something to say

10 November 2009

I remember sitting in the ground floor office where I worked in Detroit years ago and watching a man outside who was walking around with a large book; it looked like a holy book of some kind.  The man was desperately trying to get peoples’ attention about something that had to do with the book which lay open in his hands.  If he approached a car, windows were rolled up.  If he approached people, they crossed over to the other side of the street and hurried away.  And I don’t blame any of them, I’m sure I would have done the same thing.  Mentally ill street people are strange to us, often scary, and most of us aren’t equipped to know how to deal with them. 

But what struck me then, and continues to strike me now, is the tragedy that this fella had something to say, of seemingly great importance to him, and no one to say it to.  I just couldn’t imagine how that would feel.  I’ve said it before in this spot, but I think one of the most tragic things about street people and the homeless is that we make them invisible.  

Now I walk by as many homeless people begging as everyone else.  But sometimes I’ve found that just looking at them and acknowledging them is enough.  Well, it’s not enough – I’m sure money would be much more useful for whatever it is that sustains them one more day, but you do find gratitude when you look them in the eye and say “sorry buddy, no change in my pocket today” or “god bless you too” or laugh wryly at a jokester. 

Street people are hard to look at.  They’re usually dirty and sometimes roughed up and often mentally ill.  But at one point they belonged to someone, at some point in their lives someone cared for them.  At some point, they weren’t invisible.

I used to follow a blog semi-regularly, one of those humorous life blogs.  One day the writer posted a picture of a mentally ill street person that had ensconced himself outside her hair salon as she was getting her hair done one day.  And the fella was pretending that he was admiring his hairstyle and appearance in an imaginary mirror on a tree.  Maybe our guy was taking the mickey out of all of the salon ladies inside, but the hilarity that ensued among the readers of the blog was not with him – it was at him.  His strangeness and ragged appearance were put up for great enjoyment and merriment on the light-hearted blog.  I politely called them on it – I said: “I’m all about humour.  But I don’t see what is funny about ridiculing a mentally ill person.  What if that were you, and you were vulnerable – say you fell down in front of a large window and everyone inside thought it was marvellously funny and joked at your expense even if you were permanently injured?”  And I got a very kind reply from the writer who said she understood my point, but the merriment at the crazy guy’s expense continued on for a few days and my comment was clearly forgotten.

Those that have read me for awhile know that those people who live their lives on the outer edges of a society have always moved me.  Sometimes they’re trying with all their might to break through, like the man with the holy book in Detroit or the lady who used to sit in my English classes in university; sometimes they don’t seem to need to at all, like the man on the blue bicycle.  But more often than not, they have something to say. 

I thought of that again when I found this project: Signs, a collection of homeless peoples’ cardboard signs – a way of communicating used by that community for a long time.  These signs are a way to get a thing said in a one foot square piece of cardboard.  The project includes photographs of people which are striking, honest and yes, sometimes hard to look at.  For a few moments as you look at the pictures, these people are not invisible.

Thanks to John Foster and his marvellous blog, Accidental Mysteries for posting the Signs project.  I visit his blog daily, and it’s always worthwhile.

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8 Responses to “something to say”

  1. willow Says:

    A touching and thought provoking post. Thank you, Jennifer.

  2. willow Says:

    P.S. Thanks for your excellent advice on my bloggy dilemma. ~xo

  3. Susannah Says:

    A beautifully written and very moving post. It touched me. Thank you x

  4. Reluctant Blogger Says:

    Yes, I remember you telling me the story about the hairdressers when I wrote about the homeless man in Fremantle on my blog. I would have reacted as you did.

    I share your fascination for the people on the outside’s of society and try to think empathically when I encounter them. It could so easily be a member of our family or us ourselves. Plus I think often they are probably truly fascinating people with enthralling (if sometimes heartbreaking) stories to tell.

  5. Jennifer Says:

    Yes, sometimes it’s hard to be empathetic when running around in the business of life, but I try too.

    And yes, I’m sure the stories must be amazing. I’ve always thought I’d like to run a storytelling/writing class for homeless and down and out – and may yet do it one day. I may yet one day – Time! I need more time!


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