Every week, we passed a major street corner in Seattle where a cheerful, large black man leaning on a cane, his back to a utility box, greeted us and others. It was some time before we discovered he was in his late 40s.
His sole purpose was to beg for change and small bills, for this was his entire income for a year. His story was revealed to us from others who had known him longer than we had. We learned more as we conversed with him.
O and others like him stand on street corners across this land in every city and town in the nation. Responses to men like O vary:
Some cringe and draw closer to store windows wary of the man.
Too many are angry because he doesn’t get a job and get off the street.
Others greet him, occasionally take him to Nordstroms to buy him shoes or a winter coat. Many give him a weekly sum of a dollar or more.
Sometimes people take him to Starbucks for coffee or bring him a take-out lunch. We discovered he liked a lot of sugar in his coffee.
O enjoys conversation with people who pass by. He likes to learn because O is not well-educated, but he does read a local newspaper every day and he learns from the people who stop and converse with him.
Once O asked my husband, “Why do people look so frightened when they pass by me?”
My husband’s answer was truthful, “Because you are a large black man.”
In fact, people are frightened of street people no matter what their color.
Most people seem to believe that street people are all dangerous.
The day Barack Obama was elected was a proud day for “O.”
I saw his political buttons and asked, “Did you ever believe something like this could happen?” He beamed and acknowledged he never expected to see a black man as president.
O is a survivor with joy. He’s a recovering alcoholic who praises each day he is alive. He can talk to strangers and learn about science, weather, tides, unusual linguistics and data on moon-earth gravitation.
I almost fell one day crossing the street, and he started to rush to my rescue though limping badly.
Fortunately, my husband rescued me, but I was humbled by the willingness of this man who needed a hip replacement trying to come to help me.
We learned he had coupons from the Free Clinic, but the coupons would not cover an expensive operation such as a hip replacement. Yet some in our state and across this land want to cut Medicaid.
We hope the Affordable Care Act will eventually help him and all others as well.
O eventually became eligible for subsidized housing. He was thankful because sleeping on the street was very painful.
To shake his hand was to recognize once he had worked at hard labor.
Driving along Fourth Avenue in Olympia, we observe the young people huddled in doorways or sleeping on the sidewalks or for a while sheltered under the overhang of the new City Hall.
Some express anger because these people do not get a job. Don’t we have the highest minimum wage in the nation?
A 20-hour-a-week job at minimum wage is not a livable wage. Groups like Side Walk and church shelters try to help, but there are not enough shelters or enough jobs.
Lincoln cited Matthew 18:7 in his Second Inaugural Address, “Woe to the world because of offenses evil at the core”... slavery.
I suggest that “the slavery of poverty” in a nation of great wealth is still at the core an evil offense.
Martha J. Pierce is a member of The Olympiabn’s Board of Contributors. She can be reached at Marbill83@comcast.net.