Do not avert your eyes. It is important that you see this. It is important that you feel this. ― Kamand Kojouri
Last night I was sitting by the front window in the Vine Street Skyline Chili, just me with my four-way, book, and phone. Rick was at some sporting event, the one where the players wear long pants, I think.
I was feeling empowered, eating unapologetically alone. I was multitasking, texting with one hand, shoveling food in with the other, when there was a knock on the window. My heart sank when I saw that it was Brady and his girlfriend Chelsea, my amply pierced and tatted young friends.
Brady came in to see me, and we chatted briefly in that surface way you do when someone stops by your table, and then he left to join his girlfriend. I watched as the two, hand in hand, crossed the street.
I had been Brady’s eighth grade English teacher in 2000, so he’s in his thirties. A Millenial. You know, that generation that’s supposedly tech-savvy, civic minded, liberal, and entrepreneurial, or maybe lazy, narcissistic, and selfie-loving?
When Brady was in eighth grade, he was a smart-underachiever. A smart-aleck, too. One of the most frustrating, disappointing kinds of kids to teach. You can see that success is within their reach, but they won’t take their hands out of their pockets in their drooping pants.
Brady was like so many of the kids in my school: No father in the picture. A mom working long hours in a minimum wage job. Brady lived in a little brick ranch with a small, untended yard. These were “the working poor,” people who worked but couldn’t get ahead, or out from under debt, or past the daily demands of life. A broken car or leg or relationship can land such folks out on the street. But Brady’s family managed to stay in their house.
The year I taught Brady, I was doing graduate work, too. As part of my coursework, I designed a research study focusing on aliterate boys—boys who could read but chose not to. Kids who were a lot smarter than their test scores and grades would lead you to believe. I asked Brady and some other eighth grade guys if I could talk to them after school about reading. All of the boys, including Brady, seemed to enjoy the attention and being experts at something, even if that “something” was apathy. I gave them pop and Skyline dip and gift cards, but I think they would have participated even if I hadn’t.
After Brady left the middle school, he returned and visited me for years. Once he sported a very impressive Mohawk, one that stood at attention, thanks to glue, he said. “Really? Glue?” He was pulling my leg, right? Another time he visited, he was cultivating dreadlocks. I think he liked it when I teased him about his crazy hair.
As I finished my Skyline dinner last night, I thought about Brady and what I wished I would have said to him, so I was pleased when I walked out to see him and Chelsea standing on the corner across the street. I wondered if they were waiting for me. “Mrs. Lingo, you would be so proud of me. I read a whole book. A ‘course Chelsea had to talk me into it.”
“Yeah, I had to read it first,” said Chelsea, grinning and rolling her eyes.
“It was The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I seen the movie, the American one, but I want to see the Swedish one.”
“That is a really big book, Brady. Way to go!” I said. “And the sequels are really good, too.” (Once a teacher . . .)
“Hey, guys, I wanted to tell you that I think about you a lot. I worry about you two. You need to get jobs. You need to get your little boy.” We were all quiet for a moment. Brady shrugged his shoulders and lowered his head, as if he knew he deserved this chastening, but wished he didn’t have to listen to it.
The first time I spotted Brady and Chelsea downtown was about six months ago. Brady called out to me from across the street. “Mrs. Lingo!” he cried, and he and his girlfriend jogged over to me, even burdened as they were by bulky backpacks. He was handsome and tall, even if he looked disheveled and dusty. His girlfriend was petite, and I tried to open my tiny mind to the multiple hook-like piercings in her pert nose.
Brady told me they had a child, a boy of about two, and he whipped out his phone to show me a picture. And he admitted, without being asked, that his son was living with his mother. Brady said that he was homeless and looking for a job.
He was somber in the telling, but his demeanor lifted as he explained to his girlfriend that I had interviewed him about reading when he was a middle-schooler. “She wrote a book about me,” he said. I didn’t correct him, and I’m not sure it was because I wanted him to look good to his girlfriend, or because I didn’t want to admit that I hadn’t finished my dissertation, that I was a quitter. “I picked him to interview because he was so smart,” I told his girlfriend, and that was the truth.
I wished them well, told them I hoped their little family would be together soon, and because he didn’t ask, I pulled a $20 bill out of my purse and pressed it into Brady’s grimy hand. “Go, eat!” I commanded.
“Oh, you don’t have to do that Mrs. Lingo. Really.”
A week later: “Hey, Mrs. Lingo!” and there they were at the same place I’d seen them before. Again, they bounded over, clearly excited to see me. Brady said they just couldn’t find jobs and said, almost in a whisper, that it was because, “they always pick blacks. I hate to say it, but it’s true. While he talked on animatedly, all I could think was How did this happen to you, Brady?
As I was winding up the conversation, Brady looked down. “I hate to ask,” he said quietly, and I could tell what was coming, “but could you give us a little money?”
“I’m sorry, Brady. I can’t. But I wish you luck.” I wanted so much to empty my wallet into their hands, but I was so afraid how that money would be spent.
They never asked for money again.
When you live downtown, you encounter panhandlers every day. When we first moved here seven years ago, we would ask them, “Are you hungry? We will buy you lunch.” We would take the person into the nearest restaurant, and we paid after they ordered a pizza or a sandwich. Sometimes they would say, “No, I just want money,” and we’d decline.
But after going to our first monthly Downtown Residence Council (DRC) meeting, we stopped even offering food.
The police informed us that there were dozens of Cincinnati non-profit organizations that provided breakfast, lunch, and dinner, every day of the week, and encouraged us to donate to the agencies instead of individuals.
Furthemore, most of the panhandlers are not homeless, despite what the signs say.
Most significantly, a large percentage of those begging for money are addicted to drugs, and the kind offerings from “Good Samaritans,” went to feeding their habit. At one DRC meeting, a police officer and firefighter told us that just that morning they had to revive a man who had overdosed in a restaurant bathroom. “And next to him was his ‘I am homeless sign.’”
One woman at a meeting said, “There was a man that was so pathetic. I just had to help! I gave him $5.”
The policeman responded, “Well, I hope he’s alive tomorrow.”
This morning when I was walking to the bank, there they were on that very same street corner. “Hello,” I said. “Here you are again! You are always on this block. Why are you just walking around this same area all day?”
“We’re looking for you,” Brady said, smiling.
I was touched by his words. And burdened.
How to Help:
A PRINTABLE GUIDE you can offer people in need. The Visitors Center at Fountain Square has a handy pocket size version they will give to you to hand out.
WHERE TO DONATE There are so many wonderful agencies, but here are a few I support.
When someone offers to sell you a copy of Streetvibes, buy one, and ask whether the seller is published in that edition. Streetvibes includes creative writing, poetry, articles, photography and interviews written by homeless and formerly homeless individuals. Streetvibes reports the often-invisible story of poverty in our community.