Friday, June 26, 2015

Pastor Gay's Men

It surprises me in a way that I've written so much over the years about the homeless population, and in particular the "street homeless" population, that comes into contact with our school. Seattle has a particularly large number of people in this situation, but it's a subject for every urban preschool.

Many of these men, and they're mostly men, appear to suffer from some sort of mental illness, often exacerbated by alcohol mostly, but probably other drugs. Because of this, I'm wary of the guys who I've not seen before, although I'm familiar with the regulars who come to visit the Fremont Baptist Church's Pastor Gay. They come for prayers, advice, work, money, and food. She takes care of them to the best of her ability. She calls them "my men."

Years ago, in our former location up on Phinney Ridge a man slipped into our school as we sang our closing circle songs and stole several purses. We became more security conscious after that, and our best security measure is a commitment to being friendly and solicitous to all strangers, asking how we can help them, asking friendly questions. We're a cooperative and there are a lot of us around, that's our greatest strength, so there are plenty of adults available to greet newcomers. When I invite people to visit the school -- my parents, prospective new families, teachers paying us a visit -- I warn them to expect us to be overly solicitous when they cross our threshold.

This attitude of safety through friendliness has greatly informed how I interact with Pastor Gay's men. It started because I made eye contact wanting them to know they had been seen, saying "Hi" and asking how I can help them. It started as a security measure, but over time it has changed who I am with these guys and through that it's changed who they are to me.

Pastor Gay's men are the types of people away from whom I'd habitually averted my eyes when I came across them on the street, but now I know many of them by name. We exchange pleasantries. Sometimes I listen to their stories or thoughts or ideas. Sometimes I even share some of mine. There are some who have crawled so far inside their protective shells that it doesn't seem possible to break through, but I find they acknowledge me in their own way. Willie, a man who I believe is alone on the street and severely autistic, won't lift his head as he passes me, but I hear him muttering, "That's the school teacher. That's the school teacher," over and over as he passes me.

It seems to me that Pastor Gay's men are on their best behavior when they come to visit her. And that makes sense: they're coming to a church to ask for help of some kind. I've come across some of them in other places, drunk or in the midst of some sort of episode, and their wild eyes tell me they don't recognize me out of context. Pastor Gay has a rule that they aren't allowed to panhandle from preschool families and it's a rare occurrence, but one of them once solicited me as I waited for my bus. When I spoke to him by name he locked eyes with me for a moment. His expression went from blank to recognition. He took my money, but then apologized the next time we crossed paths at the school.

Sometimes I talk to Pastor Gay about her men. They aren't all mentally ill and they aren't all addicts, but they all live very hard lives. There was a time when I would see apparently healthy men begging for coins and begrudge them. I would think they should pull themselves together, get jobs, learn to take care of themselves, but that doesn't cross my mind any more. These aren't lazy people: indeed living on the street must be one of the most difficult, grinding, humiliating jobs there is. No sane person would choose to live this way. They live this way because this is apparently the best we can do for them and they for themselves.

We've had gorgeous weather in here in Seattle for the past month or so. A couple days ago, I found myself in the Ballard neighborhood with the rest of the afternoon to kill so I decided to walk home, a trek that took me along the Lake Washington Ship Canal, a feat of industry and vision, completed some 80 years ago, connecting the fresh water lakes with the salt water Puget Sound. The Fremont Cut defines the southwestern edge of our school's neighborhood of Fremont, which is connected to the Queen Anne side by our blue and orange bridge with a neon Rapunzel forever yearning in her tower.

As I arrived in Fremont, walking in the shade of the tall trees that grow from the greenway that separates the paved Burke-Gliman Trail from the water, the canal sparkling between the trunks, I noticed one of Pastor Gay's men curled into a fetal position on the grass. Not right out in the open, but tucked way where the grass grows taller, partially hidden from view. The phrase "out of sight, out of mind" came to me. I slowed down to look at him, leaving the paved trail to get closer. He's a tormented soul even under the best of circumstances, but today, lying here in his bed of leaves, by the water, on this most benign of days, he looked peaceful.

There's another informal trail right there along the trees, separated from the paved trail, worn there by the passage of human feet, and I started walking it. From here, you can see down to the water's edge. There are no walls or fences to prevent people from falling into the canal, one of the reasons I'm always so nervous when we bring the kids down there. And as one might expect, every few yards my trail branched downward toward the water. From here I could see other men sleeping, curled into themselves, their life's possessions heaped up around them: backpacks and plastic bags stuffed to the breaking point. Some of them had even rolled out their sleeping bags, but it was warm enough that they slept atop them. A few tents were pitched.

I spotted other groups of men gathered socially, talking, complaining, laughing, tossing pebbles in the water. There were a few women mixed in, tough and leathery like the men. If it's hard to live on the street as a man, just imagine how hard it is for a woman with all the extra pain and humiliation they must endure. But this moment, this moment in the sun by the water, out of the sight of the rest of us, was a good one, maybe as good as it gets.

I understand that there are challenges of public drunkenness and hygiene, and I've no doubt that there are people in Fremont scheming to move these men along, but today, for these golden moments they were being left alone, to simply loll in the sun. Sadly, there are those who are scheming to take this away from them too.

The children and I periodically talk about Pastor Gay's men. When you live in an American city, you live with these men whether you like it or not. I don't need to educate the kids, honestly, because their parents have already been forced into those conversations. What we tend to talk about are solutions. I don't steer them there: it's where they go on their own. The children always say we should give them money, give them food, and give them homes.

And I agree. In the meantime I'm proud of the work being done by Pastor Gay and the small part we get to play in it.

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Jeff said...

This has inspired me to be overly friendly to all strangers. What a brilliant way to approach the issue. Great post, made me cry.

Leland Bryant Ross said...

Thanks! I shared the link with the Evergreen Baptist Association's FB page as well as on my own timeline.

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