Homeless in a Hazy Sunlight

I’m in the morning sun at a table at Peet’s, a coffee shop chain that shows I am not the only great thing to come out of Berkeley. I dropped the 7th-grader off at her school and came here to sit and work on job-searching. I’ve allowed Facehooking and blog-commenting to have precedence, which isn’t smart, but I’m really enjoying the slow-paced life. I can’t do it a whole lot longer, but I still feel more or less “in flow,” as the festival kids say. (Facetiousness. Some of the wisest bestest people I know talk like that.)

This corner of 38th and J is a part of what we call East Sac, which by the look of the buildings was settled and developed in the 1930s. It’s semi-downtownish, much more so than anywhere in the burbs, but not as charmingly downtownish as Midtown about ten-plus blocks west of here. Still, the trees are mature and the people have the friendly downtown vibe so often missing out in the burbs where people seem slightly more suspicious and distant, if I’m not over-projecting here, which I probably am.

After I came in a very large black woman with an overstuffed wheeled shopping basket came in too and, rocking side to side, made her way to the restroom. They gave her the key and she left her cart and took care of herself. Soon she was on her way again. I didn’t notice if she ordered anything.

Aware of her, I was also aware of the visceral dislike many of us burbanites have for those we perceive as homeless. In a world where we are learning that more and more of The Other are not others at all but just reflections of ourselves, the homeless remain among the last holdouts of otherness. Now and then we give a dollar, but more often we cheer (if silently) when their trash-strewn settlements along the onramp or the parkway are suddenly dismantled under the sheriff’s loving gaze, and are annoyed when they’re in the way as we escort children and the elderly from our car to the restaurant. (When I say “we”, by the way, I only mean “we”.)

But, perhaps in the spirit of reducing otherness and perhaps not, I’ve noticed the homeless are getting to be less and less confrontational and more and more organized. I see less hapless anger and despair and more smart adaptation to street living. First thought is this reflects a “better” class of people finding themselves on the street. But the economy isn’t that bad. Instead I like to think that small increments of increased friendliness and decreased distrust on the part of the citizenry, slightly better outreach and other forms of community awareness, are finding fertile ground in people who really just need a little bit more of those things. It’s not at all hard for me to imagine living among them, being one of them, and it never has been, and I’m happy to see more and more folks willing to let them into their bubbles, if even just a little bit.

After all, when you see a street person who’s been on this planet for sixty years, you see someone who may have done all the things you have done, all the good and wonderful things, and made maybe just one additional mistake.


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