“Yes. I need that prescription filled,” I said as one hand held the phone up to my ear and the other formed a cup to shield the pharmacist from the assaults of random passers-by, traffic noises, and the falling rain. In the cacophony of splatters, honks, screeches, and “YOU FUCKING BITCH! YOU’RE A NO GOOD FUCKING BITCH!” directed at the sandwich artist from the homeless man who just wanted something to eat, the pharmacist laughed a bit and told me he would fill the prescription and call me when it was ready. The shouting continued over our salutations and the rain fell harder. There I was, at the corner of Castro and Market, standing in the rain, and attempting to figure out how I landed in this charmed life while the man, whom I cannot blame for being angry, just wanted a sandwich.
So often I find myself resisting the urge to pretend the homeless and the disenfranchised are invisible. It’s so easy to walk by, not look, and allow the nameless to remain faceless. That makes it easier for each of us at the end of the night. Lately, however, I have been taking the time to look into the eyes of the economic class that society attempts to hide, and thereby ignores, as if it’s not indicative of a greater problem, systematically reducing those living in poverty to mere numbers. And I think to myself, life is so fragile and unpredictable that it could really be any one of us, screaming about injustice and hoping to get a sandwich.
The man I saw while I was on my expensive phone getting my expensive medicine reminded me of another man I met. I was in a different city, different time zone, and a different outfit. And it was sunny. I came across a man, sitting on the sidewalk of 6th Avenue in New York. I was walking, procrastinating yet another assignment for grad school and I was about to pass the man without looking, much less stopping. But there was a voice in my head, in my heart, that wouldn’t allow me callousness that day. I peered over at him. He was gaunt, had stringy hair, his clothing draped over his body like loose skin, and he had some stubble, which concealed his blotchy skin. His eyes were inside cavernous indentations and his cheekbones were so pronounced that it was hard to believe they were not prosthetic. I stopped while continuing to take in his visage— and then I read his sign. “HIV+ and homeless. Please help.”
His eyes were kind, green. They were hauntingly sad and helpless, hopeless even. The line of his mouth looked as if the ends were being pulled down by invisible strings and his lips were peeling, chapped by the wind and the sun. Although stringy and fine, his hair still had a rich, auburn color that contrasted with his white, albeit stained and muddied, sweater. The jeans he wore were not the trendy, hip denim that cost hundreds of dollars and were so big on him, the belt he wore cinched them tightly to his narrow waist and were 80s acid washed.
I was towering over him, sun in his eyes, so I crouched down next to him and said hi. I introduced myself and asked if I could sit. He obliged. After I sat down, he told me his name and we started to chat about our days, the weather, and the typical banal topics of chit chat. I steered the conversation away from the everyday and moved on to his health— he didn’t look well, so I asked him if he was on his medications. He wasn’t, not shocking based on his gaunt appearance as he said he couldn’t afford the treatment. Again, not surprising not only because of his situation, but because of the state of healthcare and pharmaceuticals. I asked if he had eaten lately, and he did— he had something recently he told me. And then I asked if he had a place to sleep at night. It seemed that this question hurt his pride the most. “No. I don’t.” I inquired if he had been to the shelters and he told me that they sucked. Again, not surprising— classic case of hearts in the right places and then not enough resources to keep up with the demand and need. He had tried, and the system became too difficult to navigate, so he gave up. And I have to say, based on what I know about the state of social services and health care, it’s a lot of hoop-jumping for little benefit— unless you know the right people and they can help you navigate that process.
But then, out of the blue, he perked up. He wanted to share something with me. A wide and boundless smile broke the mold on his once downturned mouth. “I was in a movie, you know,” he told me. He continued,
“I’m not an actor or anything, and I am certainly not famous, but I went to the premiere and everything. It was really amazing— have you seen The Normal Heart? It’s ok if you haven’t, but Julia Roberts was in it, and Mark Ruffalo. I didn’t have a big part, I was just in one scene with Mark Ruffalo. I didn’t even say anything, but you can see me in the movie. I saw myself on the big screen. It’s kind of amazing— to go from a red carpet premiere, back to here. I mean, I was just an extra, but I was in a movie, and I got to be on a red carpet, and now I am just here, sitting on the street. You know?”
“They were really nice to us. They fed us well and were super sweet. I wanted to do it— I knew it wouldn’t change anything, not for me, at least. But I wanted to have that experience. And it was really fun. Meeting people. Spending days doing one thing over and over. It might not have been days, but you know what I mean. Right?”
Again, I nodded.
“That would be amazing. For that to be my job. I would love that. I would really, really love that. Instead I am invisible— not literally— but you know. People walk by and don’t see me. They don’t see anyone… You need to see that movie. The Normal Heart. Watch it. You’ll see me.”
I told him I would watch it and that I was sorry I hadn’t seen his work yet. We shared a laugh and I told him I had to go— I didn’t need to be anywere, but it seemed like the thing I was supposed to say. I wasn’t sure why I listened to that impulse, or why it just felt like time, but I left after putting my hand on his back and then shaking his hand.
His name was Joe. He was a real New Yorker— not lost in his phone; not pretending to be someone he isn’t; not expecting anything from anyone. I think about Joe a lot, some days more than others. Joe was perhaps one of the most genuine people I have ever met and he wanted to share something about his life with me, rather than hide behind facades of pretense. I don’t know why I stopped to talk to Joe that day— maybe I was afraid of becoming that person who doesn’t see the homeless. Joe is living history of a time and space that is no longer… a space that some would rather see erased and forgotten.
Reformation and progress are mere buzzwords for the elite to erase history.
We must remember.