29 January 2010

Trust and Obey

Mr. Nkrah is famous for singing: loudly and not always soberly, in a beautiful East-African accent, in a suit he has worn every day for a month. He claps, he stomps, and hymns fill the air. I think he is told to "shut up" more than anyone else who visits us on a regular basis, but I don't see how anyone could be annoyed by that kind of joy.

I had not seen Mr. Nkrah for a while, since before Christmas, and when he came in my office today, his joy was gone. As he was walking in, I realized how different he looked when he was not smiling, when his shoulders were slumped, when his eyes were turned downard instead of upward. He was a different man.

He slammed four quarters three nickles, and nine pennies on to my desk, and then, as if apologizing, slowly and silentely arranged them in small towers.
Then he said:

"I need mo-ah."

"That's not what you need, Mr. Nkrah."

I started tapping my hand on the desk, in a slow steady rhythm... ... ... ... ... ... ... ...

and then started humming... ... ... ... ... ...

and I watched a miraculously beautiful change in Mr. Nkrah's whole body. First he started nodding, then his whole body started rocking, then his glowing teeth emerged and his eyes came alive, and he slowly started singing:

... "when we walk wit da Lord
in da light off His word
what a glo-ry He shed on a-wa way!
when we do His goodt will,
He abide wit us still,
and wit all who will trust and obey!"

He got louder and louder, and by the last line, he was banging my desk...

"Trust and o-bey! Dere is no otha way! I am hap-py in Jesus! Trust and o-bey!"

He stood up, scooped up his change and said,

"Anna, ok."

27 January 2010

Your Birthday

It's your birthday.


1. Secure a safety pin to the front of your shirt.

2. Draw attention to yourself.

It doesn't matter who likes you, or how popular you are, or how nice the shirt is that pin is stuck to, because it's your birthday, and that means by mid-afternoon, you will have money pinned to your shirt, and by mid-evening, you'll have yourself a candy bar, or a drink, or whatever you want. Everybody who has a dollar adds it to the pin, because everyone understands birthdays. Everyone knows that it's a big deal that you're still here, and despite how bad every day has been leading up to this point, this day is going to be better. One day out of the year, it's going to be better. This day is yours.

(Last week, Gary had seven dollars on his shirt. "I've gotten so much, people are using my shirt to make change. Sure, I got change for a five. It's my birthday." I watched Gary. He didn't go to the gas station or the liquor store, but he ran his fingers over those dollar bills, counting them and re-counting them, as if they were proof that he mattered, that someone paid attention. Gifts. I think Gary decided that you couldn't put a price on a reminder like that. They'll stay in his empty cigarette box, at least for a while.)

18 January 2010

Mark's Living

The current discussion in the waiting room revolves around the cardboard sign Mark has tucked in his shirt. You've seen it:

"Homeless and Hungry"

I called him a con-artist. (Nods and laughter).
My co-worker said she was going to beat him up with her bare hands. (More nods, more laughter).
Because we all know Mark, and we all know the validity of his first descriptor, and the complete absurdity of the second one.

Okay, Mark. Defend yourself.

(his intermittent exclaimations are edited into the following paragraph): "I don't know how they still fall for it, but it makes more money than any other sign I've held. I don't even think they think I'm hungry. If they do they must be from out of town. But it's how I make my money, it's how I make my living."

But it's a dishonest living, Mark.

"Because of this, I'm still living."

We beg to differ. How much of the money you're given goes to life-promoting things? Things that bring you closer to life instead of bringing you closer to death?


"I don't make them give me money. I just ask. I'm not tying no one's hands up. It's still a choice."

People often ask me if they should give money to people who ask them for it on the street. It's always up to them, but I think it helps if you try to figure out why you're doing it. If you are giving money based upon an arguement presented to you, always admit the possibility that the reasons presented are false.
If you're giving it to make them go away, to ease your guilt, make them happy, then it will probably work, depending on how much you give.
If you are giving it to love someone, and to love them by giving them what they really need, then most of the time, giving them money's not going to do the trick. The problem is, though I believe that you will love most people best by not giving them money, you will not show them love in a way that they will understand and receive it. This is an issue I can't claim to have solved, but the following advice is something I believe in:
Stop walking, look people in the eye, ask their name and give them yours. Whether you give anything else is completely up to you.

Mutually recognize each other's humanity. Everything we do should probably start from there.
I volunteered a few other descriptors for Mark's sign. My favorite was:

"Homeless and Human"

He thought it was okay, but that it probably wouldn't bring in as much cash.


I take pride in giving good directions, especially when I am giving them face-to-face. First, I write them out, including both right, left direction and North, South, East, West direction. Writing them is usually enough for most people, but I don't stop there; I draw them as well. I draw every street, every cross street, surrounding streets, labeling names and directions. I draw stoplights, major landmarks, and usually a pretty good compass rose. If I have the paper space, I do my very best to draw it to scale. If someone asks me for directions, I want them to get there. I believe my integrity depends on it.

I gave someone directions to a local factory today.
He was so impressed, that when I was finished, he exclaimed,
"My word, lady, you should work at a gas station!"

Best compliment I've gotten all week.

13 January 2010

People All Around


"I'm just having a bad day."


Just needs a break from people, but there's people all around. Everywhere someone can be, there's other people being. I need my own place to be.

I can't hide in my radio all the time.


07 January 2010

All Together Now / Things Fall Apart

I have witnessed two marriages in this neighborhood in the past year.

For one wedding, I was the photographer, but there was hardly any room for me to get around to get a good angle--the place was packed. It was a different kind of wedding; the matron of honor was texting during the ceremony, and the best man was taking pictures of himself by holding a disposable 35mm out in front of himself with his left arm. After a near-deafening chorus of Amazing Grace, they exchanged LiveStrong bracelets, and went on their honeymoon in their friend's apartment down the street.

We saw Sabrina and Cash almost every day after that, or at least one of them.
We heard:
"That b**** don't understand what it mean to belong to a man."
(Met with many an expletive from my wonderfully blunt feminist co-worker)
"He's making me sell myself again... and give him the money."
(But Sabrina, he always did.)

And then they moved to Saginaw, and we didn't hear from them as often.
This week, Cash came back for the holidays, with a picture. Their daughter. They are still together.


The first time I met Julia, she asked me if I had a space heater that she could bring to her storage unit where she kept nothing but boxes of books so that she could read them all night and not be cold.
The first time I met George Anthony, he was wearing a long black trenchcoat and carrying a briefcase and 'representing' a client in my office.
They had their pre-marital counseling in our waiting room--their marriage was in a courthouse.

I saw them a month later, together, hauling a executive desk up Fulton hill to their apartment.
I saw them both two months after that, apart.

George Anthony says she was more loyal to her psychotropic medication than she was to him.
Julia says he was committed to the bottle (and that he started studying Hitler).

Today, she told me they are getting a divorce.
He's Nazi-ing it.
She's not seeing it.


"I have heard that the easiest way to get out of here is to get married to someone and share their stuff and make sure no one gets played or killed or stole from, and you have your attitude higher because there's someone else that helps get it higher, and they say nice things to you that make you want to get up and do something good, but I want to know, married to who? Who the f*** are the people in this story married to?"