Site moved to, redirecting in 2 seconds!

« Name your pom-poms | Main | An RSS Confession »

12 March 2006

Just wave

Creek_1“Charity sees the need, not the cause.” – German proverb

"We think sometimes that poverty is only being hungry, naked and homeless. The poverty of being unwanted, unloved and uncared for is the greatest poverty. We must start in our own homes to remedy this kind of poverty.” – Mother Teresa

There is a man roaming the streets of my neighborhood in a very dirty coat and hat. Perhaps he’s scoping out the houses, seeing who is home, checking schedules, watching us. He is always walking. Always dirty. Always, always, smelly. Let’s call him Mr. Walker.

As I drove into town one morning last week, turning past the woods behind and to the left of the CITGO gas station, I saw him emerge from his own house—it turns out he lives in the neighborhood--who knew?

My house was designed in 1903 by Richard Sharpe Smith, the supervising architect of The Biltmore House. Well, designed on a far smaller scale, that is. And if we just had a Florida room off the back and one extra bedroom or an office tucked away in the eaves and could redo the kitchen and make the mudroom into a little breakfast nook, well, then, it would be perfect. Oh, yes, and a big porch awning and if we could get our driveway repaved. Well, there’s always some need, isn’t there?

It turns out that Mr. Walker designed his own house, less than 500 yards from our place!

My house sits on a triangular point of land.

Mr. Walker’s house is surrounded by tall trees and Reed Creek, a beautiful meandering stream.

My house has a fenced-in backyard full of kids’ toys and the promise of a garden in more capable hands.

Mr. Walker’s house is in unfettered nature, no fences.

As I saw Mr. Walker come out of his own house, I was stopped cold.

Homeless_woodsHis house is a pile of trash and cardboard in the woods, almost hidden from the road. In that moment, I realized that he walks because he has no place to go, sit, eat. He’s dirty because he has no place to wash. He sleeps in a trash mound because he has no place to rest.

What is my responsibility to this homeless man? How can I help him and save face for him at the same time and keep myself safe, too? Now that I have seen him stand up and emerge from the trash, how can I ignore that he is there, so close and yet so far away? How can I drive by and not offer a warmer coat, a pair of gloves, a sleeping bag? How can I avert my eyes when we pass on the street? Economic differences, class issues, disparities in income – what has money wrought in this nation of ours?

There is too much need in the world. I am unable to keep up with it.

See how easily I have made this a story about me?

How adept we are at dismissing people as less than human. If I can imagine myself in their situation, I pay more attention; if not, no. As I wrote earlier:

“The wave of horror I feel at the world’s pain has been revealed to me as a peculiar form of privilege; there is a sense of horror and a terrible sense of relief at the same time, if I am honest. I am not there, which allows me the luxury to have an intellectual response to this event. I must dig deeper into what it means to be connected to these people who are so affected; it is that intellectual response to tragedy that keeps us immune, that makes these tragedies all the more possible in the world. I manage my reaction to them by keeping them small tragedies, the size of my TV screen—I cannot allow that to happen and I must all at the same time. What am I doing about what’s happening in the Congo? Nothing. What am I doing about what’s happening in the Middle East?  Nothing. What am I doing about starving children in the world, about starving children in my town, about the man with no shoes downtown? Nothing. Nothing. Nothing.”

Homeless_in_dcWhen I first lived in Washington, D.C., there was a man who patrolled my neighborhood on Capitol Hill. "Fast Walker," we called him, because he walked so fast, an unlit cigarette always precariously balanced on his bottom lip, hanging off like a surfboard, bouncing with every step like catching a wave. I watched him for months, walking, walking, walking, thin and fast. 

One spring morning as I made my way to the Union Station metro stop en route to work, Fast Walker and I converged on a small park path, each walking the same way. I stepped up my pace. “Hi,” I said. Fast Walker wheeled around to face me, cutting off my way across the park. “YOU KNOW ME?” he yelled. “YOU KNOW ME?” “Well,” I daintily replied in my power suit, wishing I had not made the effort to be human, “I’ve seen you around the neighborhood and just thought I’d say hi.” “YOU DON’T KNOW ME! YOU DON’T KNOW ME!” he yelled back. It was 8:05 a.m.; the cars circling the park were getting an unusual show for this time of the morning, their windows down, turned to face the screams. I continued walking, replying quietly, “no, no, not really – I was just trying to be polite. I’m sorry I bothered you.”

