Jay spends most days reading history and watching the goings on from his seat under a tree near Fisherman’s Wharf. Locals and visitors place small change or bills in his repurposed soup can. Quiet and unassuming, he returns my greeting with a subtle smile.
We often talk about the books he reads. Once, he asked if I know anything about Machiavelli. I gave him a copy of The Prince.
When I was ten to twelve years old my family reached the bottom of an economic hole. We lived in a small bungalow financed by the federal government where my mother, sister, brother and I subsisted largely on what was then called “welfare.” At one point we had only one jar of green beans remaining in our otherwise empty cabinet. An aunt and uncle provided us with what they could afford.
We children felt fear for our next meal and the ambiguity of our futures. From that fear followed shame, as if we were somehow responsible for our situation. Our classmates wore better, more fashionable clothes and left us out of their social activities. Those feelings remained with me for many years after and, sometimes, even now.
I cannot speak for the homeless. The rest of us have not lived their lives and cannot imagine the daily difficulties they face. However, I can understand some of the fear that comes with want.
Nick (Nicholas) from Portland fishes for donations using his creative lure. He says he needs just enough money to buy some beer. The rest will go to the poor and help finance his first book. Nick has one of the biggest smiles on the street. He leaves Monterey as the tourists disappear, but then returns the following season.Jay is not the only homeless person I visit while on my walks. I make photographs, both candid and posed, of them and many more in the same situation.
The homeless, and the images I make of them, remind me of just how lucky I am to have escaped that fear and shame. They keep me grounded, reminding me of who I am and where I came from. When I walk the streets among them, the empathy I experience helps me feel more authentic, more me. All the while my mind cautions, “There but for fortune….”
Conversations with the homeless reinforce our human similarities, our desires, and the fears all of us share. At the most important level, they are no different from the rest of us, deserving all the respect and dignity we want for ourselves. Our superficial differences begin at birth and grow with our unique biographies. Some, like me, were lucky, made a living, and had a family. Others are not so lucky. They lost jobs due to downsizing, some fall into despair and drugs, while others became ill, making them unable to work or pay the medical bills. The homeless remind us of the constants of human triumph and tragedy, experiences we all share.
More to follow on January 13, 2017