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?