“WHERE YOU FROM?” he demanded of me. “WHERE YOU FROM?” “Originally?” I asked, still parsing the conversation way too small. “I’m originally from a little town in North Carolina; I’m sure you haven’t heard of it,” I said, plotting my escape, assessing the distance to Massachusetts Avenue. “MAYBE I HAVE,” he screamed, making me think we might have named him erroneously. Perhaps “Yelly Man” would have been more appropriate.

“Well, it was just a little place, called Morganton,” I said meekly, just wanting a cup of coffee, a nice anonymous Metro ride where no one speaks or makes eye contact, and some large piece of chocolate after this yelling match. “I’VE BEEN THERE! I’VE BEEN THERE!” he yelled, exciting himself by the prospect of such a connection. Imagine the odds! In the whole big universe of people, here we were at o’dark thirty in Washington, D.C.'s morning rush hour, evoking our shared history in a small town in North Carolina

Those odds just seemed too fantastic.

And then it hit me: the state mental institution for North Carolina is in my hometown. And as he told his story, I realized he had lived there, fulfilling a stereotype I harbor about homeless people—and one that I am challenging myself on—that homeless people are mentally unstable. Some are, I know, and some aren’t. Is it this fear that keeps me from engaging? And just so I have this straight in my own mind: I would help someone who has cancer, but not someone with a mental illness? And is homelessness just too big a divide to cross? What is the best way to help?

Wednesday, I stopped at the CITGO to pick up a Rice Krispie Treat. I could lie and say I stopped for a banana or an apple or something healthy, but I didn’t. It was one of those moments where only a Rice Krispie Treat will do.

As I sat in front of the CITGO, from the corner of my eye, I saw someone approach the parking lot, stopping to slide his finger into the change slot on the pay phone for any nickels that might have been left there by hurried callers. As I turned to look, I recognized the stained white coat of Mr. Walker. It was like seeing a movie star up close, the shock of recognition was so great.

He looks a little older than me, a good looking man with chiseled features and a wind- and sun-blown face, tanned against the white of his coat. He wears a red plaid shirt with that ubiquitous jacket and walks with slightly stooped shoulders, his gaze straight ahead, not looking side to side, as if he is so used to people averting their eyes that he doesn’t attempt eye contact anymore.

UndergrowthAs he passed my car, he looked like a ship of state moving silently through water, straight to the dumpster to forage for food, looking for pennies, picking up what you and I have dropped. I watched him walk across the parking lot, then back past my car, stooped, a seeming resignation as he bent to slink through a thicket in the woods, branches thrust back by his many trips through it, like a dog that has been whipped and is going to its place in the dirt under a bush.

But this is a human being, not an animal. He is walking into a path you or I never see because we don’t need to, one created by innumerable trips from his trash pile home to the CITGO. I live less than 500 yards from him. Sheila McKechnie has said, “People who are homeless are not social inadequates. They are people without homes.” With the emphasis on the word “people.”

Wave_1Yesterday, as my 2-year-old and I took John to work downtown, Tess wanted her window rolled down in the back seat of the car. She delights in waving to people with her tiny hand barely visible; in return, she expects nothing less than her own level of enthusiasm from those she greets in such a way.

As we stopped at a traffic light, Tess yelled loudly and waved wildly, “HI! HI! HI NICE MAN, HI NICE MAN!” and as I slowly turned to see the object of her attention, I realized it was Mr. Walker making his way slowly up Lexington Avenue, his stained white coat slung over his shoulder in the balmy day, his shoulders down. He turned slowly, as if to deflect the notice, and as he saw her tiny hand and exuberant greeting, Mr. Walker laughed out loud, stood up straight, his eyes smiling at the surprise, saying “HI!” in return and waving a generous wave, a recognition of humanity on both their parts, a connection, however brief.

And in that instant, Tess had found what I couldn’t—his dignity as a human, his right to recognition and greeting, his Self as precious as her own.

