HOMELESS IN SAN FRANCISCO

Homeless in San Franciso

1

.. . . this young man has the darkest circles under his eyes
of anyone I’ve ever seen . . . he appears to be in
his 20’s or 30’s,
apparently bewildered
as he stands at the intersection of Bush and Van Ness in
San Francisco on this mild Sunday morning;
his pants frayed at the cuffs,
his shirt worn-down,
his backpack dirty . . . I’m watching him while I sit by
the large window of Peet’s, enjoying jasmine tea,
a slice of BBQ chicken pizza
from nearby Whole Foods,
where my car is parked at California and Franklin; suddenly,
he has disappeared, likely having crossed Van Ness,
heading west
towards the plush
public park, around Bush, Gough and Larkin, where the paths
lead to a summit featuring million dollar views
surrounded by multi-million
dollar Pacific Heights homes.
And along eastern side of the park, on Gough is the Jung Institute,
where I used to attend lectures, but can no longer afford the fee.
Do they offer counseling
for the homeless?
Angel Island and Alcatraz visible in the Bay, further north of
the Golden Gate: Mount Tamalpais gleaming above the fog.
If I were homeless,
several secluded places
in the park for a nap . . . where would I go afterwards for a meal
on a Sunday? The Episcopal church on Gough may offer
hot meals during
weekdays, not weekends.
Who knows if this young man’s familiar with the city’s resources?
Should I have stopped sipping tea, put away Donne’s poems,
rushed outside to offer
cash to the young man, or
suggest he check out the Christian Science church on Van Ness,
though unlikely they run a soup kitchen on Sunday, but
I didn’t do anything,
didn’t come to him before
he vanished; though earlier, I gave a dollar to a guy at the 101 exit
to 9th Street and Larkin;
and yesterday a dollar
to a man at the Saratoga-Sunnyvale 280 exit in Cupertino, walking
distance to Apple headquarters near Stevens Creek Boulevard,
where, before groceries at
nearbyWhole Foods, I enjoy
reading poetry in a café, where IT guys gather to discuss projects.
Isn’t a dollar for a homeless person, similar to a drop of water
during a terrible drought
as now in California . . .
Is writing about this homeless young man a balm to assuage
my guilt for doing nothing, while several friends work tirelessly
for social-justice causes . . .
Can poetry raise
consciousness of homeless men, women and children . . .
2.
. . . once or twice a year, when I was a child, Dad drove
from the Bronx Zoo through NYC’s Bowery back to Brooklyn,
inevitably a homeless man
would knock on our car window,
and I’d wonder if he was my great-grandfather, John Ball,
who, having lost his wealth in the stock market crash,
disappeared in despair . . .
though years later,
another legend surfaced in our family: that after his financial
loss, great-grandfather ran off with his wife’s best friend.
Was my mother the one
who told this version?
Whichever story is true, as a child I thought any homeless man
might be my great-grandpa. His sons, grandpa Reginald
and grand-uncle Howard
inherited some of their
father’s “baggage,” both held steady jobs at New York’s Home
Insurance company, yet grandpa liked gambling at cards,
maybe wanting to win back
money his father lost
in the stock market; while Howard, devoted to his mother,
converted to Catholicism, perhaps an attempt at atoning
for his father’s
abandoning the family.
Howard purchased a home in Brooklyn, offering it to his brother
Reginald and family,
on condition the children,
(my mother and her brother) attend Catholic schools, since
Howard’s hope: their conversion, a possible penance
“for the sins of the father,”
thus Howard’s will providing
$100,000 for the church’s missionary wing, the Propagation
of the Faith; unfortunately not donated to the Catholic Worker,
providing meals and shelter,
for the homeless in the Bowery.
3.
. . . my brothers and I grew up in a poor section of Flatbush,
a mixed neighborhood of recently arrived southern Blacks
and immigrant Irish,
Lott Street by Tilden Avenue,
three blocks from Sears and Macy’s; we all shopped at the local
Woolworth’s, A&P, Merkel’s meat market, Hunt’s Fish Store,
Tom McAnn’s, Fanny Farmers,
movies at Lowe’s King’s theater,
RKO Kenmore, Chinese take-out on Church Avenue, Brooklyn
buses, the IRT, BMT subways, public high school pools,
Easter outfits at Gimbel’s
bargain basement,
4th of July fireworks at Coney Island, summer camps sponsored by
the Herald Tribune Fresh Air Fund for disadvantaged city kids;
I loved Camp Oh-Neh-Tah,
mostly African-American
and Puerto Rican girls, everyone, everything equal, integrated
in cabins, games, hiking, swimming, camping; yet the counselors
predominantly white Protestants,
only two Black Baptists:
Miss Shirley, Miss Gwen, one Jewish counselor: Miss Colette,
and a single Catholic: a Miss Mary from NYC’s Hell’s Kitchen.
4.
. . . . at age eighteen, I entered the Maryknoll community,
