We don’t pay much attention to the homeless in L.A. Not really. Maybe they’re not paid much attention in any city in the world. But it feels like Los Angeles is the place where a person is least likely to really pay any attention at all to a homeless person. We don’t spend much time on our own sidewalks. We’re in our cars, not pounding the pavement. So it’s easy to drive by and not pay attention. We, the privileged few in the vast fortunate desert of Southern California, pay attention to those we know. We pay attention to the Jews. We pay attention to the cancer-stricken. We pay attention to the gays (although clearly not enough or I’d have many more weddings to attend). We pay attention to rare diseases that tragically visit the lives of the rich and famous. But we do not pay attention to the homeless. After all, we don’t know those people.
But today, I paid attention to a homeless guy. He was sitting outside the Starbucks on Ventura just west of Laurel. And he had a sign in front of him. The first time I passed him, I didn’t read the sign and barely made note of his presence. I then passed him the second time and thought, “I should give that guy something.” This is not a normal thought for me. Giving money to the homeless is not my first instinct. Mostly I tend to feel frustrated that their presence makes me feel guilty. I don’t want to feel guilty. I don’t want to BE guilty. But I am. And I kept walking.
By the time we got to the car, I still hadn’t looked in that homeless man’s face nor had I read his sign. But the fact that I’d walked by twice and given nothing weighed on me. So I said to Sig Other, “I need to go back and give that man something.” We pulled out of the parking lot and I asked S.O. to drop me at the corner as he went on to his next errand. “I’ll meet you,” I said. And I crossed the street and went back to where that man was still sitting.
As I approached, I looked at him. I mean I really took a good look. He was a man without a face. A fire or some other accident had left him with a hole where his nose used to be and scars from his hairline to his chin. There were no eyebrows left and his eyes were mostly iris – very little white showed so what was left was dark and piercing. His hands were badly disfigured as well and, as he reached out for the money, it looked as if he was missing a few fingers. “Thanks,” he said. “You’re very welcome,” I said. And I turned and walked away.
I thought about him the rest of the day – wondered what had happened to him, if he’d ever been a person that did not live on the street asking for money, if he’d ever been a person with a face. And I thought about the indignity. I certainly didn’t feel terribly dignified handing over a few dollars and then going back to my comfortable life. And I could not imagine the indignity of sitting on a street corner with my back against a wall and a sign in front of me asking for money. I could not imagine the indignity that must preceed all the steps it takes to get to that place or the pain he must have suffered physically and mentally. A man with a face. A man without a home. And yet he didn’t act undignified. He didn’t bow and scrape and say “God Bless You” as thanks for the pittance I offered. He didn’t smile and wish me a good day. He just gave a simple thanks. It was, after all, a simple transaction.
I wondered, too, if the man without a face thought about me again at any point in the day. Do you think about the person handing you money or just what the money will buy? I hoped for the latter honestly. And hoped I wasn’t his only visitor that day.