A few years ago, I drove my oldest granddaughter to work in the wee hours of the morning. The summer sun was already blazing through the dust on my car windows at 7 a.m. As I drove home from dropping her off at the cannery doors, I noticed a person sound asleep on the southeast corner of 17th and Center Streets. I was stopped at a red light and saw that he or she was curled up in a snug ball, as if cold, right on the corner of the sidewalk in front of the crosswalk’s signal pole. A pair of clean, bright blue and neon yellow running shoes was resting near the person’s huddled feet. I hope no one takes their shoes, I thought. I wonder if the homeless shelter will give them new shoes if someone takes off with the ones they have? How out of place those new, clean shoes looked laying smack dab in the middle of the sidewalk at the feet of a rumpled and dirty person with no home. My traffic light turned green and I drove past the individual sleeping in front of the businesses which were not open yet; a t-shirt shop, a hair salon for children, a watch repair shop and a nationally franchised tax specialist.
Those shoes were so unprotected there in the road like that. What if someone does steal them? The 90 degree days of summer were heating the pavement to such scorching temperatures that I had been waiting until evening to walk my dog in order to avoid burning the pads of her paws on the hot cement. What if someone stole that persons shoes and they were forced to walk barefoot in the grass and they stepped on a stickery, pokey weed? OUCH! There is safety in shoes, even if a person has nothing else. Baggy, ratted clothing, filthy hair, a shopping cart of what others have thrown away, but as long as a person has shoes, a person has the reassurance of safety. Is that why the shoes are placed there at that person’s feet, like a prize, a trophy perhaps? Beautiful, new, protective shoes.
I drove on home, but the image stayed with me. The image of a person’s neon-colored shoes set out boldly in the open, available to anyone who would scoop the shoes up and take them. Such a fragile existence suffered and balanced with cruelty and love. The love of someone giving those new shoes to a person in need and the cruelty of someone if they were to steal them from that person. Without shoes we stub our toes on the sidewalk, or step on thorny bushes that lacerate our tender skin. Without shoes we can cut our toes on an unnoticed piece of broken glass, or slice the sides open on a sharp rock while trudging along beside a stream or in a field.
When one of my granddaughters was about four years old we put up a long, plastic, tarp in the backyard for sliding. The lengthy, yellow plastic came with all sorts of water spraying gadgetry, whirley gigging about and thrusting random streams of water all around. There were a few neighbors and friends over, and the backyard was full of giggling children running around in the summer sun. Unfortunately, the yellow jackets wanted some water too, and my little granddaughter stepped right on one of them. Oh, the tears and wailing, and swelling that little tiny stinger caused!
After that, even all these years later, she wears shoes when she goes outside.
I think that I have always thought of the homeless as just the homeless; a grouping of folks, or even maybe a race, religion, or ethnic group, the most mysterious subculture in America, as very few really know anything about them aside from assigning causal settlements and shrugging our shoulders before turning our backs. The sight of those shoes lying neatly at the foot of that sleeping homeless person grabbed my thoughts like a bull terrier on a prize bull , shaking lose misconceptions and biases. The shoes looked so new, and they were placed there so neatly, as if a child had prepared the next day’s school outfit and lain them lovingly at the foot of their bed. Yet they were so exposed there. So available for anyone to just walk up and cart them away.
When I was a little girl, my older brother and I spent our summers at my grandparent’s house out in the country. One year Grandma had a bicycle that I loved riding out to the barn and back. That year Grandpa built Grandma a beautiful water garden with lava rocks collected from the lava beds. I was wearing my new sandals as I pedaled past the lava rocks, but I cut in too close and smashed my right foot into one of the rocks, the momentum of the turning pedal grinding my pinky toe into its porous, unyielding bulk. Oh, how that smarted! Of course I screamed and Grandma came running, leading me into the house and setting me up on the washing machine next to her medicine cabinet. I was crying like I’ve never cried before or since and Grandma told me not to look as she was going to put iodine on it and a bandage. Well, I looked, and I saw a big piece of pale skin flapping over an active eruption of blood. I cried, held onto grandma’s arms for strength, held my breath, closed my eyes, and trusted that she would know best what to do – she had raised nine kids, after all. The pain in my pinky kept me off Grandma’s bike for a week or better, but I did eventually get back on. I was sure to wear shoes, though, no more sandals for me while riding a bike. The toe on my right foot has turned out just fine. It is as awkward and ugly as the pinky toe on my left foot – a perfect match, so kudo’s to Grandma.
I wonder if the homeless person I saw sleeping on that busy intersection of Center Street and 17th ever had a bike as a kid? Maybe they too rode sandalled or even with their feet bare, carefree with the sun warming them and the wind in their face and in their own turn learning that riding a bike is most safely done with shoes on. Maybe they remember being a kid, looking down from the top of a long hill, holding their breath then pushing off on the fastest downhill flight on two wheels in the history of kid-dom, all the while hoping the chain does not fall off the sprocket again, disabling the coaster brakes. (Another story for another day).
When I was in Junior High School, I decided I wanted to be a writer when I grew up. The idea struck me that I should produce a newspaper and I was so proud of my extended family that I could not wait to brag on them, prank them, roast them, or what-have-you, and I began writing a family newspaper. Articles in the paper ranged from birth announcements, shower (baby, wedding) synopses, new car news, medical news, etc. I had an ask Tami section fashioned after “Dear Abby” called “Tami Wami,” a sports section, and even a classifieds section. Anything that went on with the extended family, and much of what I stretched the truth on quite a bit, was shared in that hand written rag which my aunt made copies of and distributed among family members. I do not remember how long I did this, but it was a fun activity that my entire family and I enjoyed together both locally and across the miles as the “newspaper” was mailed to those who did not live close. It was a dream of mine, to become a writer, and I have in some small ways achieved that, but dreams are fragile and require careful attention to reality in order to come to fruition.
As I remember those shoes lying at that homeless person’s feet, I wonder if they too had dreams of becoming a writer one day? It is said that there is a fine line between creativity and insanity. Or is the expression genius and insanity? There is probably a fine line between any of us and insanity.
According to a 2017 study by Mental Health America, Oregon has the worst mental health ranking in the United States. Many of those in need of mental health services are homeless. The 2017 bi-yearly point-in-time survey which counts homeless people all across the united states via live interviews with each individual concludes that fourteen percent of Oregon’s homeless people suffer from a mental health issue.
Perhaps I felt a bit guilty, seeing that person’s brand new shoes lying there that day. Guilty that I have so much and that person had so little. I have a loving family, a job, a roof over my head, food enough, clean water. I am truly a queen, genuinely fortunate. The sidewalk may be road’s end for many homeless people. The vulnerability is great and the trust greater still; the shoes say that to me. Perhaps that is the true guilt, then, that the person has so much trust in me that they can lay their shoes, their complete safety, before me.
Yet I do nothing but drive right past them.