“…I once was lost but now am found, Was blind, but now, I see…”
I sat in the kitchen, the gathering place for many a dialogue and intimate conversation in my lifetime, and shared stories with Bridget, my son Jeremy’s lovely girlfriend who was going on her very first homeless outreach with us last night. In an effort to explain this ”down the rabbit hole” experience that helps define the bulk of my adult life, I was the storyteller once again, talking about my three children, my family, and the influences in their lives, the people who boldly touched their souls. She had mentioned how much my son Jeremy spoke of the run to her and I wanted her to know why. Jeremy was only 9 years old when he went on his first Midnight Run outreach and I recall with genuine pride, how moved I was watching him hand out cups of hot coffee to the people of street, from the back of a van, saying, “I’m Jeremy, would you like some coffee?”
As Rob’s infamous chili bubbled on the stove, I spoke about the encampment under the West Side Highway, who I referred to as the Mole People’s upstairs neighbors. The names of those who lived in this section of Riverside Park read like a version of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” There was Shorty, the Captain, Papa Doc and the Professor, Larry and Leon and the women Marianne and Nikki, whose dog was better cared for than the people he lived with.
I told her about Papa Doc, a former Herald Tribune newspaper man back in the day, who took a liking to Jeremy and how this particular person impacted my family’s life.
One early spring night on an outreach run, Papa Doc asked Jeremy what he was going to do over the upcoming spring break from school and Jeremy responded as any child of two working parents would. “Oh, nothing,” he said. ”My father’s working and my mom will probably go down to school to work. We’re not doing anything…” And it was then that Papa Doc crouched down to be level with my son and gently asked him, ”Jeremy, have I ever told you the story of the man who had no shoes? Well, he complained to everyone he met about this dilemma of his…until he met a man who had no feet.”
The sheer force of this story on my son, I told Bridget, was something palpable and lasting. Whether he remembers that moment or not, I couldn’t say, but I recall the look of clarity and astonishment on my young son’s face.
Catie, my youngest, grew up, from the time she was an infant, in the culture of this commitment to the disenfranchised, the disempowered. My recollections match those of some of our oldest street friends when they ask about her now and are stunned to learn that she will be 24 years old in less than a month. There have been sweet conversations about how she was passed from one person to another as a baby on the Run, these strangers who became our friends over the many years our lives intersected. And it was Catie who first introduced me to Sam, our ancient Japanese-American friend. She was eight years old then, and very comfortable on these monthly runs into the city. She had discovered him sitting on a small hillside in Riverside Park near the Boat Basin, where we were stopped, on the street above the below-ground Rotunda and she came to me begging for a blanket to cover his swollen arthritic knees.
Sam became her ally and confidante, a friendly grandfather who made her and her two brothers origami toys and ornaments out of papers he recycled from MacDonald’s and the area grocery stores. Sam wasted nothing and created beauty out of everything.
When Catie had become sick with a very stubborn infection in high school, missing several Runs, Sam folded 1,000 inch-long cranes for her, making a mobile out of them. Upon their completion, he made a wish to the gods that her health be restored, as the legend goes. Indeed, a week later, she was much better and on her way to recovery. The mobile, which she placed by her window in her bedroom is still there.
And although I am writing this a day after the run, it didn’t occur to me how coincidental life can be until the conversation I had last night with long-time friend Bernard Isaac, under the leafy branches of the huge trees in front of an entrance to Central Park. I told him about the article in the Times last week about Chris Pape, the graffiti artist who recreated famous masterpieces on the walls of the old Amtrak tunnel where Bernard and his crew lived. The murals were painted using spray paint and when I saw them, I knew I was in the presence of some surreal genius. We chatted about the old days of the Tunnel and the Boat Basin, of Riverside Drive and our mutual friends. It was then that Bernard shared the news of Leon’s death. The significance of this for me is twofold: I had just been speaking of Leon to Bridget just a few hours earlier and it was Leon who was my son Gabe’s connection, the gentle, quiet man who helped ease Gabe’s discomfort as a 9 year old on his first homeless outreach. It was Leon who asked Gabe about the lanyard he was making and it was Leon who walked away with a new lanyard, the skill in making another for himself after Gabe showed him how, and a new friend in my young son. It was Leon who helped Gabe overcome his shyness that evening in the park. My sadness over his death is real: I have never grown used to the loss of any of these fragile folks on the street. I doubt I ever will.
The weekend of family and friends, the Midnight Run and Rob’s chili, is coming to a close. While last month’s run may have been labeled “perfect”, this month’s run, for me, became all about the families I have: my own as well as those street people who impacted the lives of my kids as well as mine – and now Rob’s – in their simplicity and generosity of spirit.
While Rob napped, Jeremy called and told me he and Bridget arrived safely in Boston. Catie stopped by earlier and after I know Gabe is home from work, I’ll call him and we’ll have an opportunity to catch up. Family is defined in countless ways and I’m certain that despite my confusion over many other things in this life, family is something I have never lost sight or clarity of, near or far…homed or homeless. Somehow, none of that seems to matter really.