“I was talking to Barney the other day,” I said to my students one Tuesday morning.
“Who’s Barney?” they asked.
“Barney the Homeless Guy who lives in my neighborhood.”
One of my students–an eternally nerve-ridden young man, an eager hand-raiser with noticeably pronated feet–opened his mouth a little.
“Um,” he said.
“You know the homeless guy’s name? Why?”
Why indeed. Why do I know Barney’s name? I wish I could say I had the manners to ask him his name since I see him at least twice a week, but no, I can’t take credit for any such appreciation for his dignity. My friend and former roommate, a woman with more moral fortitude than me when it comes to strangers, befriended Barney a few years ago when she worked at the local coffee shop.
Barney scares people. He usually works the corner where our neighborhood dead ends into the Interstate. Unlike other homeless people, he doesn’t sit with a cardboard sign or come at your windshield with a spray bottle and rag. Barney storms right up to your driver-side window, his drug-pocked and sun-scraped face inches from the glass, and then turns his hands up in the air and squints his eyes as if he’s saying, “Come on, man. What’s your f-cking problem?” When the driver doesn’t acknowledge his begging, he often throws down his arms and walks away shaking his head; he looks seriously pissed off. Plus, he’s got this shock of reddish hair that, unwashed, lifts up from his scalp like a Troll Doll. If you didn’t know him, you’d be terrified. I’ve seen people roll into the U-turn lane at the last second to avoid dealing with him.
But at his core, Barney is harmless. The last time I saw him, my husband rolled down the window to apologize that we didn’t have any change on us, and Barney smiled and said, “No problem. Have a nice day.” He really likes our dog. He really likes dogs, period. Dogs are more generous with their affection than humans, after all.
My student’s question–You know his name?–has festered inside me this week, my student’s horror that I might be intimately acquainted with a person of ill-repute, even if said person’s reputation comes from his housing status and not any really criminal behavior.
That student sits next to another student, a girl, who once argued in class that we should give homeless people Bible verses instead of money because, for one thing, they need Jesus more than money, and for another thing, they would use the money for untoward purposes anyway. She didn’t use the word untoward; she used the words “crack or something.”
Let me offer a quick qualifier: my students are 13 or 14 years old and I’m not sure they need to ask people who scare them for their names. I’m sure their parents have warned them about dangerous adults. And, they’re of the uber-privileged variety, my kiddos. They can’t and don’t want to imagine that good people might fall on bad times. They can’t imagine about the homeless man, for example, who told a social worker I know that his wife died and he “just crawled inside a bottle and never came out.”
Mostly, though, my students and many of their adult counterparts in neighborhoods all over this country have not suffered enough yet to know the cruelty of handing a hungry man a Bible verse instead of food or money, the sadistic condescension in thinking that they know what the homeless person will spend his money on or that they should have any opinion on the matter at all.
Kindness requires empathy, and empathy blooms out of the dark earth of suffering. I’m thinking in particular of a poem by Naomi Shihab Nye, “Kindness”:
Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.
You must see how this could be you. Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore.
Barney is scary, but he’s our scary. I mean, my neighborhood belongs to him as much as it belongs to me. In fact, he arrived before I did. I should know his name. I should take care of him. I should enact those Bible verses I carry inside me rather than handing them out as counterfeit grace.
I worry less about those afternoons when I recognize Barney under the highway’s long shadow than about the day I stop seeing him there. And I should.