Names have power. It is one thing to drive past a homeless person panhandling in the street. It is quite another thing to drive past Ted.
I’ve been serving our homeless community for a while now, getting to know the people behind the signs. Their stories. Their preferences. Their names.
It’s no longer possible to simply drive down the streets. I search them now, my eyes constantly darting down alleys, around corners, into nooks and shadows. It’s a fine habit most days. But when you’re dressed up and moments away from indulging yourself, it can be problematic. I was heading to a fancy affair at the university. As we cruised down Asher, I spotted Mark, trudging along behind his shabby cart in the parking lot he calls home. I’m off duty, I reminded myself. This is okay.
Two minutes later, a figure came into view on the median at the intersection of where we were and where we were going. I knew two things instantly. It would be Ted. And we would catch that red light. That damn, infernal, interminable red light. Something inside began to unravel, threads silently snapped. One foot in a land of wretched excess, the other in a land of poverty and pain. I am going to eat tenderloin; Ted is going to eat from a dumpster.
This is not okay.
When the party was over, there were mounds of food left untouched, open bottles of wine left unpoured. Enough to fill every hungry belly in town. Enough to quench every thirst. But I know how these things work. We don’t live in a world of Enough. There are only the worlds of Too Much and Not Enough.
I went to bed that night feeling full. Feeling drunk. And feeling like a failure.
Yesterday, I went to another party at the university, the retirement party of my favorite professor. The best lesson he taught me was to just say what needs to be said. He was talking specifically about writing, and my chronic abuse of metaphor, but the lesson applies to life as well. When the staff appeared at the end of the party, I said what needed to be said.
“What are you going to do with all this food?”
He answered as I knew he would, “Throw it away.”
Dr. Anderson and I began scurrying around, piling plastic plates and filling clean trash bags. Every last roast beef roll up was rescued, every juicy wedge of melon. The staff stood back and watched, their eyes filled with equal parts disbelief and approval. It’s possible I am the first guest they’ve ever seen dump an entire chafing dish of Spinach Artichoke Dip in a trash bag. I hope I’m not the last.
I loaded my car full of food and ice cold bottled water (They were even going to throw away the bottled water!) and aimed for the closest camp. On the edge of a parking lot, I threw a little party, for Curt and Donna and Jane and Richard and Andy and Morris and Mike and David.
When I went to bed last night, I did not feel like a failure at all.