Madison–where I stayed the weekend for a writer’s conference–was a study in contrasts.
Saturday, with the sun shining and weekend events in full swing, colorful figures dotted the green lawn in front of the capitol building. Girls in hijab laughed and snapped photos with girls in miniskirts and tank tops. Hundreds of people of many faiths and skin colors streamed up the stairs into the capitol; hundreds of tiny figures snapped selfies beneath its massive dome.
I moved from gallery to gallery, at each successively higher balcony staring down fascinated into the brilliant reef of flashing bodies–movement and sound and color against a backdrop of silent sculpted walls and stately marble stairs.
But by Saturday night, after a day of attending workshops and seeing unfamiliar faces, my enthusiasm had waned. I sat lonely on a bench on a sidewalk, people streaming past in such numbers I grew dizzy, as though I had been watching a train for too long.
My heart hurt because they were together and laughing and talking, and I had come to Madison alone.
I got up after a while and wandered back towards my car and my hotel. At a cement resting place, a sort of city square between two streets, I stopped and watched four or five men bedding down for the night, laying out cardboard and sleeping begs, and I wondered what they were doing and why.
Were they homeless? Right out in the middle of this stream of activity? I had thought homeless people slept under bridges and pushed around shopping carts…maybe these guys were from somewhere else and only camping out for one night.
Yup. I really am that ignorant about city life.
A kind-faced black man sat awake on his sleeping bag–for some reason, black men don’t look as scary to me as white men–so I collected my nerve and went over and asked him where he was from.
“Right here,” he said. I found out his name was Harold and that he did indeed sleep on the street. Another man came up with an armful of flattened cardboard boxes. “This is Joe,” Harold said, and Joe offered me an elbow to shake.
They were friendly, their faces softening when they talked to me–as though they were actually grateful I came to say hello, as though I had humanized them in some profound way just by wanting to have a conversation.
I suppose homeless men are used to being ignored, or feared, or preached to. In a sense they are like me sitting on that bench, watching the world stream past. It would have meant a lot if someone had turned to say hello.
“God bless you,” Joe told me when I said good-bye. He reached for a hug, and I stiffened and startled, since I was in a dark street and these were men I did not know–but it was only a hug. Nothing scary or weird about it.
I went out to my car, one among many in a soulless parking garage on State Street, and cried. I wished they had a home to go to, a wife and children to meet them at the door.
Everyone should have that.
I decided to go back the next day and, if Harold and Joe were still around, to find out more. With their permission, I could ask them questions about life on the street, and blog about it.
To be continued…