The homeless… Hidden in plain sight, we often walk right by these unfortunate souls, avoiding their eyes as much as we avoid any thought about their misfortune or desperation. I’m not sure why. Is it fear? A concern that their condition might be contagious? Or that we’ll be asked to give more than we think we can afford? Do some of us even blame them for their own predicament? Whatever the answer, by ignoring these individuals we deny their humanity. And by denying their humanity, we also diminish our own.
There are, however, souls that shine too brightly to be ignored, whatever their misfortune. Such is the case of Jerry, a homeless artist who happened to be warming up in a local cafe where I was enjoying my afternoon coffee this past Thursday. Sketching away on his notepad, I couldn’t help noticing that his work, a beautiful pencil sketch, demonstrated remarkable detail. Looking up from a piece that was centered on an elegant bird, he smiled, nodding at my own sketch book. “Are you an artist, too?” he asked. The encounter that followed was nothing short of an extraordinary and humbling experience.
Reaching into a baby carriage that he uses to carry around his few possessions, Jerry carefully pulled out a tattered folder full of drawings that he had created over the years. “This, my art, is all I have left now,” he said. And, with each drawing shared, he offered a small piece of his own life’s history: his family, his lost carpentry job, his love of having lived in several places in the country, and even a beaten addiction. He talked freely and openly, as though it meant the world to simply be noticed, to note with his work and words that he has something to say. And, genuinely interested in more than his own situation, he also asked me questions about my own experience, my daughter, and where I fit in the world outside of the coffee shop. And when my lunch break was over, and I excused myself from the table, this man, who has nothing, rolled up a photocopy of one of his works, (a Native-American Shaman) and offered me a gift. Despite my protests that I could never accept it, he winked and remarked it was only a copy, before shrugging his shoulders and saying, “It was a pleasure talking to you. And, really, sometimes in life you give; it all has a way of coming back to you when you do, you know?”