You don’t always know how your life affects someone else’s and this is what used to torture me about working with people on the street. Almost everyone you meet is in crisis and at first, you want to be the one that helps them, that gets them what they need and that solves their problems; you want to be their savior. Or at least that is what it used to be for me. But after sleepless nights, wrong turns and letting people down, you feel like you can’t do much.
Last year around this time I met Jack. Although in his mid-forties, he had the air of young man. He was smiley, talkative, and easily spooked. He loved crime novels and had a penchant for the Beasty Boys. Jack had been homeless since he came here from his home town of Gary, Indiana in 2012. He got evicted because the heater broke in his home in the middle of winter and the land lord refused to fix it so he refused to pay rent. After they kicked him out, he decided he would rather not be homeless in the murder capital of the world, so he moved to Madison. The whole not-making-it thing really messed with him, blaming himself and feeling like a failure, he became familiar with the scene that the world thinks is the cause of homelessness rather than a symptom of it. He started using.
I met him after he had been clean for a while. My friend Dynamite Dave, the most popular comedian on State Street, told me about him. He told me he was a “good kid and could use a place to stay”. Since Dave had just moved out of our place, we had an open bed, so I met up with him on a windy Tuesday night in November. Those grungy loose clothes hung on an athletic frame and he like to stand at distance when he spoke mostly looking down at his large black Doc Martins. He had large hands but when he shook my hand, he was as delicate as a child. His dry, measured, and almost southern delivery sucked you in and he could look you right in the eye and tell you a hilarious joke with out cracking a smile. He was in perpetual agreement with anyone he spoke to because he was always nodding and muttering “very cool, very cool”. He had a deep vocabulary from all his reading and it lent credence to all the conspiracy stories he told.
Jack stayed with us on and off for almost the whole winter. We were friends and we still are. This made it complicated. When the lines get blurred between guest and roommate, friendly assistance and familial proximity, it makes it difficult to know how to act. When you welcome people off the streets into your home often enough, you have to build a little bit of a callus, or at least I tried, so that not every crisis brings you to where they are and suddenly you collapse in a pile of guilt and defeat for never doing enough. Giving someone a bed is not so hard, giving them a family is much harder.
He started coming home later and later, not returning calls, coming home drunk, lying and not showing up when he said he would. I didn’t want to be his parent, brother, or even his friend at the outset but now we were close and I was worried he was using again. If he had been just some guy, I could have laid down the law, told him how things worked, given him an ultimatum or even kicked him out. I could have told him to never come around anymore. But if you know someone, intimately, that becomes messier.
After so many conversations about trust and honesty, second chances and being repeatedly lied to, I can remember shivering in the unheated hallway of our apartment at 3:00am telling him that I couldn’t keep doing this and that he had to leave and couldn’t come back. He just smiled as if it wasn’t January in Wisconsin and almost as if he knew it was coming, “Very cool, can I have a sleeping bag?”
He took it way less personally then I did. He moved on as if he was expecting to be disappointed. Months go by, we move out of 718 East Johnson and I go back to school. I have had trouble trying to create a metric for what we would call success in the Catholic Worker. Is it how many stomachs you fill? Or how many people you put on a housing list? Or how many people you give a bed?
Two days ago, I am walking down the street and I see Jack sitting there smoking a cigarette looking up at the new St. Paul’s Student center on library mall. “Peach!”, I yelled, because see, that’s his nick name (his girlfriend gave it to him because he is so sweet). He offers me a smile and embraces me. As if nothing passed between us, he told me about his life. He fell in love since I last saw him. He met her out on the street and after a couple of coffee dates she let him. They gave up drinking together and things are looking up.
It sounds like a happy ending. But it isn’t an end to anything. Rather than seeing Jack as a character in play whose life crossed mine and was changed in some kind of heroic way, I just see him as another blind man walking around in a dark world who bumped into me. Learning to think this way has allowed me to encounter people where they are at for who they are and, more importantly, as I really am. At the end of the day, we can’t do much, but we can be someone’s friend. For a brief time, we can share the light of our friendship and learn to love just a little bit better. Rather than viewing our projects or relationships as successes or failures based on their outcome, maybe we should think a little more about our intentions.