not have my camera. Just food. I was kind of glad because then I could just eat and behold the beauty without trying to “capture” it on the screen. No camera also gave me freedom to look around me and so I noticed the woman across the pond, on the sidewalk side, next to Boylston Street.

She gazed in my direction but I do not think she saw me because she was quite focused on cleaning herself. She was deliberate and calm. You would have thought she stood in her own home staring into a mirror. First brushing her teeth and then flossing. A wet brush through her dark brown hair. Then a wash cloth to her face and other exposed bits of flesh. Just a quick wipe here and there. Like I said, it was cold that day. She did not fully take off her coat or the many layers beneath. All of the items she had pulled from a plastic ziploc bag which she tossed in the trash after cleaning herself. Then, after collecting several large trash bags, with great dignity she walked away.

Then my gaze fell upon the man who sat not too far from me.  He was well-dressed. I imagined he was taking a respite from his workspace in one of the neighboring office buildings. I yearned to borrow his thick wool blazer as the wind created eddies in the pond. In his hand was a notebook. On occasion he would pull from his knapsack a pouch full of fancy pencils. I recognized them from one of my favorite stationery stores. The pencils were all sharpened and the page of his book was blank. He would take out pencils and then put them back and I wondered what vision he was hoping to realize on the page. In between reaching for the pencils he would reach into his pocket. At first I thought maybe for an eraser but instead he pulled out a little bottle and downed it in one sip. He didn’t toss it on the ground like I’ve seen some of the guys on the benches do. No, he simply gently placed it back in his pocket and reached for a pencil again.

By the time I finished my lunch the man had emptied several small bottles, and as I rose I could see the large brown bag tucked next to the brown leather of his shoes.  Something to take home I guess. His head remained low the entire time. Only his hands moving really except for the quick tossing back of his head.

As I walked away, still, there was nothing on his page.

 

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where do the squirrels go

perhaps inside a tree or beneath a big leaf

maybe underground to huddle in a group

a few brave souls probably stay with faces upturned to the sky

I’m pretty sure that I’ve seen wet squirrels before

but when it rains so steady as it has done today

where do the homeless people go

not into tree not beneath a leaf though I am sure there are a few undergrounds

but in general really I am asking as I see the puddles grow outside

where do the homeless go in the rain

those folks I saw just yesterday in Back Bay

not far from this squirrel

on the streets in the alleys on the benches

some asking for money some fighting and others praying

I don’t know where they go in the rain

but I probably should

 

 

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“Would you like some cold water?” he asked as I walked away.

“No but thank you,” I said. “I’m just fine.”

“It’s unopened,” he added as he pulled the gallon jug from the white shopping bag. “You can have the first sip.”

“Thanks. I’m good. You take care, ” I said and waved good-bye to the man I’d met in the woods.

In my previous two posts, I shared images of nature near an office park. I’ve photographed there several times over the years. It is a meandering site with clusters of brick office buildings with each cluster surrounded by asphalt parking spaces. A few small landscaped gardens grace the entrances of some clusters or at least they have regularly mown lawns. And then connecting these manicured areas is just enough almost-wildlands, that are just wild enough to attract rabbits, foxes, deer and even the errant coyote. But mostly it is a haven for birds.

When I visit, I am usually in the company of my partner. He heads into one of the office buildings to check on a piece of equipment. I take my camera and wander the periphery of the parking lot. I look up into the trees, I scan the gullies to see how the sunlight is falling on the water and then I come to an iron gate. The gate is reminiscent of the ones you see on farms, more for keeping large animals at bay and not so much for stopping people.

I slip past the gate and determine whether I am going to go left and make my way up the gravelly path through the more heavily thicketed and treed area or if I will go right into a more meadowy area that becomes marshlands after a good rain. But this time the meadow was completely overgrown and too full of prickly plants for me to venture there, so I made my way up the gravel path.

This area too was overgrown.  In times past I had been able to easily step off the path into the underbrush, not only to photograph wildflowers and animals but also to see what mischief local teens had been up to. You see, the gravel path ends with another iron gate and that gate abuts a small road and a residential area. With what I was wearing, and my lack of bug spray, I had decided not to step off the path that day. I made it to the second iron gate photographing what I could. The birds were singing so loud. I stopped to stare up into the trees. And that’s when I noticed the man slip past the iron gate onto the gravel path.

