We live in a time of discouragement. An era denoted by concentrated wealth that is at an all-time high. It is a time when materialism dominates our national morals and warps our spiritual values. And when to be poor and disabled often means to live without a roof over one’s head, without the security that a locked door provides. When it seems that the only thing that we do as a society is take away whatever material security the working and middle classes have in the name of economic growth. It is a time when fear of the “other” is a national obsession.
But then memories, which contradict these notions, float up to my consciousness.
There was this successful businessman once who owned a shop in one of the alcoves along State Street. He was young. Knew the economics of change sweeping our society and figured out how to cash in on it. He had every reason to be smug of his success — and to be fearful that others might conspire to take it away. He was the perfect candidate to hate and fear the homeless.
We did not know each other except by reputation, until something changed. He called me with a problem.
A mentally ill woman had shown up in his store, camping out during business hours. He asked me to stop by. He needed to show me something. Walking into his shop, I prepared for the worst. The best I could hope for would be an ultimatum: Get her out immediately, or he would have her arrested. The worst: The police were on the way. But when I introduced myself, I knew he wasn’t that kind of man.
Intelligence and humor sparkled in his eyes. They shone with the knowledge that, yes, he had made a miraculous financial killing. But he knew it was an illusion. His eyes seemed to say that real wealth could only be found within, with whom we aspired to be as a moral person and consequentially how we conducted ourselves. This was the cosmic joke that he was on the inside with.
He led me over to an old woman who stood between rows of merchandise, immobilized. She was obviously homeless and mentally ill. Wouldn’t, or couldn’t, speak. She wore a thin and transparent mask over her face. It did little to hide the cancer that had eaten away her upper lip, leaving exposed a horrendous wound. Her only response to my questions was the displacing of her dentures — producing a clicking sound. Click. Click. Click.
The owner of the shop told me she had shown up a few days earlier when the store opened. When he closed, she left. The pattern repeated itself. He had no idea where she slept at night.
Telling him it would take several days to figure out how to get Mental Health to agree to do an involuntary hold on the poor woman — they were and are extremely reluctant to act when there is an overriding physical disability impacting a mental incapacity, even one that is life-threatening. I expected him to rant against the homeless — have her arrested, or at least insist that I immediately move her elsewhere.
Instead, the light in his eyes dimmed. His smile stalled but never left. He softly shook his head. The inhumanity of how we treat the mentally ill homeless carving chunks from his heart. He let this woman stay in his store during the times that it was open. I am sure he lost customers. The cancer grotesquely wounded the poor woman’s face. But what was not wounded was the man’s soul — his humanity.
Days later, I was finally able to convince the powers-that-be to bring the woman into the system. She was hospitalized, and the street diagnosis of cancer was confirmed. A few years later, I read the man had died. Still young. The wealth that he accumulated could not buy him life. But, like I said, his humanity knew that. It is not about dying early in life or in our 90s. It is about how we live with the time that we are given. What we do with that time. The legacy we leave.
That man taught me so much. The grace. The beauty of such a soul radiates. Whenever I pull from my memory that woman’s hideous wounded face, and wonder how many months if not years she was forced to wander the streets without anyone caring enough to help, sadness engulfs me. But then my spirit is lifted thinking of a businessman who refused to turn away an unsheltered street neighbor in need, regardless of the financial damage.
If there is a god, if there is cosmic justice, this man’s beautiful smile is radiating down on us from above. His celestial knowledge, our cosmic joke: Wealth is fleeting. Real currency can only be found in our hearts and souls, and that was in his eyes that day, as it is in his transcending soul.
— Ken Williams has been a social worker for the homeless for the past 30 years, and is the author of China White, Shattered Dreams: A Story of the Streets and his first nonfiction book, There Must Be Honor. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.