by Howard Tharsing (Dasman)
[dropcap]Y[/dropcap]esterday afternoon I sat at a table on the sidewalk in front of the Maxwell’s House of Caffeine on Dolores Street at 17th in San Francisco. I had spent my last two dollars on a cup of coffee and sat with my two bags, one of which holds three days worth of clean clothes, while the other holds my papers, the books I am reading, stationery, stamps, notebooks, tools (tiny LED flashlight, screwdriver, etc.) and toiletries.
I had spent my last two dollars on coffee for a couple of reasons. For one, I was tired and yet not ready to rest (that is, I had no place to rest, no place to go except the street). For another, I wanted to stay within a few blocks of where I was while waiting for a return call from a friend who lives around the corner.
The cup of coffee was a way to rent a table at which to sit while I waited. And beyond these reasons, coffee assumes a special importance when you are as poor as I.
I grew up drinking coffee black. I even believed in the moral superiority of those who drink coffee black. I looked down on those who polluted the brew with cream and sugar as weaklings who could not take the real thing.
But when I became poor, I quickly learned that there are big jars of sugar and entire pitchers of milk available free to anyone who buys a cup of coffee. If you can get the barista to leave enough room in the cup, you can add enough sugar (carbohydrate) and milk (protein and fat) to relieve your hunger for a couple of hours.
So there I sat, sipping my meal and reading the novel I had checked out from the library.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw an African-American man pulling himself along the sidewalk sideways. He approached me deferentially.
“ ‘Scuse me, sir,” he said. “I’m not tryin’ to rob you or nothin’.”
“Oh,” I said, “I know that.”
“Do you have a dollar or a quarter you can spare?”
“I’m sorry, but I don’t,” I said.
He had not paused for my reply but continued his probably oft-repeated appeal.
“ ‘Cause I just got released —”
I cut off his pitch.
“Yeah, I got released two days ago,” I said.
His tone of voice changed completely, no longer pleading but simply direct and familiar. “From where?” he asked.
“Bruno,” I said, dropping the “San” from the name of San Francisco County Jail 5, which is in the city of San Bruno, and thereby establishing my bona fides as a former inmate.
“And now I’m homeless,” I went on, “and this cup of coffee is my dinner.”
He looked at me kindly as he slid past me, continuing to sidle down the sidewalk on his way. As he passed me he leaned in close, tapped me gently on the shoulder with a closed fist, and spoke softly, close to my ear.
“Take it easy,” he said.
“You too, brother,” I heard myself reply as he walked away.
It was the first time in my life that I had ever called a black man “brother,” and I had done so instinctively, without thinking.
As much as I might have wanted to use that term in the past, I had always felt self-conscious and afraid of giving offense. The shame of privilege had restrained me. That shame had kept me from expressing a common humanity into which my incarceration had now set me free.
Hurrying Past a Brother or Sister
by Michael L. Palmer
On the way to work I saw a homeless man flatten a piece of cardboard he had retrieved from a recycling bin. With intense concentration he wrote on it his plea for survival.
I walked by another homeless man who was securing things to his bicycle. I think they were all of his worldly possessions. He complained, talking to the air surrounding him, about being harassed every morning by another man who stood in an alley across the street.
I watched people hurry along the sidewalk. I saw some of them descend below the street to the BART station where they will board a train that will take them to their place of work.
Hurrying to the train out of fear of becoming one of those who hold up a cardboard sign on the sidewalk, gazing into the eyes of those who pass by, hoping for salvation. Hurrying out of fear of becoming one of those they avoid, one of those they wished did not exist.