Monday, July 24, 2006

Tiptree in Berkeley

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.

17 comments:

  1. Thank you.

    I shouldn't need to be reminded that there are people behind the requests for change that I hear on the street, every day, but apparently I do. I shouldn't need to be reminded that some good, though rickety and imperfect, is a whole lot more than thoughtlessness, but apparently I do.

    So thanks for a beautiful, gentle reminder.

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  2. Thanks for commenting, Jennie, and you're welcome! But I'm not sure shoulds and shouldn'ts apply here: it's a really complicated subject. In most cases, I'm still far more comfortable giving food than cash, and if I'm startled by a rude request, I don't give anything. That's not thoughtlessness; it's self-protection.

    I'm more generous to A. than I've ever been to anybody else in his position, but that's because he was kind to me -- expressing concern about my ankle -- and because it turned out that we had something in common. If I hadn't been wearing the Tiptree t-shirt, that conversation wouldn't have happened, and I wouldn't have seen the person behind the request (or wouldn't have seen him so clearly, certainly). Developing relationships in these situations is daunting. He did more to make that happen than I did.

    Also, I'm 200 miles from home and I only see him once a year, so certain boundary issues become a lot easier. And he's the only homeless person who hangs out on that block, which means that I don't have to weigh competing claims that I don't have enough information to evaluate.

    When I lived in NYC, where I got asked for change twenty times between my front door and the subway station every morning, I hit on a strategy recommended by a friend: figure out how much change you're comfortable giving away that day. Keep it in your pocket, easily accessible. Give it out to people who ask, but when it's gone, it's gone, and then don't worry about it.

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  3. Glad to hear that A is doing better. I can't even begin to imagine how he has survived for all those years. Now you have me wondering about him too. (g)

    I put a link to your blog on my page. Thanks for the nice comment and reference.

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  4. This brought a tear to my eye. I believe it doesn't help street people to give them money, but I try to look them straight in the eye when I say no. I figure not being ignored completely (which is what most people do here) can't hurt and might help.

    If I met one who was like A. I might very well be tempted to be more generous.

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  5. Hi, Xopher! (I love the title of your blog, btw.) I agree with your point about eye contact. I've heard formerly homeless people say that the most dehumanizing part of the experience was being ignored and feeling invisible. "If you don't want to give me money, don't give me money. But look at me and say hi."

    Re money: A million years ago, I dated James Ellroy for about two minutes. As he freely tells people, he spent about ten years on the streets before he got clean and sober.

    James would give any money he had to anybody. Once we were walking on a sidewalk in Manhattan, and a guy clearly stoned to the gills came us and fed us some crazy story. James, as usual, emptied his pockets.

    "Aren't you afraid he'll spend the money on drugs?" I asked him.

    He looked at me and said very gently, "Susan, I'm alive right now because when I was an addict on the streets, people gave me money without asking me what I was going to do with it."

    That really brought me up short, and I remember it now whenever I see someone begging. A Christian friend of mine puts it this way: "If they misuse the money, that's their sin. If I don't give it because I'm hard-hearted and suspicious, that's mine." (And according to the Parable of the Nations, the person begging is Christ.)

    But none of this is easy. Christine Pohl has written a great book called MAKING ROOM about hospitality in the Christian tradition, and what a challenge it can be. She's especially good on limits and boundaries, and fear.

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  6. Completely agree with xopher. A rabbi once taught me that while I am not obligated to give money to someone who is begging, I am obligated to acknowledge their humanity by making eye contact. For what it's worth, usually I try to say something like, "No, sorry, but good luck." Unfortunately, I usually end up making giving decisions based on entertainment value--giving handouts to any singer, dancer or musician. In fact, I enjoy giving a dollar to my little boy to hand over. It's easy to teach him that it's a nice way to say "thank you" if you enjoy the music, or to buy a pen from a nice man who's selling them on the street. Just giving the money to help someone on the street who needs it isn't something I've taught him so far, though.

    Last Yom Kippur I did make a resolution to teach Nathan to give tzedakah regularly. (Tzedakah is usually translated as charity but actually means something more like "doing justice.") I think that so far he thinks it's just a game where you put coins in a bank. But recently Pete and I decided to take Nathan to the bank, cash in the coins, and pick something kid-related, like Fresh Air Fund, where we can make an appointment to bring him to their offices and let him hand over the bills. Great idea, no? Regardless of charity projects Pete and I did in school (remember "Trick or Treat for UNICEF?") neither of us were EVER encouraged to do anything like that at home. Of course, the idea is the easy part. We haven't actually executed it yet.

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  7. I do think it's a great idea, Claire. I don't remember doing anything like that when I was a kid, either, although there was lots of social-justice talk at home.

    I'm also more prone to give money for entertainment value. Did you ever see that guy on the #1 train in NYC, who had a mangled saxophone? He'd make a big show of playing this thing terribly and then smile and say brightly, "Who'll give me money not to do this anymore?" It was really funny, and he always collected.

    Anyway, the thing with entertainment value is that you know YOU've gotten something, and you know what it's worth to you. You said, "Just giving the money to help someone on the street who needs it isn't something I've taught him so far, though," and I can completely see why. How can we really evaluate need, especially if there are fifteen people on the same block asking for money? That kind of thing's difficult enough for adults; it would be overwhelming for a child.

    But yes, eye contact's different. And I do the "No, sorry, good luck" thing too, at least sometimes -- more than I used to before I started thinking about all this, anyway. It's a work in progress!

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  8. Susan, thanks for the compliment to my blogname...I'm sure I'm not the only one, but I LOOK the part!

    The saxophone guy's horn wasn't always crumpled. He used to play a nice one badly. Some people were amused, and paid him. Others...were not.

    Hence the crumpled sax.

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  9. Susan, this moved me.

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  10. Thanks, Scraps! Great to see you here! I loved your profile, too, although the link to your blog doesn't seem to work.

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  11. My real blog is at:

    http://baldanders.livejournal.com

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  12. Scraps: Thanks for the real URL! I've now linked to you.

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  13. Velma9:19 AM

    Hi, Susan.

    I'm glad to see you've started a blog, and glad to see your thoughtful writing about spirituality again.

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  14. Velma! So good to hear from you! Please visit often . . . and how've you been, anyway?

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  15. Velma8:27 AM

    Well, I never thought I'd be spending part of my life with debridement as a weekly activity, but I am alive, and healing, and life with Soren continues to be full of grace, love, joy, and bouts of goofiness. How are you and Gary doing?

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  16. Hi, Velma! Debridement? You were burned? When? What happened?

    Gary and I are well, although I'm not getting as much writing done as I'd like . . . but that's always true! (And the blog doesn't help!)

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  17. I should probably email you, but I don't have a current address (you can get me at roadnotes at gmail). Erythema nodosum, with a node that was irritated and went necrotic. Not burns. (Though my mother went through debridement for her burns... but that's another story.)

    Anyway, it's been an interesting spring and summer.

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