Tossing Coins of Charity to ‘Elephant Man’ in D.C.

With alms on night walks, who was I really helping?

Street people are downtrodden. Life has trampled them into the concrete, and a sidewalk is not a nice bed in the city of monuments. With good health, education and family, perhaps mine is a more fortunate fate. Knowing that I could not single-handedly support all of the needy, I did at least have a favorite.

When I lived in Washington, D.C., I explored the city on long walks, from F Street’s urban beau monde art galleries to Georgetown’s cobblestone lanes. But my true ambulatory destination each night was “Elephant Man.” Of the hundreds of homeless sleeping on the capital’s benches and subway grates, I inevitably found myself circling over to him.

Tragic souls. Nonetheless, could they rightly be called “homeless”? For these bedraggled people were intensely territorial. Nomads by day, at nightfall the unsheltered concluded their meanderings by occupying their own spots. Elephant Man, or so I had privately dubbed him, would be encamped on 17th Street, NE. Immediately at the corner came evidence that indeed he had passed that way. Several paper clips, a loose wad of aluminum foil, three jacks without the ball, the trail of odds and ends continuing.

“Hey, got a quarter, mister?” the rag-bundled figure always said. He lay completely across the sidewalk.

“I’m sorry. I’m all out,” I replied to continue our ritual. Then I would squeeze my pants pocket to make certain that a few coins were there.

“Come on, mister. I gotta take the Metro. My cousin’s in the hos … pi … tal,” his plea interrupted by wet-sounding sneezes.

Seventeenth was a good spot for Elephant Man, with tweedy bohemians and adventurous out-of-towners spending at the neighborhood’s bars and restaurants. There was enough bistro foot traffic to offer the possibility of collecting a dollar or two in change. Still, even street people felt the competitive nature of the nation’s capital. Verbal turf wars had become a common sight. The bag ladies were the most demonstrative, scowling and stomping in crazy tantrums, their electrified-looking hair turning them into metropolitan witches. No one could decipher what they were screaming about. They would never slap or bite during the bizarre verbal skirmishes, partly because fighting required too much physical exertion. This was also due to each adversary’s reluctance to free up her hands by letting go of her precious bundle of belongings.

“Have a nice day,” Elephant Man whimpered from the ground, faintly conceding loss as I took a step toward the curb to get around his supine body.

He was huge, outrageous-looking, and consistently on his back like a Galapagos tortoise unable to right itself. Glancing down I wondered how the impoverished could become so fat. Would the rotten slop scooped from dumpsters do that? Or the beans and applesauce given out at benevolence centers to the day’s lucky few? Elephant Man’s body took up an entire slab of sidewalk. A metal grocery cart filled with his possessions was parked on the adjacent slab. This was the exact place that he came home to after dark, two squares of uncovered city cement.

His wire cart contained an amazing jumble of things scavenged from every corner of the District of Columbia. The items must have meaning for Elephant Man, as he kept them constantly by his side. There was a loose stack of newspapers (Could he read at all?) and a dog leash and a small elbow of galvanized pipe (Why on earth would he haul those around?). A cracked flowerpot overflowed with trinkets: carpenter’s nails, ballpoint pens, empty sewing thread spools, what was left of the jacks and paper clips. I looked for the distinctive gold borders of National Geographic. There they were, five or six of them in the middle of the heap. This derelict could not find it within himself to throw away copies of that iconic magazine.

From whose lives had Elephant Man gleaned his treasures, piecing together some proprietorship for his own meager life? I imagine that in daytime, when his energy was better, Elephant Man would roam the alleys, picking through garbage, looking for food and more detritus. Or was he really searching for something else, for a clue to his lost past? He pushed this storage-garage-on-wheels circuitously around D.C. and then parked it next to himself on his double-slab residence on 17th.

What foul twist had caused hope to abandon him? Perhaps alcohol ruined his life. Or mental illness might have labeled him the social outcast. Bad health, a bad childhood, bad luck or a war might have wronged him. Some of the needy are able to temporarily come in from the cold, government assistance providing them with slight work and available crude housing. Such formal philanthropy proves to be a brief bivouac, as many beggars do not like the strict rules and leave the rescue missions and tent camps. The night streets remain home to many destitute men and women.

