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Saturday, August 05, 2006

Tourists and benches


Today I went to the Starbucks on University Ave, our main downtown street. All of the tables were taken so I went out to two curbside, public benches. Each bench was occupied by one homeless man, but there was plenty of room for me with my newspaper and coffee. A homeless woman sat on a planter box, next to where I had parked my bike. In an agitated voice she kept repeating something I couldn't understand. I thought she included the word, "hungry," but that could have been "profiling" on my part. She would not make eye contact even when she took the dollar I handed her. On the public benches where I sat, one man muttered to himself. A third raggedy, elderly man approached with what I've heard called, the "thorazine-shuffle." He too was saying something incoherent as he laboriously removed a cigarrette from a package. I felt like a visitor on their ward, an incongruous part of their scene. If I'd sat at one of the Starbucks tables inside, they'd have all been like wallpaper to me, making about the same neutral impact as a statistic in the newspaper correlating homelessness and mental illness.

The father of one of my best friends enjoyed exploring new cities after his wife died. He was in his 70's at the time. He flew out to San Francisco for a few days from his home in St. Louis where he was a rabbi. He went for a walk downtown and was amazed to see all the homeless people. He purposely seated himself next to some homeless guys to eavesdrop on their conversation that turned out to be about purchasing wine. I can't imagine that there is more than one homeless person in San Francisco at any given time that sits on a curb reading a Yiddish newspaper, but the Rabbi, guided by his open heart, came across him. They spoke to each other in Yiddish and found out that they had each managed to escape the Nazis in Poland and make it to America. One became a tailor, the other a Rabbi. One became homeless; the other a traveler. The homeless man also suffered mental illness. When the Rabbi asked if he could get him a sandwich from McDonald's the homeless tailor yelled that he doesn't eat "traife," meaning unkosher food. When the Rabbi said he could make sandwiches with the kosher cold cuts he had in his hotel room and return in 15 minutes the homeless man said he couldn't trust the sandwich would be kosher enough. Though they didn't share a sandwich, I believe they each shared some moments that neither soon forgot.