I'm in Berkeley now, taking a one-week summer course on Spirituality, Creativity and Transformation at the Pacific School of Religion. I'm sure I'll post more on that over the course of the week.
I take a course here just about every summer. Two years ago, I'd sprained my ankle just before I came, and was hobbling around in an aircast. On my way back from lunch one day, I gave fifty cents to a homeless guy, who thanked me very graciously. A few hours later, I was crossing the street, limping, when I heard someone call out, "Be careful!" I looked up, and it was the homeless guy, watching me anxiouxly.
The next day, I was wearing a Tiptree Award t-shirt from WisCon, the feminist SF convention I attend every year in Madison, Wisconsin. (For those of you not in the field, celebrated SF writer James Tiptree, Jr., was actually a woman named Alice Sheldon.) So I was walking down the street in my Tiptree t-shirt, and someone behind me called out, "She killed herself!"
I whirled around, startled. It was the homeless guy. "She committed suicide," he said matter-of-factly. "That lady on your shirt."
"Yes," I said, astonished, "that's exactly what she did." Sheldon had killed her husband and then herself. The received wisdom at the time was that her husband had been very ill and the murder-suicide was a mutual pact to end his suffering, although I gather that the new biography of Tiptree challenges this reading.
It turned out that the homeless guy, whom I'll call A., was a huge SF reader. He told me how he'd written a book report about Heinlein's STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND in sixth grade, and how the other kids had made fun of him because the book was about Martians. We talked about the authors we liked, and learned that Peter Beagle was a mutual favorite. A. told me that he hadn't been able to read any current work for ten years or so, because he depended on the free box at the library for his books.
So, in my rickety-contrivances-of-doing-good way, I decided to buy A. some new books. My ankle was a bit better by then, so I walked down to THE OTHER CHANGE OF HOBBIT on Shattuck Avenue and bought two paperbacks: Connie Willis' FIRE WATCH and Barry Hughart's BRIDGE OF BIRDS. The next day, feeling more than a little self-satisfied, I found him in his usual spot and gave him the books (along with some money).
"That's so nice of you!" he said, beaming. "Come by tomorrow, and I'll give you some books!"
I'd given him two paperbacks. The next day, he gave me three hardcovers. One was a signed first edition of Beagle's TAMSIN, which he'd picked up from the free box at the library. "A," I said, "I can't take this. This is worth money. You could sell it."
"No, no," he said. "It's such a good book, and the way I'm living now, it would just get trashed. You take it."
So I took it, feeling very humbled. I thought about A. a lot over the next year, wondering if I'd see him again. The following summer, I went looking for him my first day in Berkeley. He was on his usual street, but he had bandages over one eye, and he was distraught. He'd been attacked on the street -- "Somebody mugged me for my wallet, and it didn't even have anything in it!" -- and both eyes had been injured. He'd been treated at the county hospital, but it had been months since he could see well enough to read, and he was worried about his vision. He was feeling very low indeed. He had read the Connie Willis collection, though, and enjoyed it, and we talked about her story "Samaritan," which both of us had found particularly moving.
A few days later, I had lunch with Jacob Weisman from Tachyon to discuss the possibility of their publishing my story collection. Jacob had brought a copy of STARLIGHT 1 for me to sign, since it contains my story "G.I. Jesus." Since Jacob publishes Peter Beagle, I told him about A. (Tachyon also publishes an annual Tiptree anthology, although I wasn't aware of that then.)
Leaving the restaurant, we had to pass A.'s usual spot to get back to Jacob's car, and sure enough, A. was there. I introduced them. "This is my friend Jacob," I told A. "He publishes Peter Beagle."
A. peered at Jacob with his good eye. "Hi, nice to meet you. What's that book you have there?"
"It's a book with a story by Susan in it," Jacob said, and handed him STARLIGHT 1.
A. opened the book right to my story. "You write stories? I didn't know that! I'd like to read this sometime, when I can see again."
Jacob explained that he had to get back to the city, and we left. "You didn't tell him you write? Well, I guess the conversation wasn't about you." Which is true; it wasn't. But when I thought about it, I realized that I'd wanted to emphasize what A. and I shared -- our love of the same authors and stories -- and not how we were different, which was already entirely too obvious.
Over the course of that week, I gave A. more money and bought him one of his favorite take-out meals ("Won't you share this with me?" he asked). But I knew I couldn't solve whatever problems had led him to years of life on the streets -- especially since someone from social services must have seen him at the county hospital -- and I knew I couldn't fix his eyes, and I felt sad and helpless and angry.
The day I left, it was raining. I wanted to say good-bye to A. and give him a final donation, but I couldn't find him. So I wrote a note, folded it around a $20, put both inside a plastic bag, and weighted them down with a rock on top of a milk crate in an alley where A. often sat. The rock was a smooth and black, with white veins; I'd found it on Ocean Beach. I knew that probably someone else would take the money, and that A. would probably never even get the note. I wondered if I'd ever see him again. I wondered if he'd still be alive in another year.
Well, it's a year later, and I'm back in Berkeley. And today I saw A. on his usual corner, sitting on one of his milk crates. "A.!" I said. "It's Susan! Remember me?"
His face lit up. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the rock I used to weight down the note a year ago. "Look what I have! I kept it. I got your note, but somebody took the money. I was thinking about you the other day, because I hadn't seen you. I thought maybe you weren't coming this summer." I asked him how his eyes were -- they looked clear, without bandages -- and he grinned. "They're fine. I can see you! I can see things. Remember last year when I wanted to die? I don't feel that way anymore. I got over that." He gestured down at the rock and said, "It looks like a petrified turkey heart, doesn't it? Are you still writing science fiction stories?"
I told him I was. I told him I had to get to my class, but that I'd see him tomorrow. I gave him some money. And then I hurried away, feeling inordinately happy. I still wish he had a better place to live ("I've been camping out here for fifteen years," he told me today, sounding perfectly cheerful), and I know that some people will criticize me for giving him money. I do it because I want to, not because I think it will make any permanent change in his condition. I've decided not to worry about what he spends it on: that's his business.
I'm just glad he's still here.