“My girlfriend locked me out of the apartment. My teeth are in there. … Somebody smells like urine. … You just got to receive the Holy Spirit. That’s all there is to it. … I’ll pay you back. I’ve got $238,000 in back pay coming. But don’t tell anybody. I don’t want people to be my friend just because I have money. … My balls don’t ache. They used to ache all the time. But I asked God, and it stopped. … Can you read this for me?”
People with mental illness frequent the office where I work. A woman calls me three days in a row, threatening to sue me because I didn’t use her article in Streetvibes. She warns me, “Be careful what you do. I have friends all over the city watching.” A few days later, she stops by to check her mail and seems to remember nothing of her earlier hostility.
The Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless, where I work, likes to say it’s an advocacy organization, distinguishing itself from agencies that provide direct service to clients. The distinction is valid, except for the fact that the Homeless Coalition offers some very important services: a place for homeless people to receive mail, to use a telephone, to have a cup of coffee or a drink of cold water. A place for homeless people to sit down for a few minutes in air conditioning or heat.
One of the vendors for Streetvibes, published by the Homeless Coalition, was recently attacked by a dog in Clifton, a big dog. It didn’t bite him, but it knocked him to the ground, causing minor scrapes — and lots of fear.
When I tell him I don’t think the incident merits a news story, I can see the hurt on his face. The police officer he spoke to didn’t do anything either.
“What if that happened to your son?” he says.
I have the feeblest answer: “It still wouldn’t be a news story.”
A man runs into my office and says, “Sir, can I sit down? Someone is trying to rob me.” He’s sweating, and it’s early December.
“I have $700, and I’m going to put it in my shoes.”
I ask if he’s been injured. No. He starts stuffing wads of bills into each shoe. Does he want me to call the police? “No, no, no. I’m trying to get across the river.”
One vendor, who calls himself Hustleman, washes cars in Over-the-Rhine during the summer to make a few bucks. He’s also a peddler, his inventory varying from day to day.
One day he opens a bag full of porn magazines. “Which ones do you want?” he asks.
I tell him I didn’t want any. “I also have toothpaste,” he says.
Generous people frequent the office where I work. People donate bagels, bread, cakes and sometimes — and what’s most appreciated — fresh fruit. Homeless people, I’m told, don’t often get fresh fruit.
But the generosity that most impresses me comes from the homeless people who are there for help. One man brought me a sandwich. Two people give me their drawings. One of them, it’s true, later asked if he could have his drawing back, but even the very finest museums have temporary exhibitions. Last week Hustleman gave me a muffin.
Someone offers me a hand-rolled cigarette. I love hand-rolled cigarettes; I had my first one in the old Cincinnati Workhouse. They’re the poor man’s cigarettes, and anyone who offers one is sharing from the very little that he owns.
One of the most successful Streetvibes vendors — his monthly sales have sometimes neared 1,000 copies — is a veritable man of sorrows racked by health problems, family crises and, of course, chronic poverty. He often stops in my office to say, “God bless you” and to thank me for the work I do.
He’s so successful because he’s relentlessly upbeat in his work — telling jokes, dressing up as a clown. That kind of good cheer, generated by force of will in the face of circumstances that would break most people, is itself a kind of generosity.
People of great strength frequent the office where I work. A man was crying in our lobby one day, saying he was in pain. He was perspiring heavily.
“I’m afraid I’m going to die today,” he said.
Chris Barphs — not his real name — was scheduled to enter a detox center at 10 a.m. the next day. That was about 22 hours away.
“If I don’t have a drink, I’m afraid I’ll die,” he said. “But I don’t want to drink. I want to quit.”
For someone in advanced stages of addiction, alcohol withdrawal requires medical attention.
Barphs knew what one drink would lead to: He’d feel some relief. But it would likely lead to a second drink and more, and he could easily end up as a no-show for the check-in at the detox center.
“I don’t want to drink,” he said. “But I’m afraid I’m going to die.”
I waited for the inevitable request for a few dollars for a drink, for safety. It never came.
“I’m not going to drink,” he said.
He was crying when he said it, tears of fierce resolution.
I hope he survived that day — and the next.
Happy endings don’t frequent the office where I work, but they do make an appearance now and again.
CONTACT GREGORY FLANNERY: firstname.lastname@example.org