He hobbled along on two crutches and in one hand he also held a white plastic bag. He seemed dressed rather warmly for a day in the 90s, in his sweater and jacket and long pants. He wore white socks with his well-worn sandals. He moved very deliberately and slowly. As he came nearer, the dappled light caught in the silver of his blonde hair. He had a dark tan but as he came closer I could tell with a good shower he might become just a bit paler.

I smiled in greeting. I’ve been warned I should stop doing that so readily, but I felt no fear as he nodded in reply and then paused to say, “Birdwatching, eh? Seen any cardinals yet? I used to be able to sing their song.” After licking his lips, he began to whistle and when he got to the tweet, tweet, tweet I could genuinely exclaim, “Oh, yes, I know that sound.”

He hesitated, blue eyes darting about, and then said, “Well, okay, good luck.” He continued down the path moving just a bit faster than a snail. I stalled a bit, keeping an eye on him, and then I too began to walk down the path. I caught up with him. I had every intention of passing him so that I could continue my photographic journey in another area. But as I came up to his side he began to talk to me. Random stuff about the birds to be found in the area and during which seasons.

At some point I asked, in part to test an assumption forming in my mind, “Is this path a short cut for you?”

He said, “Oh, yes. This is a great short cut down to the Target.”

Having been to that Target, I didn’t think his statement was true but I said nothing.

He filled the silence quite eloquently.

In the course of our long walk down this short path, this gentleman would share from beginning to end in actually exquisite detail the plot of the 1950s movie, Harvey. He would share highlights from half a dozen academic and literary works that I only knew about because I’d seen their titles while browsing in the Harvard COOP bookstore. In one moment he would be talking about Kierkegaard and in the next about the Cedar Waxwing.

“You are quite the philosopher, sir.”

He shrugged. “Well, that’s what I studied at MIT along with physics.” I didn’t ask him in what year or if he finished. Later, around that subject, he would mumble something about “things happened.”

We made it to the parking lot. Maybe because he knew I would not be there much longer, he began to talk faster, telling me his name, and about his not-so-nice father who had been a famous chemist, stuff about religion. The light became too bright in his eyes on that subject so at that point I knew I needed to end the conversation.

“I need to rest,”he said and eased himself down on the curb.

“Well, nice to meet you. I’m off to photograph birds.”

As I walked away, that’s when he asked if I’d like some cold water.

I took a circuitous route through the office park that brought me back to his location. He was no longer there. I suspect he made his way back into the thicket where he likely has a spot. I think that had been his original intention, with his jug of cold water, until he came upon a small brown woman photographing birds in his woods.

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… and then there was a photo not taken.

I’d walked a long ways, from downtown Boston, across the Charles River and into Central Square.  It had seemed a good idea in the beginning.  Walk. Take pictures. But by the time I hobbled into Central Square and parked myself on a bench, I was done.  I took one last look over my shoulder into the bushes behind me.  A sea of pink blooms and a single stalk of white. This is it, I decided, and then tucked my camera away.

After determining that despite aches and pains I could complete my journey home by foot, I rose and began to meander down Mass Ave.  Ahead of me was a man clearly seeing impaired based on the white cane he swept before him.  I was planning how to slip past him at the next street light when, all of a sudden, his cane knocked over a homeless man’s Dunkin Donuts cup full of change.

Now, this homeless fellow has been a regular in Central Square, an elderly gentleman curled up in a wheelchair.  As far as I knew, he’d never wheeled himself about by hand.  I’d only ever seen him move himself by one foot, very, very slowly.  I suspected he had a compatriot who occasionally whisked him from one side of the Square to the other, else it would take him all day to move one block.

In any case, the homeless man was twisting in his chair trying to reach for the overturned cup and speaking unintelligibly all the while.  The blind man was reaching out but not having much success.  I was close enough to gently take the blind man’s hand and say, “It’s okay, sir, I’ll help him.”  He nodded and moved on, cane once more sweeping out.  Then I knelt and scooped up the coins.  As I wrapped the homeless man’s hands around the clear cup, I better understood why he did not wheel himself.  His hands were gnarled, the fingers twisted.  I felt like I was holding carved oak.

