Saturday, December 02, 2006

Broken and Beautiful

A few weeks ago, family friends came down from NY (the mom was running in the Philadelphia Marathon) and we met them for dinner in the city. A stream of events happened from there that I can only show as fragmented stills, like works in a gallery; some beautiful, others disturbing, as we brushed past them on the way to somewhere else.

The first frame is of a smiling soul, a homeless man who sat outside the Hard Rock Cafe where we met the family for dinner. He asked for money as we passed by, and he started singing "There they go, just a-walkin' down the street! They look good, they look fine, as they walk, down the line!"

Rebecca asked if he'd like something to eat. "A double cheeseburger and an orange soda!" he beamed. We hit the McDonald's on Market and 11th.

Next frame was a cabdriver; his accent thick and lyrical, even though he's been here 27 years! He left Trinidad when he was 7, and now has 4 kids and works a crazy midnight shift. We know all this because Rebecca asked about his family as we drove towards the movie theater. As we paid him and crawled out of the cab at the corner, Rebecca gave him a "God bless" (her standard farewell). He called out the window to us "'Ave a guud life." I think Rebecca's kindness must have been refreshing to him (it always is to me!). How often do we talk to cabdrivers, cashiers and clerks? How many times do we allow the time for a personal, human encounter? As we were walking and he driving away, he pulled over and called to us with a final blast of beautiful advice. "Tr-rust," he said in that rich accent. "Eet's all about tr-rust. If you 'ave it, you 'ave every'ting."

Whoa. These powerful human moments can happen every day. We felt so moved by the simple beauty of this soul; like a prophet he spoke to us a word we needed to hear.

The final frame... We had left the theater (saw Babel; it was raw, moving, mostly sad) and as we made our way up a chilly 2nd Street in the "city of brotherly love," a young, well dressed and deeply intoxicated man crossed the street in front of us. He ran up a few yards ahead of us and mindlessly slapped the cold and calloused hand of a homeless man. Laughing as if he scored a point he shouted "Hey! Homeless guy!" and skipped past him toward us. The dichotomy of these two faces, one broken by life and one breaking it, shocked us. It enraged Rebecca.

"Can you show some respect?" I said to him. Rebecca said "He's a human being!" And there followed a drunken rant from the man, peppered with expletives. There was no sense of reason here. He continued to shout and curse and stagger around, soon joined by two more friends. I took Rebecca's hand and we walked away. We caught up to the man. He was very old, bundled up, and carrying a small bag over his shoulder. His name was George. I said we were sorry about the way the drunk guy treated him, and we asked if he was hungry. "I know a place around the corner, should be open," he whispered.

So we sat with George as he ate half an Italian hoagie at 10:45pm, and stuffed the rest into his bag. He showed us his prize watch (a $5 casio) which was the reason he doesn't stay at the shelters. "They take your stuff. I don' wann'em to take ma' stuff." He spoke of a sister somewhere in NJ, and of the street people he avoids and the kind of which he hopes to find. "Good people, who'll just let you be." He said his boots were steel-tipped; good for working but not for walking. We spoke of the weather, and for George this wasn't small talk. I offered him my fleece vest and he quickly refused. "I got too many clothes on already!" The curious cashier at the deli said they had to close up shop, so we brushed the crumbs off the table and walked down to the corner with this man who had seen more years than both of us combined. A man of quiet strength and a wisdom, I believe, born of suffering. He wished us well, and thanked us. There was a real beauty in George's wrinkled smile and tired eyes.

Of the homeless and the forgotten, the nameless faces we pass on the street, of the hungry poor and the hungry rich, in the malls and on the roads, let us be mindful. Let us be as attentive as to our own souls. For we are one, all of us, broken and beautiful. We are one...
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