“There’s something about white people,” Bull said as he sat down beside me on the stone wall overlooking the shopping gauntlet of the Saturday Green Market in Atlanta’s Piedmont Park, “they want everything.”
Bull’s given name is Tony and I’ve know him for three years. As one might suspect, Bull didn’t get his nickname for awkward moments in a china shop. In his mid-fifties, he’s affable, homeless and pretty much knows how to stay out of trouble with the homeless police*. Bull went on to tell me, while punctuating each phrase with a pause and a laugh, “You know, money’s no good for holding on to. It’s got to keep moving. That’s why they do it – always buying stuff.”
I had a decision to make. Do I patronize him by agreeing and just letting the conversation go silent, or do I give him the respect to answer him thoughtfully? I chose the latter and tried to tell him how some people had unimaginable amounts of money and how those people just wanted more and more of it.
Bull looked down, shook his head side to side and began speaking louder, as Bull does, when he seems to feel confused, “I don’t know about that…” Reaching down to pet my geriatric, hair-factory of a beagle, Bull rubbed too hard and the dog gave out a loud whelp as hounds do to embarrass their owners. “Your dog’s blind, right? No? Can’t hear? I know something’s wrong with her. Anyway, how’s your wife doing? I haven’t seen her in a while. You doing OK?”
While reassuring him that we were fine, Bull and I became sandwiched by other spouse watchers and waiters on the bench-hieght wall. The recent interlopers were sitting close enough to hear, but far enough away to observe. I wondered to myself if these newly arrived “social peers” were there for the shade, to judge Bull, or to judge us both. I often get feelings like this and know it comes from my mom’s lifelong and often conflicting curse of inferiority and her strong, but simple sense of right and wrong. As I’ve aged, my rational side knows well their decision to sit down had nothing to do with either of us. Most people, especially young people, are oblivious to the homeless.
Feeling the new eyes upon him, Bull then turned his questions to a safer subject, “Lee, tell me this, do you believe in Jesus and God?”
My turn to laugh awkwardly, “That’s two different questions, Bull.” If you are asking me if I believe in the historical figure of Jesus, whose followers, hundreds of years later, recounted wonderful and life-giving sermons and tales of what we are asked to believe of his life, sure. And if by God, you are asking if I believe that there is some powerful force in life greater and outside our lives that connects us all, I do.“
Hearing my ”I do“ and not processing the parsed phrases, Bull seemed reassured and said, while patting me on the shoulder, ”Good. Good. I don’t know why I thought you weren’t a believer. That’s good. God bless you.“
In the middle of it, my wife walked up with her market bag filled with gourds of every color and shape, ”Hello, Red,“ she said as she faced that moment every immune-surpressed Southerner fears – the requisitely polite handshake or hug from someone who lived on the street. Fortunately her bags prevented either.
”This is Bull,“ I said to her. ”Red is someone else entirely, though Red Bull is a very funny guess.“ Then sensing her dilemma, I offered, ”A fist bump is always appropriate.“ Watching a middle-aged white woman, never known for coordination, attempt to fist bump with arms filled with gourds, is great sport and a true test of my ability not to laugh at someone, but Terri’s always a good sport.
Able to easily multi-task while fist-bumping, Bull offered with a genuine smile, ”Hello, Miss Terri. Looks like you’re going to be doin’ some fine cooking. You going to cook any of that for me?“
”Maybe so, I’ve cooked for you before.“
”I remember,“ Bull said, ”you made me a birthday cake last year.“
I glanced at one the interlopers within earshot expecting an acknowledgement of her kindness – oblivious.
*A note on how to stay out of trouble with the homeless police: Keep moving. Don’t hang out in a group for long. Keep up with grooming and wear clean clothes. Stash your possessions during the day and don’t been seen carrying bags. Stay away from the types of people who might feel threatened (those alone or with children). Smile and mention God in your short conversations with strangers. Be polite. Never resist a police officer. And keep moving.
City police have an almost impossible job and I have nothing but respect for their efforts. Sworn to uphold the law, part of a team, at the whim of politics and every “taxpayer” they meet, they also owe it their own families to survive each day. I often hear complaints from homeless men of profiling and excess force – while it might seem true, most of what seems “profiling” are reaction to citizen complaints or inappropriate public behavior. Charges of excessive force are most often a situational reaction of drunkenness or rage. There are exceptions and there shouldn’t be.
Homelessness is terrible problem. I sincerely wish that giving money to someone panhandling was an answer. It isn’t. Often if makes things worse. If someone is hungry, give them food or directions to a shelter. Homelessness is a societal problem, an economic problem and a political problem. If you want to help the homeless, I encourage you to contact an organization in your community and help them.