This morning, we stopped at the CITGO to put air in our bike tires before riding by the river, the weather having warmed. And there he was, picking his way through the brush. As we finished and drove past, Mr. Walker had reached his home and was sitting still, looking straight ahead.

~*~ 37 Days: Do it Now Challenge ~*~

Waving_at_sunsetFollow Tess’ lead and just wave. Just smile. Just acknowledge the humanity of the people around you who don’t seem as human as you are—they are, in fact, they are.

Isn’t Fear of the Other the worst fear we can have? Even if we turn away to remain safe, we lose our humanity sometimes. Engaging across these lines is messy sometimes—and sometimes it means being yelled at, but perhaps we need to get dirty once in a while.

And maybe, just maybe, we should stop complaining about our own lives long enough to remedy our own poverty and help others remedy theirs. As Mother Teresa has said, “hungry not only for bread - but hungry for love. Naked not only for clothing - but naked for human dignity and respect. Homeless not only for want of a room of bricks - but homeless because of rejection.”

Reject less.

Find your CITGO, that place where you can help.


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Just wave:


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

this is a beautiful post and something I struggle with frequently as there are migrant workers milling nearby waiting for day jobs and they hope to get paid and not beaten. Many of them are now homeless because the county cracked down on illegal apartments...I just don't know. I've been *this close* to homeless myself and so I have an odd familiarity with "these" people.

Patti, I appreciate your writing. It explores some thought provoking things.

It is a dilemna at times to know how to share some of our own abundance without doing damage to someone elses dignity. Poverty is a painful issue. It is only too close to home. I remember once speaking to group of church women about poverty, sharing some of my own perspectives, as I have been poor for a good part of my adult life. After the event, only one woman spoke to me and looked me in the eye. Others seem to pull back in some kind of fear that it could be contagious.

Lately I feel as though Spirit has been nudging me to embrace the one in me who has struggled so long and so hard. How does one move beyond "doing good" and into relationship with those who are poor? For me the first step is within myself. When I can embrace the difficult possibilities and realities that poverty really can happen to any one of us and it doesn't mean we're cursed, or lazy, mentally unbalanced (this too can happen to anyone)...etc. We can begin to address the wider issue of poverty. Until that, it is a patronizing kind of thing, where ultimately we are judging at some level. it's safer, and keeps reality at arm's length.

Well, thank you for your honesty and wrestling with the issues.


Felicity and Conni - thank you both for your messages. You have both articulated pieces of this issue (and our complex reactions to homelessness and poverty) far better than I have or can. I'm working on an essay now about gifting - and how gifts can be (and often are) an expression of power rather than love or relationship ... perhaps it will soon reach enough of a conclusion to be posted. It is so linked to your comments, and particularly yours about moving from "doing good" to "relationship", Conni - thank you both for your clarifying words.

Wonderful article Patti. I learned a few years ago what you discovered-how importnat to treat the homeless with dignity. Instead of averting my eyes, I make a habit to look into theirs and to say hello.
I also found a niche where I can help. A year ago six churches have founded Faith Cafe-a meal each Sunday for those who are hungry for both food and company. I am a board member and a coordinator for my church. Once every six weeks I have the privlege of serving these people and I have learned a lot from them. My ultimate goal is to move our volunteers from this charity work to see the cause as mentioned in your first quote and seek justice through our actions. Chris

"you think you got nothin' to give
look around how people live
loneliness is poverty
say hey
say hey to me"
-- Jonathan Byrd

just as much as gifting can be an expression of a power relationship, so can withholding a gift. those we do not acknowledge we begin to treat as "less than."

i may not give money to the homeless people i pass on the street - yes, sometimes out of fear for my own safety, other times from knowing that i alone don't have enough money to solve their problems, even for a day - but I always try to at least look at them, and say something, not just ignore them.

but then again, what does that say about us as a society, that there are so many people in these circumstances out there that we have socially generated a "standard response" to them in the first place?

have you seen this article?

Wow. What a wonderful post. Very powerful, very eye opening, and beautifully raw. I come to your blog often, but have never posted. I really don't know why I haven't posted though. I felt compelled today, to say thank you. Thank you for reminding me to take my eyes out of looking me ME, and guiding them to the rest of the world.

