UPDATE: I just reread this post after more than two years. It merits sharing again, especially in this new, frightening climate of political extremism and the threat of diminishing entitlements for those who need them most. — Shielagh 2/23/17
They are everywhere.
I cannot help but see how they suffer. I am not sure what the blessing is in suffering through homelessness and hopelessness. I see them on the subway, asking for money, food, Metrocards, help, hope. I see them sleeping in corners and in doorways, laid out awkwardly across subway platform benches that are uncomfortably partitioned for four. I see them at the end of subway cars, sleeping or pretending to sleep, surrounded by bulging bags of their things, some with a plastic hospital bracelet on one wrist. Flip flops in winter, dirty feet in slippers or worn-out shoes, sometimes in wooden surgical boots. Reddened, swollen ankles blotched and shiny with edema. Often and more now than before, I see well-groomed men sitting behind polite cardboard signs asking for compassion, for a hand up, bus fare home, a meal, as they read a book or magazine, avoiding eye contact. Groups of grimy kids sleeping on cardboard with dogs or cats, their cardboard signs asking for money for food or a hotel room before the next storm hits. I see the long, matted blond dreadlocks about begrimed, drawn faces of kids young enough to be my grandchildren, skateboards under arms and sleeping bags and backpacks weighing them down as they move from place to place, rousted by police or in search of something much needed right then. I see the African hair, wild and long, grizzled into shaggy beards framing dark, dusty faces. I’ve seen men and women, in couples and alone, sleeping against buildings in midmorning in mummy bags or bedrolls, their things in bags about them, the smell of old urine strong by the nearby broken payphone enclosure. Once I looked up from my own thoughts to see an old woman defecating into a plastic bag between the bike rack and the litter can by a busy intersection downtown. I didn’t want to see. I felt her suffering, a reality that seemed to say, there is nowhere else for me to go.
I see the bloody socks, the bandaged hands, the haunted faces, the vacant eyes. I see the plastic rosary beads around scrawny necks, the cigarettes, the brown-bagged cans and bottles, the battered paper coffee cups hopeful for change. I hear the guitarist on the subway platform singing a Neil Young song as tenderly and tunefully as Neil himself. I watch as passersby waiting for their train or heading towards the stairs drop a dollar into the guitar case, or hurry by unaware of the fragile life of the man behind the instrument. I have seen him for at least ten years now. He no longer has teeth. I have given many dollar bills over those years. Once he stood near the stairs crying and asking if anyone could help him get new guitar strings before the music store closed, saying someone had damaged his guitar at the hospital. I gave him a five and told another woman who stopped, looking worried, that he sings as beautifully as Neil Young. He was too upset to respond and kept weeping. There is something very broken in him now, because between his haunting songs he sometime yells and screams at no one in particular about world injustices, thoughtless people, all the “motherfuckers” and “assholes,” whoever and wherever they may be. I am sure he suffers greatly.
I hear the crazy rants, the anger, the fear, the hopelessness, and see the dirt, the empty eyes, the pathos written all over the faces. I used to tell myself they were students in a sociology class, running experiments to see how others react to homelessness, poverty, need and hopelessness. It’s been a very long time since I comforted myself with that fantasy. I know there are police patrols and pairs of homeless workers who travel these streets to see who needs help, but many withdraw from them and are not seen. When winter comes and rough weather prevails, vans traverse our streets with workers trying to get homeless men and women into shelters for the night. Places they’d rather die than go, mostly. Addictions, experiences being robbed, histories of abuse, compounded fear and layers of hopelessness scare them away from shelter and often from helping hands up and out of their despair. Such suffering.
I hear the pleas on the subway cars as we rattle between Manhattan and Brooklyn, from the tall man in fatigues asking, “Can you help a homeless Veteran?” From a small dark-eyed woman with a large child on her hip, both with doleful expressions, who stands in front of each passenger holding a sign that says, “I am deaf and mute. We need food. Can you help us?” And the young woman with several children in tow, repeating the length of the car, “My house burned down, we have nothing. My children and I are homeless, can you help?” Sometimes while the person is traversing the car, an announcement comes over the loudspeaker reminding us that it is against the law to solicit on the subway. “Ladies and gentlemen soliciting money in the subway is illegal,” it drones. Ignore the suffering, it suggests. Others will see to it.
I don’t always, but I’ve offered what I can, a Metrocard with a few trips left on it, a little money, a protein bar, a sandwich, dog or cat food for a homeless person’s animal companion. And when money or food or something else is offered, they nod and sometimes say, “Thank you.” “God bless you.” “You are very kind.” And when nothing is offered and they stand at the doors as the train comes to a stop, I’ve heard, “You folks have a good day now.” “Hope you never know how hard this is,” and “God bless you.” And then there was the weather-beaten old woman I once offered a plastic container of holiday cookies that I’d planned to share at the office. She screamed at me incomprehensibly and batted away my offering with as much force and rage as if I’d pulled a knife.
They tear at my heartstrings, and their suffering fills me with fear from depths unknown, fear of destitution and homelessness, fear of extreme isolation and loneliness, fear of rejection, fear of untreated mental illness, fear of surrender to hopelessness, fear of losing faith in my ability to manage, fear of losing the belief I will be taken care of if ever I cannot take care of myself, fear of giving up and giving in to addiction, fear of illness and parasites and dirt. Fear of growing into very old age alone and defenseless, of outliving savings. And my practice has taught me that it is out of fear that aversion grows. Every day I aspire to be free from aversion, attachment and indifference. I am learning to see past fear and into fellow beings, beings whose lives are as transitory as my own, to see their suffering, to have compassion, and to remember that within each of them learning and growing and karma are also taking place.
So I read every single day, and recite aloud most days, the Buddhist text of the Metta Sutta. I often read it in the morning during my subway ride. My version says, “Let none deceive another or despise any being in any state,” to despise no beings–none, to have loving kindness for all, no matter how small or great, no matter the circumstances. To love each being, human and otherwise, “freed from hatred and ill-will,” to love them all dearly, as a mother loves her only child. How difficult this is to do, and yet how important it is to try.
And today this is my practice.