Monday, September 25, 2006

Her Eyes Were So ... Blue

Back in the '70s we used to call the Homeless "bums".

That was because the homeless were really just old men, typically over 50, and typically constantly drunk. Staggering about, slurring their words even in the daytime. In desperate need of a bath and shave. They would try to bum change off passersby, usually for more drink. Occasionally one would become "a neighborhood regular" and we'd give them a sandwich or some food.

Somehow someone (who?) figured out that the mentally ill were having their civil rights infringed upon by keeping them hospitalized. And somehow taking care of them with the tax dollars generated by the rest of us was being unjust (never was quite sure to whom.) Our local Psychiatric Ward had to let them out -- and they had a whole building full of them.

The bums were soon joined by those who were formally hospitalized. These being mentally ill people, they didn't know how to take care of themselves. Keeping a job and paying rent and all that burdensome crap was just beyond them. Suddenly there was a flood of people living on the street. All kinds of people -- calling home these weird little cardboard shacks or park benches with old blankets draped around them.

So sometime in the '80s the bums became "The Homeless" ... a strange subset of people who never looked you in the eye, who held their "Help me" signs way out before them as they shook empty coffee cups and asked for change. People who "wanted money for food" but who would then get very angry when you bought them a meal. It was just weird.

I was in High School when I walked along St. Mark's Place in Manhattan, and saw for the first time a Punk Rocker kid, not much older than me, bumming for change. I was ... well, shocked.

It got to a point where you seriously couldn't walk along certain streets without being asked for money by someone every few feet. Creepy.

So I've read there was a sizeable homeless population in Nashville. Seen a lot mostly down by Plaza Art Materials, since the Nashville Rescue Mission is down there. But hadn't seen any just really walking about in Midtown except for once or twice from a distance.

This one walked right up to me -- like they do in New York if you let them. Usually you try not to let them. (Unless you're planning to give them change or food.)

I was carrying a heavy portfolio full of artwork over to an appointment and had stopped to fix my grip. She asked me for change but I was distracted and brushed her off.

See in New York you learn to say "no" to the street beggars cause some of them are just opportunists. You also learn fast to never to show bums where you take your money out of. When I said no she walked away but stopped and told me she liked my cap. I told her my friend gave it to me. I straightened up and looked at her and said thanks, and I realized how tiny she was.

She was tiny and sunburned and thin -- little kid thin. She was probably in her late 40s, the sun was making her delicate skin wrinkled sooner than necessary. I looked at her and we smiled awkwardly. We were under shaded trees, but her eyes were so bright. We waved and walked away.

I remembered I had a little change in an outside pocket so I took it and ran over to her, and said 'hey, here's a little bit. Remember to use it for food.' And she thanked me and smiled.

Her face was full of light even under those shaded trees. Her eyes were so very blue.

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