Saturday, November 28, 2009

Richard & Homelessness

Today I spent some time with Richard. He is homeless. He came into the bike shop angry because he needed a new tube and thought we had given him a "slime" tube so he couldn't deflate the tire to change spokes or the tube. He is dirty, old, ugly, profane and hostile. He oddly enough didn't smell, other than the faint smell of old tobacco smoke. His bike looked like the one pictured, but less nice and more laden than with his stuff (which most would call "crap"). He had layers of clothing which were ratty and his hair, face and hands were caked with the dirt of outside living.

We started off on the wrong foot - him yelling and me firm that I wouldn't help him. We both calmed down after we saw the other wasn't being disrespectful to the other, we just didn't understand what the other was asking for. Then we both decided that the other was not an enemy, but rather a potential solution for his bike or my customer.

This was a strange revelation for me. I told Richard how much the repair would cost - $25 (which is the retail price point) and he agreed to that price and that he would pay it. I believed him.

He commented on my name, Seth, being similar to Set, the Egyptian god of evil and that must explain my foul disposition. He referred to his as a result of his name and the history of English monarchs who were vile with the same name. His hands moved swiftly and with certainty over the wheel, though he complained that his eyesight was failing. He laughed at himself in a genuinely self-deprecating way. I was stunned.

Homelessness is a problem in our world. Richard reminded me of a simple truth: He WANTED to live that way. It is not my place to attempt to provide what I think he needs, but to treat him the same way that other customers would be. Yes, he may have some mental illness, he may be an alcoholic, he may be far outside the norm, but he deserved to be treated with simple equality. If I constantly ask for that as a citizen, shouldn't I ensure that I treat others the same way?

Sue Sylvester, the aggressively competitive cheer-leading coach on the television show "Glee" in a recent confrontation with Mr. Shuster, the glee club adviser, said to him, "You don't know the first thing about me." Apparently, I didn't know the first thing about Richard either; he paid in cash, full price and even said "thank you."

No comments: