A meditation on the plight of the homeless.

by Kathleen Grassel 

Recently in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where I live, a panhandler was shot dead from a parked car in a parking lot after asking for money. The witness said the man fell back with his face missing. The pair in the car apparently high-fived each other and whooped, "We got him," then ran over the dead man's legs fleeing the scene.

 Folks who used that parking lot knew the panhandler as persistent but not aggressive. A panhandler, so called from the resemblance of the extended arm to a panhandle, is after all rarely a dangerous person. The driver of the car turned herself in after seeing herself on TV, a parking lot video camera having recorded the scene. What can be said of the shooter who blasted the face off the panhandler with a sawed-off shotgun? Police have arrested the alleged gunman, a 17-year-old boy. The two of them went to the car wash to clean off what the police report described as "high velocity blood spatter." Then she went home and washed more of the high velocity stuff out of her hair.

 "A vicious response to a public annoyance," so said a police investigator. One can observe on a daily basis less vicious responses to the omnipresence of panhandlers here in the form of insults, studied ignorance, and angry public demand that city government "do something!" about these "vermin," making this event an extreme outcome of generalized fear and loathing of a wholly marginalized segment of the population.

 I know some of these "public annoyances," although I prefer to call them people. On my way home at a stop sign one of them asked me for some change. It was Charlie, one of our city's many homeless mentally ill who manages one day at a time to stay alive in the streets. I said sure and stopped to chat for awhile. He was surrounded by the crushed aluminium cans he'd picked up that day. He counted the change I gave him, 82 cents, and said thanks, that he hadn't eaten in three days. There was an open half-full box of crackers next to him which he says he will feed to skinny dogs as they pass his way. Charlie is 55, looks 75, and says often he hopes not to see his 56th birthday. He asked me my name, as always. He doesn't remember from one meeting to the next.

 He started talking about how he used to be a history teacher in Texas. Everything I know of Texas history is from Charlie. He changed the subject to Vietnam and how he killed thousands of people, at least he thought it was thousands because his superiors would report Vietcong body counts every morning and it was always in the thousands. Then he changed the subject to Jesus Christ, the only one worth talking about, he says. The other two-thirds of the Trinity could take a hike.

 Two teenagers came along and asked Charlie if he had any drugs. He gave over a pair of pills he had in plain sight next to the box of crackers.

 I asked him if he knew the panhandler who got shot. He didn't know who I was talking about, but said some of those guys are worthless, even dangerous. They'll steal your money AND your aluminium cans if you don't watch 'em. I said goodbye and pedalled off home. He waved, said "thanks again for the change, sister." He'd already forgotten my name one more time. Texas history he doesn't forget. Starting meditation that evening, I could not be the person sitting alone on an impersonal planet, that person who lets go of the planet and then of herself to rest timeless in the love and beauty of an immensity beyond experience and thought. Rather I was stretched full out in a dry wash among cholla cactus in the dreaming place of bears, my cheek pressed flat against memory of worn stone impressed with fossils of long-dead fish who swam here when this ghost ocean was covered with water, wishing myself there in that pre-history before human birth and its thoughtless cruelty. Unable to unfasten myself from the earth, I was absorbed into it, my heart too heavy and soft and bleeding to outwit it. I sat meditation on the edge of first lesson, watching. Those drops of bliss accorded me were as from an intravenous drip, God with the patience of stones, dribbling into me what I could not gain for myself, my veins running dry as the arroyo I could not escape.

 I suppose I think these people called panhandlers are as worthy as anyone else of God's favour, at the very least deserving of safe passage, even while I know I'm not in step with my Guru if it's true that He says we further weaken these people by aiding and abetting as I do their habits and way of life. I asked a Zen friend, 80 years old now, if he could make sense of no sense. He never answers a question directly, but spoke of the monks and nuns in other places who beg for their daily food, the receiving of which is not important, rather they provide opportunity for passers-by to gain merit by giving. I am not one to distinguish between homeless persons and holy mendicants. I'm not qualified to tell which is which. Who knows, that panhandler might be the Christ; God the Father and the Holy Ghost having long since taken a hike. Sometimes there's nothing left to do but go home and bake bread. I'll probably take a loaf over to Charlie. Even if the skinny dogs get it, I will have tried.

 Kathleen Grassel lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico where she works as a technical writer, newsletter editor and graphics designer at the Institute of Public Law at the University of New Mexico.  

This article was published in New Renaissance, Vol. 7, No. 3