He stank, this preposterous human being who bulged up like a cancerous growth on Washington, D.C.’s skin. I had to hold my breath every time. Yet the man’s face was comical, as rotund as a Smiling Buddha’s. Those chubby cheeks seemed to have been pried with a crowbar into Elephant Man’s dark-green felt cap. The tight cap had a turned-up bill and earflaps, reminding me of a prewar football helmet or a pilot’s headgear in the days before jets. His crinkly mustache and ragged beard made him seem like someone’s older brother. Perhaps that as much as anything endeared Elephant Man to me; not having the alliance of an older brother can be an emptiness in life.

Seeing this beaten-down man was a reminder that annoyances such as loud talkers in restaurants or slow Internet are not important among the world’s tragedies. However, I admit that Elephant Man instigated confusion and guilt in me. My refrigerator’s full. Yes, I deserve my degree of success because I persisted and worked hard. And just look at that abhorrent vomit in the man’s beard! What is the point of assisting the homeless anyway? Most likely certain physical or psychological difficulties put them outdoors in the first place. Those problems would still be part of them even after money is given, keeping them socially expelled. Elephant Man probably quit school and started begging. Lazy drug addict! The undeserving. So if he is going to end up right back on the street, why help him at all? I didn’t cause vagrants. … That was my middle-class conscience talking to assuage my guilt projected upon him, as I was not extremely poor yet possibly not successful enough.

“Come on, mister,” he persisted. “I said have a nice day.”

My attention fixed on a deflated beach ball poking out near the top of the cart. I wanted to grab the plastic ball, blow it up, and tap it over to see Elephant Man spring to his feet, two buddies playing catch in warm sand.

Before he could sing out again, I tossed my change into the tattered cigar box that was balanced on his prodigious belly. Two nickels, a dime, some pennies and the quarter. He had used the “nice day” politeness approach; despite his plight, Elephant Man retained the virtue of courtesy.

“Oh … yeah,” he coughed and jiggled the box.

For shoes Elephant Man had stuffed each foot into plastic garbage bags several thick. He kept the black bags in place with rubber bands. His pants were torn camouflage fatigues, both knees popping through like melons. And I always found him in that big gray trench coat, a throwaway with all the buttons missing.

That last time I saw him, one sleeve of this coat had worked itself free. I called him Elephant Man due to his enormous size and the gray-colored coat. Several strides down the block I looked back to see something that made the nickname more appropriate. Sneezing in spasms, Elephant Man rolled back and forth on his bed of sidewalk, the loose sleeve of the trench coat flapping up and down like a prehensile trunk. The great mammal was out of its element, a poor beast stewing about like pneumonia.

Eventually I moved to a different job, a new location. Should I have done more to save a life instead of going on to live mine? Realistically I could not have provided Elephant Man permanent shelter by taking him home to join my family.

Perhaps my coins of charity enabled this man to buy a pizza slice or a cheeseburger for nourishment until another day. I could not have afforded throwing money into the paper cups and lidless cigar boxes of every beggar across the city, so I picked one.

Handing alms to Elephant Man allowed me to feel good. When you do something that causes you to feel good you become happier, and that smile results in greater productivity at the office, which in turn boosts your company’s overall performance. And when work goes well your family benefits, and having happy families can enable a borough, a whole municipality and an entire nation to grow stronger.

Years away from those nights, I try to remember that helping others helps yourself. I now sometimes wonder whether Elephant Man the Omniscient might have known all of this lying there. Was he telling me to come to his aid so that I would have a nice day?

Is Big Authority a Hammer or a Benevolent Protector?

Watching my son sleep I seek a civil tomorrow

Authority is a big-sounding word. It has an impressive meaning: the knowledgeable power to control. But do we disdain or respect that, seeing authority as a hammer over our head or a benevolent protector?

I am remembering something from the past, while at the same time looking across this apartment to where my teenage son sleeps. Years ago I lived the single man’s expat life in Taipei, a city of wooden abacuses and glassy skyscrapers. One humid day I was walking along Chungshan North Road when I heard a commotion behind me. Turning I saw a woman arguing with a traffic cop. After dismounting his Harley, the booted policeman had scribbled a ticket and handed it to her. She was yelling in protest, waggling her finger angrily at the officer, scowling beside her pink motor scooter. I recall thinking that would never have happened a decade earlier when Taiwan was under martial law. Her previous generation had feared crossing Chiang Kai-shek.

Has a dislike of those in power intensified? Consider the beer bottles thrown from upper decks at baseball umpires, violent unrest in Baltimore and Ferguson, and how the opposition political party always fumes nastily against the one in charge. The military is a shining example of an organization that cannot function without a tightly buttoned commander-subordinate hierarchy. Still, there are cases of soldiers disobeying.

