First en­counter with home­less­ness left me strug­gling

Un­en­cum­bered by ex­cuses, chil­dren some­times ask the best ques­tions of all

The Hamilton Spectator - - LIVING - JO­CE­LYN WIENER

The white feath­ers floated ev­ery­where.

It took me a mo­ment to dis­cern their source. A woman, 30-some­thing, slim and tired-look­ing, was try­ing to stuff a ratty down sleep­ing bag into a small plas­tic sack.

My 4-year-old daugh­ter, Dora Lee, was un­der­stand­ably in­trigued — how of­ten does she find a grownup sit­ting on a dirty side­walk sur­rounded by a cloud of feath­ers?

She marched over, fixed her blue eyes on the woman and struck up a con­ver­sa­tion. Why, she wanted to know, why so many feath­ers?

It was a blus­tery sum­mer af­ter­noon in San Francisco, and my hus­band and I had trekked across the Bay Bridge with our two lit­tle ones to meet some friends at the Ferry Build­ing. We had walked out­side to look at the fer­ries cruis­ing across the choppy dark-blue wa­ter in an ef­fort to dis­tract Dora Lee from a brew­ing tantrum: “I. Want. ICE CREAM!”

The boat trick didn’t work on Dora Lee, but the feath­ers did. I watched her from a short dis­tance away, want­ing to af­ford her a de­gree of in­de­pen­dence (and also dis­tracted by my tod­dler son, who was cheer­fully dodg­ing through the crowd, chas­ing pi­geons).

From where I stood, I stud­ied the woman, seek­ing clues to her story in the avail­able de­tails: clean clothes, rea­son­ably nice shoes, the side­walk, the sleep­ing bag. Dora Lee wore a rain­bow-striped fleece sweat­shirt with clash­ing flow­er­printed pants. Each was giv­ing the other her full at­ten­tion.

I had no idea what they were dis­cussing, but Dora Lee ap­peared in­tently in­ter­ested. I idly won­dered whether I was prac­tis­ing good par­ent­ing (giv­ing enough space) or bad par­ent­ing (giv­ing too much space).

Dora Lee has not yet learned to fear strangers. There are other con­cepts she has also not yet grasped: race, class, nu­tri­tion, the con­tro­ver­sial na­ture of pub­lic nu­dity. But the stranger thing is par­tic­u­larly in­trigu­ing to me. I am proud of her open-hearted and egal­i­tar­ian at­ti­tude to­ward all types of peo­ple, though I some­times won­der if I should cur­tail it for her safety.

On our morn­ing walk to her preschool, she of­ten strikes up con­ver­sa­tions with passersby. Th­ese con­ver­sa­tions gen­er­ally start midthought, sans pre­am­ble: “We’re go­ing to see Iris and Olivia at the food trucks af­ter school to­day,” she’ll tell some sur­prised pedes­trian who has stopped for a mo­ment to col­lect his or her dog’s poop. That per­son will ap­pear star­tled, fur­row­ing a brow in con­fu­sion, then smil­ing at Dora Lee and nod­ding at me. We grown-ups know so­cial mores can be im­ped­i­ments to hu­man con­nec­tion. And it can be aw­fully hard to un­learn them.

Af­ter she’d spo­ken with the woman with the feath­ers for sev­eral min­utes, Dora Lee walked over to stand next to me. We watched the fer­ries and the sail­boats while her younger brother con­tin­ued tor­ment­ing the pi­geons. We even­tu­ally con­vinced her to use the bath­room. Then we headed home.

We pulled our Prius into the drive­way. My hus­band and son climbed up the front stairs to get ready for bath time. Dora Lee and I paused for a mo­ment out front. I looked at my daugh­ter and asked her, fi­nally, what she had been talk­ing about with the woman.

“She said she doesn’t have a house, so she lives ev­ery­where,” she told me.

I nod­ded, taken aback by the sim­plic­ity of this de­scrip­tion. I hadn’t been sure of the woman’s home­less­ness un­til then.

Dora Lee gazed down our street lined with over­priced Crafts­man homes — although money and real es­tate are two more con­cepts she doesn’t yet un­der­stand. Then she looked up at me.

“Why can’t we share houses?” she asked.

I searched my brain for a good re­sponse, a rea­son­able and hon­est ex­pla­na­tion for home­less­ness that might be com­pre­hen­si­ble to some­one who had her first hair­cut only three weeks ear­lier. I found noth­ing. So I sim­ply agreed.

“We should share houses,” I said. “You’re right.”

“Well, where is she?” Dora Lee asked, look­ing up and down the street for the woman with the feath­ers. “Can she come stay with us?”

I told my daugh­ter I didn’t know where the woman was, that she was prob­a­bly near where we’d left her. The con­ve­nience of this fact — that there was no real de­ci­sion about whether to un­fold the sofa bed for a stranger that night — flooded me with re­lief and heart­sick­ness.

I re­mem­ber strug­gling with th­ese types of ques­tions as a child. The first time I saw peo­ple curled up on the side­walks was on a rare trip into the city with my par­ents when I was in third grade. Snug­gled into my bed later that night, I re­placed my pil­low with a hard­cover book and slept that way for months. In fifth grade, I sum­moned the courage to offer a valen­tine with a $5 bill in it to an old man I’d seen pick­ing through the trash in the park near my house. He’d looked sur­prised. My ju­nior year in high school, a year-long project for my English class fo­cused on solv­ing home­less­ness. I couldn’t un­der­stand why no one had yet done so.

Even as a young jour­nal­ist writ­ing about poverty for the Sacra­mento Bee, I’d sink into a par­a­lyz­ing de­spair when I saw a stranger hunched over in a door­way on a rainy night. What­ever my nowhus­band and I were talk­ing about at the time would fade away and I’d stare numbly into the dark­ness.

But by the time I be­came Dora Lee’s mother, it no longer sur­prised me that a woman could spend her nights in a ratty sleep­ing bag on a cold, dirty side­walk. The sight had be­come so fa­mil­iar over the years, I’d un­con­sciously learned to steel my­self against grief and out­rage. Per­haps the lack of an­swers made me stop ask­ing the ques­tions.

As I snug­gled next to Dora Lee at bed­time that night, I asked if she wanted to talk about the woman.

“Can she stay with us?” Dora Lee asked again, whis­per­ing so as not to wake her baby brother. “I don’t think so,” I said. Per­haps we can vol­un­teer some­where, I added. We could help peo­ple that way.

Dora Lee agreed. I could see she wasn’t sat­is­fied. Nei­ther was I.

“Can we stop talk­ing about it?” she asked.

So, just like ev­ery night, I sang “Puff, the Magic Dragon” and “Pi­ano Man” and “Twin­kle, Twin­kle Lit­tle Star.” And, just like ev­ery night, my lit­tle girl rolled onto her side and fell asleep.

As I lay there in the dark, lis­ten­ing to my two chil­dren breathe, I won­dered where the woman with the feath­ers was sleep­ing that night. Un­en­cum­bered by grown-up ex­cuses, chil­dren some­times ask the best ques­tions of all.

LEVI086, GETTY IM­AGES/IS­TOCK­PHOTO

The con­ve­nience of this fact — that there was no real de­ci­sion about whether to un­fold the sofa bed for a stranger that night — flooded me with re­lief and heart­sick­ness.

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