Yesterday I was walking during lunch, which I do when I'm running too late in the morning to walk then. I can't walk without a destination; it makes me restless. So I walked to Walgreens, down at 23rd and Irving, and bought lipstick. My lipstick collection is starting to reach my jewelry collection proportions and I know I should stop. And yet...
So I was walking back from Walgreens; I'd just stopped to get a new Fastpass for the bus for May, and I was walking across 9th Avenue when I saw a big arrangement of flowers on the sidewalk outside Jamba Juice. As I came up to it, I realized it was a sort of a shrine and there were several other people looking and reading something on the wall.
I used to walk to the bus every night down Irving Street to 9th Avenue and wait for the bus in the stop there. I would pass Jamba Juice and every night there was a homeless man sitting on the sidewalk outside, between JJ and Luba, a clothing store. He was very gray with a long beard. He never said anything, asked for money or anything, just sat there with a little cup for change and was often reading a book.
I hadn't seen him in awhile, as I don't walk that way for the bus anymore, until the other night when I had dinner with my parents. We walked by him on our way back to their car. He yelled at my mom, which I thought was strange, and I noted that he was there. I thought to myself that I had always meant to go into Jamba Juice and buy him some soup or some juice but never had.
So I was looking at this shrine, with a gorgeous arrangement of flowers and a big sign that said "We'll Miss You, Dennis" pasted on the wall behind. There were candles burning and a piece of paper with a poem on it. I looked closely and saw a photo on the sign--sure enough, it was a picture of the homeless man and some young people whom I suspected were either Luba-ites or Jamba-people.
I wasn't moved by the man's death, I have to admit, as I didn't know him at all. I just felt a bit sad that he had died, as I would for anyone who died. But I was moved by the display, the shrine, that these people had created for him. It's so easy to see homeless people as merely nuisances, if you notice them at all. When I worked at coffee shops, the homeless people were problems: they would come in and ask for free coffee, they would bother the customers for change, they would camp out on the front porch for hours at a time, scaring away anyone else who wanted to sit there. It was hard sometimes to just see them as people, hard on their luck.
It's hard to see any homeless people that way these days, too hard not to be cynical. Now that I've met the guy who comes up to me with an elaborate story about his car breaking down and he just needs $2 for bus fare, when the bus only costs $1. Now that I've heard the reports that people begging on the medians on Van Ness make more money a day than I do. Now that I've been yelled at more times than I like to remember for not giving them money, for simply shaking my head as I pass instead of politely saying no, for not smiling when they claim all they want is a smile. Now that I've been hit up for money on Haight Street from kids who could easily be working or going to school but instead have a pot glaze over their eyes. It's hard not to see the homeless as anything but a nuisance.
So it was nice to see the shrine yesterday. Many homeless people just disappear and no one ever knows what happened to them or misses them. So even though seeing the shrine meant the man had died, it also meant to me that there were people in these stores who had taken the time to talk to him, know his name, even to take a picture with him. He had meant something to these people other than just being a nuisance. He had touched them in some way, and they had created this loving tribute to him.