Respect for rules helps prosperity and survival. Children need to learn that, consistently from parents and teachers. Imagine what it would be like without traffic regulations on busy roads, legal protection in communities and referees at basketball games. What a mess reports would be if all staff writers did not adhere to house style consistency. Disrespectful adult citizens may have become that way because they were not taught moral standards when growing up. Frightened of that possibility, I want my son to learn peaceable behavior.

There are examples to share and discuss with him. In America, a black new widow publicly forgives the soul of a white gunman after Carolina church killings. A former POW in his eighties travels to Japan to befriend the wartime enemy who had tortured him. There are instances of societal love. A Taiwanese charity says to care for the entire world not just your family. In Thailand, I have seen passengers give their seats to Buddhist monks who board the trains. Filipinos spared by an earthquake come together carrying cinder blocks and paint to rebuild a less-fortunate family’s home; the kindness is repaid by a meal of chicken adobo celebrated with coconut wine.

When I look at my teenage son, his potential in this interurban world growing faster than big data, I tell myself to strive for correctness. It does not work when the person in charge—in my case me—is not a trustworthy role model. Be firm, reliable and calm. I want him to admire that I am providing guidance to help him make his own decisions, whether about education, health, employment, or how to handle heartbreak and new romance.

The scooter woman had a disagreement with her police officer, but she showed it hatefully. By the time my son gets his motorcycle, pickup or car, I hope he will have already learned to react with civility.


Embracing Your Past Can Help Soothe the Present

Our ancestors sailed off only to fight new battles

Suffering runs deep in the history of humankind. Realizing that can be good therapy. Emotional pain is not unique to your time or self. So when modern society pulls your spirit down, perhaps embracing the past will provide comfort.

I know a woman who after divorce lived with a despairing mood for a few years. Facing life single in her fifties was no fun. Then she started visiting locations of her ancestral past, and that appeared to help. I understood this one summer morning, watching her slip that little car into reverse and back away from her suburban house.

A devoted schoolteacher, she always spoke from a strict mind, but her chipmunk cheeks attested to a pardoning personality. More and more, though, any laughter sounded muffled, the grins less broad than a decade earlier, each facial expression cast forth conservatively to keep wrinkles from deepening. She often bluntly said, “I wasted my younger years on the wrong man.”

Feeling unfortunate is simply bad for anyone. It can even cause health problems such as weight gain or loss, as well as the loneliness. Some sufferers might seek peace in narcotics or alcohol. Others, as was her situation, instead see work as the escape, though a temporary one.

She would chat with me about new curriculum, grading papers, bullying or funding woes. But mostly it was the students. You could hear her satisfaction in guiding students past the pits and snares of growing up in broken homes, early pregnancies or forays into vandalism. She admired their determination, appreciating that people who are going through hell wish there could be something better. She believed they truly needed her, and that provided solace. But when school let out, the weeks of idleness allowed the unhappy feeling to take over again.

This existed until she decided to drive off for the Eastern Shore that summer. I imagine her easing the four-cylinder compact into the beltway flow, settling into the middle-right lane. Bright songs were another short comfort for her. Turning the radio dial, she would find the rumba and bossa-nova tunes played on organs. She’d likely be passed by big rigs, bearded men resting huge forearms on rolled-down windows. Smiling, they’d mimic her bobbing to the music. Exiting away from the city’s rush hour, her car putters across the long bridge that spans the zillion-spangled Chesapeake Bay. She passes through green-blue communities of cornfields and sailboat marinas.

In the 1600s, an English trading ship crossed the Atlantic Ocean and sailed up the Chesapeake into the Potomac River. After a long voyage, the group of gentlemen, wives, planters, indentured servants and missionaries developed the first colonial settlement of Maryland. They came for profit, adventure, religion, but mostly to find freedom. One of these passengers was her direct ancestor, who died there in a war with Native Americans. Stopping, she visits the historic town, walking among ruins and restorations and watching the woodland tribal reenactments.

Turning later into the pines and sand driveway of what will be her summer home, she parks with a gravel sound. I imagine her sitting there thinking. … She had gone there to escape, only to realize that her freedom-seeking ancestors had tried the same thing and ended up fighting battles against Indians.

Each school break since, she continued making that passage to the coastal lands and heritage sites where her people had first learned how to live. I think it helped her see that surviving is a process where you have to keep healing.