for work among the poor in developing countries,
Latin America, Africa,
Asia, the Pacific Islands . . .
a focus fostering activism, “the corporal works of mercy,” relegating
“the arts” to the periphery, linked only to the liturgy, otherwise
an incidental pursuit
unlike the renaissance’s
intimacy of art and religion; modern times divorcing artistic
pursuit from political activism. How do poets flourish in
the midst of social-justice
activism. Why not rap?
Is it an age-old cliché: the writer as “outsider” no longer relevant?
Consider Facebook spreading the word about your work.
What every writer wishes,
even the famed Shelley
nearly lost hope, since his publisher put off publishing him, yet,
born to write, he rallied into the Light at the end . . .
5.
. . . my father longed to pursue art; yet left school to support
Nana and the family; afterall, she cared for him and his siblings
after their mother died,
. . . fortunately he found
clerical work at Equitable Life Insurance, where he met his future
wife, my mother, who had to leave high school, so help support
her family during
the Depression;
I never heard either Mom or Dad complain about their sacrifices;
never preaching to my brothers or me about what we “should do”
to help those in need;
uncomplaining, they
pursued simple things, like public beaches and parks, family
gatherings, visiting Nana, Aunt Muriel, grandma and grandpa,
faithful without fanfare,
their heroic unsung deeds . . .
6.
. . . when the current pope Francis reaches out in a crowd to
touch a needy person, I remember my father and mother’s
challenges, limitations,
devotions, legends
of our family history; who knows if the man knocking
on the window of our car in the Bowery was
great-grandfather?
. . . what we did,
or did not know, or do, is unknown. Francis calls Catholics to
practice the spiritual and corporal works of mercy; meanwhile
I stayed seated in
a Peet’s Café, watching
an apparently homeless young man walk away . . . who can say
what good or bad deeds we’ve done in our lifetime;
I don’t believe in a ledger
kept in heaven, though
I am moved by Dante’s view of an after-life, based on Thomas
Aquinas’s Summa Theologica, whom Uncle Howard credited
for his conversion,
since his best friend Al
courted Howard as a convert, via a shared reading of The Summa,
thus a cascade of our family’s conversions . .
7.
Does the vocation of writing have an impact on changing
anything socially? Certainly activists do more to make
a difference in the life
of the poor, the homeless,
than most poets do, speaking for myself that is . . . Was
my father’s life less significant than famed folks, for being
hidden, unknown
by the world outside
our family? Francis’s commentary how “Life is messy.
The church should be a field hospital for healing.”
What of our lives
at home, sites
for sheltering those in need, relatives or not, men, women and
children needing shelter, lacking a refuge, unseen in suburbs,
where strangers are banished
to cities, no panhandling allowed
in Palo Alto, though obvious homeless people linger near
the glitzy Apple Store on University Avenue within walking
distance of Stanford.
Is sacramental confession
obsolete? Do we long for absolution, a penance for failing
to reach out to those in need; should we shake up
complacency, stand in
the shoes of the homeless,
feel the pain of having your home taken by a bank due to
fraudulent mortgages, experience eviction as a possibility,
imagine being
a veteran mother or
father traumatized by war, unable to find a job, how it is living
in a poor neighborhood overtaken by drugs, attend
schools denied sufficient funds,
while rich folks raise
money for their kids’ education in music, art, sports, science;
what if a widow unable to survive on social security, or being
a boy, a girl running away,
seeking safety,
roaming our city streets, sleeping wherever, eating whenever . . .
barely surviving on handouts; shadowed by tragedy
early on, my Dad’s
mother dying when
he was five years old, saved by Margarent Drury, named “Nana,”
his mother’s best friend, who devoted her life to raising him,
his brother and sister,
an unsung hidden heroine . . .

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QUOTING RON HANSEN

"Carolyn Grassi's 'Heart and Soul' is fascinating in its fluent and affecting blend of memoir and poetry, reminiscence and sheer invention, loss, grief and homage. Adopting a persona at times, or imitating a seminal influence on her writing at other junctures, [Carolyn Grassi] has created a quilt of memories and reflections on a life's education—the journey we all hope to make from becoming to being, or from acting as disciples to representing ourselves and our art as apostles..."
Read the complete foreword by Ron Hansen in 'Heart and Soul' published by Patmos Press, San Francisco, CA.

Ron Hansen, author

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