I decided to go and explore other people who live on the street, and see if I could make a symphony out of their lives. 4 movements. if 3, then maybe a concerto. I felt challenged, and thought that maybe it would be easier to start with an object rather than myself. In order to accomplish this, I would need to have conversations with other homeless people, to find out what melodies, tones, and volumes I could synthesize from their life.
My first 2 candidates were perplexed at the request – one lighting up a smoke behind the barrier on the side of the escalator. She would still be there – asleep when I returned. The next one, a woman with her head covered said, she had a month to wait before her situation resolved. She wanted to go to beauty school to learn how to be a beautician – work for a company. Maybe get a ticket to go overseas. She wasn’t sure – young, she had some schooling behind her, but it somehow didn’t work out. She didn’t really want to talk.
Finally, I meet M. I ask him if he is on the street and he says yes. I kind of give him an overview of the project, and ask him if he wants to participate. He seems ready to talk. Did he want coffee? He said yes, and when offered the option of joining me at the cafe, or having me bring it to him, chose the latter. As I return with the coffee, he lights up a smoke, and then puts it out to talk. We talked for a couple of hours.
His mother, the most significant figure in his life, both “mother and father” to him as he put it, died 3 weeks ago of cancer. He talks about how it was a great privilege to be there in the hospital when she died. He would go to get food for her and tenderly help her to eat it – anticipating each moment she opened her mouth. He would ask her if she needed to be turned, and she would lovingly say to him “Yes, darling.” She ate well before she died. They had a funeral for her, attended by doctors and nurses from the hospital where she used to work. He had ridden in the special funeral limo, facing his brothers and sisters with his mother’s casket in the back. He knew her soul was well.
He told me his mother visits him in dreams when he sleeps. I asked him if she would tell him to get in out of the cold. He laughed somewhat sheepishly. and then described his day to me. He sleeps out on the park bench – he hasn’t always been homeless, he lived in a local residence for 6 or 7 years, but left to avoid conflict or disagreement. No elaboration, but he thought they were probably wondering where he was. It’s not an easy transition to make, he admits. There is a lot of danger out there, everytime someone walks by, you have to wake up and watch. They are about 6 on this side of the park. He considers one to be a friend. I ask him what he will do when it gets cold. He says probably go into a shelter, but sometimes its better to sleep outside. I said, it probably depends on the temperature.
So this morning, he woke up as a woman came and opened a bag containing hot food on the tables. The steam and the smell of the cooked food was wonderful he said – not to be taken for granted. It was a gift from God. He asks me if I believe in God. I say yes. So, he eats, not every day he admits, but this morning he ate well, and then went back to sleep. His mother visits him in his sleep, telling him that everything is going to be alright. He wakes up a bit later, and the guys have started to play chess on the outdoor tables. It’s pretty competitive. Hours later, they are still playing. “No me paga”, one man angrily exclaims to a guy who looks like the head honcho. M doesn’t play, he says.
I ask him if he walks around a bit. He says sometimes he walks to the center of the square and back. As he gets up, he begins to cough. He has pneumonia, probably exacerbated by smoking. He says he is trying to smoke less.
I ask him if he wants to tell me about the 3 most important memories of his mother. He pauses, and then says, “well, you know she was a great woman. she raised all 5 of us by herself, and worked too. we never gave her any disrespect. We were spoiled.” I asked him if he was the most spoiled, and he said no. His sister who took care of his mother during her sickness was the most spoiled. Sometimes though, when they would do something wrong, she would give them a whupping. She would call him over, and he would take 2 steps forward, and then 1 step back because he knew what was coming. After the whupping was over, his mother would tell him that she doesn’t like to whup any of them, but sometimes she has to when they do something wrong. She would then take him in her arms and tell him she loved him, combing his hair.
His mother was very involved in church plays and such, and he remembers once that he got to be a rooster in the passion play at Easter – dress up like a rooster and crow 3 times when prompted. He says that that role gave him some status the next day at school since a lot of his classmates were also in the play. He doesn’t go to church now, but his mother used to make him.
I asked him about his dreams, what he would do in the future. He paused, it was a difficult question for him. I prompted him again, and he said, “you know, my mother used to always ask me about that.” He thought he might do some electrical work. His uncle always did, and he always admired his uncle. He even went to trade school for a bit, but let it go. He talked about the place where he used to live. He had a stove and everything where he could cook. He boasted, “I can cook – real Jamaican food, not just cabbage and rice, but red snapper, and rice and peas and plantains, opened up and fried in the pan. The neighbors could always tell when I cooked. It smelled great.” He came over from Jamaica about 30 years ago.
I ask him if he minds if I take his picture, he says “no, not at all.” He feels better after talking to me. I take his picture, and show it to him. He seems pleased. He wants to know if I can print one out for him. I tell him sure.
A composition with a Jamaican thread?