Tuesday, May 26, 2020

No Difference

The man was sitting with a group of his fellows, under a tree in Seattle's Pioneer Square neighborhood. As was common for a Sunday, there were a number of homeless men in the park, minding their own business, and not bothering the tourists and other passers-by that wandered through, or stopped to take a photograph of the firefighter's memorial there. This particular man was either Hispanic or Native American - I'm leaving towards Hispanic, but not enough to be certain. As one might expect, his clothing was shabby and grimy, clearly wanting some time in a washing machine.

"Hey, man," I hailed him. "Could you use a sandwich?" I didn't really raise my voice, and so I wasn't sure that he'd heard me. I held up a ham sandwich, packed into a Ziploc bag. In a paper lunch bag there was an apple, a granola bar, some chips and a bottle of water. Not the least bit interested in how pretty the presentation was, the man nearly jumped to his feet and quickly walked over and took the sandwich and paper bag from my hands, while at the same time appearing to be careful not to encroach on my "personal space." I was sitting in the tailgate of my previous car (this was a while back), which counted as armor of a sort, so I wasn't really worried, but if I remember correctly, the homeless in the Pioneer Square area had earned the ire of local businessmen for being too aggressive in their panhandling, and so had dialed it back a notch or two.

Anyway, the man thanked me and gave a deep nod, then went back to his spot by the tree to settle into his meal. The three other men that he'd been speaking to, caught off guard by his sudden exit from the group, had watched him come over to the car, and now they looked at me, wondering. I didn't leave them hanging for very long, quickly fishing out another sandwich and proffering it. Without a moment's hesitation, the men hustled over to the car, and each received a sack lunch, for which they were appreciative. The park isn't very large, so it didn't take long for word to get around, and within the space of half a minute, an orderly line of homeless men had formed.

It's always interesting to deal with people in this way. Whenever the homeless make into the local news around here the coverage tends to revolve around fears that the homeless are only slightly less dangerous than an al-Queda cell in the neighborhood. Of course, the truth is nothing like that. Confronted with someone offering something, they're deferential and polite almost to a fault. One man was intent on telling me a good chunk of his life story and telling me that I was just like Jesus, until one of his fellows bluntly reminded him that he was holding up the line. He was particularly talkative, but most of them will have something to say. Thank yous are always in order, and some will tack on how long it's been since the last time they'd eaten. Many will be effusive in their thanks, and "Bless you" quickly becomes the word of the day. But some will have a story to tell. I listen as well as I can, mainly because it does seem to unburden them somewhat to relate these things to someone.

It's been a while since I last did this. My current car is a sedan, rather than a station wagon, and I haven't attempted to pile that much stuff into it yet. But I also never figured out if I was helping anyone in any real way. Sure, giving a meal, even a small one, to someone who doesn't know where their next meal was going to come from does them a service. And I suppose that it helps them to understand that someone out there cares enough to something for them. But does it do anything? I suspect that as I type this, those selfsame people are in doorways and on benches, hoping that it won't rain tonight. I came into their lives and swept right back out again.Their problems, however, remain. And with a pandemic working its way through the population, they have new ones. This is something that won't be solved by showing up out of the blue with a sack lunch once in a blue moon.

Perhaps I should focus on the immediate action that I'm performing, rather than trying to make a dent in the bigger picture. I never know. Or maybe I should concentrate more on deriving a warm, fuzzy, feeling for myself. I suppose that working with a group of people would be better than going it alone. That would give me a broader perspective on things. Or maybe the answer lies in the realization that making a difference is too large a goal. We'll see.

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