Some win, some lose, and it’s never fair.
“Man, did you watch the Orioles last night?”
Charlie asks me the question before I even get in the door. He knows I watched. “I swear. Those guys … How many men did they leave on base? Fifteen? Sometimes I can’t stand to watch.”
God knows, I agree with Charlie. The Orioles are atrocious again this year. But how does Charlie know how awful the O’s looked? I guess they had the game on in his homeless shelter.
I see a lot of people like Charlie at my job. The work I do doesn’t directly involve them, but I talk with them whenever I have a few minutes. If I’m having a bad day or someone gets under my skin, I walk out to the lobby and sit down for a little while.
Some of them are homeless. Some of them are crazy. Some of them are high. Some are funny and want to talk. Some are sour and want you leave them alone.
They all have stories. Got laid off. Got locked up. Got hurt at my job. Been using dope for 20 years.
I’ve learned a lot since I started talking with them. I’m embarrassed now at the assumptions I used to make about them. Without realizing it, I assumed poor people weren’t smart. Or that they weren’t interesting. And that they didn’t know anything about my world.
Turns out, it’s not my world. It’s ours.
And yes, some of them are obnoxious or weird or mean. But no more so than anyone else.
It turns out, poor people are—get this—just people. People who happen to be poor.
There’s nothing to be afraid of. Be yourself. Talk to them as you would anyone else.
Seems simple, I know. But when I first met Charlie, I wanted to tell him something that would make him feel better. Something that would help him get better or get his life together.
It’s arrogant to think you’re so strong, that you could solve Charlie’s problems. That you could speak some words so influential and inspiring that his bleak day could get better. It’s arrogant temptation I still fight.
But they live this life every second of every day, just like you do. Being homeless or addicted or HIV-positive—or all three and many more—doesn’t define Charlie. It’s just some stuff he lives with. You can’t make those things better.
Well, you can do little things, like support the clinics he needs. Or you can buy gloves and socks in the winter time and take them to the shelter. But no, there’s no magic trick you can perform to make Charlie or any of the millions of real, actual, flesh-and-blood people in America—and billions around the world—not brutally poor anymore. Charlie lost The Big Coin Flip. I won and it’s not fair.
When Charlie talks about the Orioles, it can make me unbearably sad. Usually, when we’re done talking, we’ll do some kind of hand-slap/shake thing, and we’ll say goodbye, and he’ll tell me to be good. Then I walk to my office, shut the door, and sit for a few minutes, fighting hot tears. For me, it’s a complicated hash of baseball and America, tragedy and opportunity.
Sports are a diversion. They’re weird little events that happen outside of real life. Somebody wins and somebody loses. Tidy successes and failures. Nothing complicated about it. Every night, no matter how terrible the team is, the Orioles take the field and represent my city. Charlie’s city. Win or lose, we’ll talk about it the next day.
Enjoy the game, Charlie.
—Photo Noel Feans/Flickr