Chris - thank you for doing your part in the world - and for cause-seeking. It's so easy to make ourselves feel better by giving and not working to seek justice in a larger sense.

Katuah - I hadn't seen Malcolm Gladwell's piece, so thanks for that link. Your counter to my statement about gifts as power is so true--what would it cost me to extend humanity and human dignity to everyone? At what cost to them do I give to those less fortunate than me? And your question about our "standard response" is a powerful one--have we institutionalized inhumanity?

Lexie - Thank you for your kind words - I appreciate your intuitive response to this essay and your journey outward. Thank you for writing.

You entries amaze me and challenge me always.

Great post. We have a waver in our own neighborhood who has taught me the value of greetings in a small town.

For what it's worth, when I was 19 or so I read Ram Dass' How Can I Help and at the time, maybe my mind was open enough, I don't know, but I drank in the position espoused in that book. It's very closely tied with my spirituality...when I "give" someone something, I am really giving to myself, inso many ways: 1) because I really truly believe that we ARE all one and 2) because it's good for my karma to share. I sound like some throwback hippie but these are my honest feelings.

Frida - what kind words, thank you.

Ginger - I love the story about the waver - thanks for pointing me to that...

Felicity - Ah, Ram Dass. Thanks for that reminder - we need more throwback hippies in the world!

Thank you for this.



I feel that this is such a complex subject, one that goes way beyond the simple act of waving.

My husband and I just moved to Northampton, a wonderfully vibrant town in Massachusetts with an ecclectic mix of academia, cultur, affluence, poverty and drug abuse. Only last week did one of the younger homeless men die of a Heroin overdose in the bathroom of one of my favourite cafes, just down the road from where we live. Every day I walk past the 'regulars', the street people, some of whom I know by name, some of whom are very young and earn more dollars per hour begging than I do working in a local gallery.

Not everyone is homeless for the same reasons. The causes vary: mental illness, genuine bad luck, substance addiction, lack of a support system such as family and friends. And while I wholeheartedly agree that it is important and necessary to help those in need, my impression is that there is a lot done to ease the symptons but very little to examine the actual roots of people's homelessness.

Questions I am asking: Who are these people in the first place? Where are/were their parents? Why do they not try harder to find a job? Do they all come from broken homes, or is that a cliche? How can we help the children of this world, who are in danger of spending their adult lives on the street? How do we recognise them?

We have become good at making the homelessness more comfortable but what do we do to return a sense of purpose and a desire to CHANGE and accept responsibility in those who have clearly lost both? Maybe they never had it in the first place?

I guess what I am getting at is the good old saying "Give a man a fish; you have fed him for today. Teach a man to fish; and you have fed him for a lifetime." Easier said than done, I know.

As I said, this is a complex issue. And I feel helpless and angry at the same time for not having better answers.

Perhaps a wave IS a start, simple, honest and genuine ...

Take care, Kerstin

kerstin - thanks so much for your thoughtful note - your questions are such good ones and this is such a complex topic--at least in our U.S. culture. I remember a friend telling me about living in Bali and trying to define "homelessness" to people there--he said it wasn't a concept they understood; in such a communal society, homelessness made no sense.

I did mean "just wave" as an expression of spirit than a solution--there is much more to it than that, yes, but the openness and acknowledgment of shared humanity is a good start. I agree (and the opening quote supports) your statement about looking for cause, not need. As for fishing, I agree - and I also think we have to find a way to feed the man while we teach him to fish. Thanks for the food for thought.

Patti - I just have to echo the other comments. Just discovered your blog through your post on Mike Wagner's "Own Your Brand" blog, and your writing is positively infectious. I wish more people held your beliefs, yet I wish more were able and willing to take the time to examine and wrestle with the process by which they arrive at their conclusions. Your essay speaks volumes about you and the world around you. I look forward to reading more of your posts.

timothy - i love the term "infectious" - thank you for these very kind words and welcome to 37days!

Hi - I'd just like to say this is a truly beautiful and eye-opening post. I will most certainly be coming back. Thank you.

Hi Patti,
This provoking piece ties in perfectly with a class I am taking. Was wondering if you would mind me sharing it with the class.

The comments to this entry are closed.