Saturday, September 14, 2013

Clear and Present Compassion

The rain was starting as I left the office.

It had been one of those days where I stayed close to my desk, so I wasn't aware of the falling temperatures and rain that had sprinkled the city all day.

I left the office around six; not really late by architect standards, though I had arrived at the office at 7 AM. It had been a busy, productive day and I was tired, looking forward to the decompression of the drive home.

As I walked to my car, I heard her through the breeze and traffic, the call forced through sobs.

"Excuse me. Sir?! Excuse me!"

Shields up, Mr. Sulu, my brain said, though a part of me was embarrassed for my brain's reaction. I stopped and looked down the alley to her approaching, carrying a cloth tote. Her clothes were clean and mismatched; her hair dark and short. She was wearing a too-large warmup jacket over her T-shirt and sweat pants.

I said hello and she poured out her story, the story I was positive was well - honed to shame the listener into giving her a few dollars: stranded here by my boyfriend who took my truck and debit card, eighteen, three months pregnant, hadn't eaten for two days,sleeping under a bridge for two nights, the shelters are only for men or battered women. It was every panhandler story ever told - almost over the top in its depth and delivery, the Neil Peart drum solo of begging.

I've been in this place can't work in a downtown without interacting with the homeless population. I will either engage them or ignore them, with the usual rush of mixed emotions both good and bad no matter what I do.

But for some reason, in this case, it rang all too true. I watched her eyes and face and gestures as her story unfolded, the tears and gulps and shivering...and the bulge in her tummy that was a little too round to be malnutrition.

At that moment, I really had no choice. I steered us toward a nearby overhang to get out of the rain.

"What's your name?" Allyson and I shook hands. "Allyson, what do you need?"

"I haven't eaten, and the hotel I've stayed at before will rent me a room for $20 a night. The lady from the church gave me clean clothes but I want to take a shower before I put them on..."

"Where's the hotel?" She mentioned a place a few miles outside of downtown. "The lady from the church gave me bus passes so I can get around;" she showed me a stack of passes. This was starting to add up.

Trying to remain cautious, I was still becoming more comfortable with the situation. The rain cleared and the warm sun peeked through the clouds as we walked to a nearby sandwich shop; she was only able to eat a third of the large sub, probably because her stomach had shrunk from not eating, I teased her. We chatted about our families and homes; I learned she had been in college in Rhode Island, wanted to be a pediatrician; her parents had passed away but she had uncles she could live with once she got back. The church she was working with was raising money to get her back there - she didn't like our city.

I encouraged her to eat as much as she could for her baby, but she neatly wrapped the remainder of her sandwich and stowed it in her bag.

"Where will you get the bus to the hotel?" Allyson mentioned a nearby park. "There's a large group of homeless people there, and the lady from the church brings us clothes and blankets and things."

I insisted we walk there together so I could meet her "neighbors." I wanted to be sure, as much as I could, that she would be safe - and ensure Captain Kirk up in the bridge that at least some part of this story was true.

On the way, she told me about two of her fellow homeless who watch our for her - an older lady and a young man whose dog really loves her. Sure enough, as we entered the park and approached the community who were starting the process of settling in for the evening (Allyson told me this was one of the parks where the homeless felt safe), a little pit bull mix shot out of the group and ran up to Allyson, jumping up against her, leaving muddy pawprints on her gray sweat pants.

Allyson introduced me to Joe, a sturdy fellow who looked in his late twenties. He had clear eyes and a good handshake, though he glanced away a lot as we spoke. I imagined what was going through his head.

We talked a little while Allyson and the dog played. Yes; Allyson has been here a while but she's okay, and he'll take care of her.

I turned back to Allyson, whose pants were now really muddy. I gave her the rest of my money - enough for her hotel room and another meal or two.

"Allyson, I'm going to leave, since you're here with Joe and your friends. I'm going to ask you for just a couple things, okay?"

"Take care of yourself and your baby. No drugs. No alcohol. Eat as well as you can."

She looked at me intently, her face firm, her eyes clear, steady, locked in.

"No sir."

"Last: when you get on your feet, maybe when you're a doctor - whenever. Do this for someone else. That's it. That's all I'm going to ask in return."

We parted on a handshake and wishes for God's blessings. As I walked the few blocks back to my car and my way home, I decided that it was time to fish or cut bait.

I'm not a Christian; I'm squarely agnostic on even the idea of a god. But I believe in the reality of Great Teachers - Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed, Gandhi, the Dalai Lama, Mom, Dad. They all teach the same lessons:

There is nothing greater than Love.
Compassion is how that Love is expressed.
Compassion requires that we not judge.
You reap what you sow.

When I've given money to beggars I've had people insist I've been ripped off, lied to, the money used for booze or drugs. I've come to firmly believe that's not the point. If I was deceived, I'm only out the money. The other person has lost his integrity and (see above) will have to face the karmic music.

I'm done judging. I'm tired of comparing myself to others. It wastes energy and time I could spend on more productive efforts, like working to make other people's lives a little better through design, volunteering, or just trying to be a little bit more like those Great Teachers.

I'm not there yet; there's still a lot of work to do - there always will be, but I think I've made a start with Allyson.

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