“Here you go,” I said.

He garbled, “Do you have any change?”

That was when I looked into his face in a way I’d not done in all the times I’d seen him before.

Like his hands, his face was like oak.  Dark golden brown and deeply lined.  While I thought him elderly from afar, up close I could see that most likely he was not.  It was the elements, and other life events, that had chiseled his face, browned his skin and grizzled his unkempt hair and beard.  His eyes were blue and shone with such intensity that if we had not been in shade I would have thought they were lit by the sun.  An unforgettable sight.

That was the photo not taken.

“No, sir,” I said.  “I do not have any change.”

I patted his hands and made my way home.

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This morning I received several different examples in my inbox that referenced the use of creativity.  First I received a Daily Reflection courtesy of Alive Now Magazine, a publication in which I’ve had photos appear.  Today’s reflection was “Imagine you are giving a party inviting the poor, crippled, lame, and blind in today’s world. How would you need to engage your creativity to offer them your hospitality?”  You can read the full reflection here. It was strange to see this reflection about using creativity to offer up hospitality, and then to read this NYTimes article and some other articles highlighting how people are engaging their creativity to devise new strategies for relocating the homeless, and not always in positive ways.

A Rodin Sculpture at Boston MFA

A Rodin Sculpture at Boston MFA

The articles made me mad but the reflection brought to mind my mother.  One holiday season she invited to dinner a mentally challenged neighbor.  He had no family coming to visit that year and we had plenty of food.  But, you see, my mom was a very private person.  For others, and maybe even this same man, in the past she had always made up a plate and sent my father or brothers down the street to knock on doors and share some food.  I do not know why she invited this man to our house this time.  I think she was creative in her approach so that she could do this “good deed” and maintain some sense of privacy that was important to her.

Gerber at the Kitchen Table

Gerber at the Kitchen Table

The man was invited to sit in what the family considered “Pop’s chair” in the living room.  My mom served him the first plate, and my dad served him his refills.  After eating, the man watched TV and even took a nap.  My younger brother and I were small enough to ask out loud, and too loud, “When is he leaving?”  She shushed us but I could tell my mom felt the same way.  After he did leave, my mom swore she’d never do such a thing again.  She never did the exact same thing again (that I can remember) but she did do other things of a similar nature — good deeds that sometimes exceeded her comfort zone. Deeds done creatively.

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This past spring I met a man in Boston Common.  He sings.

I don’t remember if he had an instrument in-hand that first meeting. Most striking were his looks and that voice. Skin as dark as night. A scraggly beard and bushy eyebrows, all white as snow.  His voice carried across the park.  A gentle rumble.  Bass, perhaps.  Imagine Paul Robeson in sound.

“Can anyone spare some change? Can anyone spare some change? Can anyone spare some chaaaaaange?”

At first I ignored him.  I generally have no spare change.  And I have mixed feelings about giving money to panhandlers.

“Can anyone spare some change? Can anyone spare some change? Can anyone spare some chaaaaaange?”

But then one day we made eye contact.  It has been ingrained that if eye contact is made with a stranger no words need be exchanged but at a minimum try to nod in greeting.  And so I did.

“Can anyone spare some … ooooh … Does anyone have a pretty smile?  Does anyone have a pretty smile?”

Ever since that moment, when our paths cross in the Common, which is not very often, he will change his song for me.

“Oh there’s that pretty smile.  There’s that pretty smile.”

I know I can’t be the only one he does this for.  I have yet to place coins in his cup, but he sure does make me feel like I brighten his day.  At some point, I shall have to tell him that the sound of his voice brightens mine.

Footnote 1:  Checkout the blog Lust & Rum by photographer Anton Brookes.  There, he shares pictures that are heartbreaking and deeply moving of the homeless on the streets of NYC.  Following his photographic journey helps remind me to keep my eyes open to those sights I might like to ignore.

Footnote 2: If you’ve not heard the voice of Paul Robeson, you can hear a sample via the following 1 minute and 22 second clip.  Enjoy.

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