A New Friend
I’ve seen him every week for the past two years, his home parked on the small street where I visit my acupuncturist each Tuesday. Sometimes he’s sitting at the wheel of his white van; other times, he’s walking back from a shower or a meal at the Berkeley Food and Housing Project. Short and stocky, head buzzed, he walks with a slight twist. I had never said a word to him.
As most people know, Berkeley struggles with what seems to be an intractable homeless population. Small tents and sleeping bags clutter downtown doorways and parking strips, rusting vans and trailers clog West Berkeley side streets. Piles of garbage spoil vistas and create health hazards. We refer to all the people who inhabit these tents and vehicles as “the homeless.” And we all refer frequently to “the homeless problem.” Though I had never reflected on this perception before, I see now that this is a way to distance and depersonalize the people who cannot afford to live indoors. They are not individuals for us; they exist only as a group we would very much like to get rid of.
Years ago, one of my friends got to know one of these people. She didn’t know where he lived, but she knew it was on the streets. I don’t know how the relationship began, but she used to hire him to perform odd jobs in her garden and outside her home. This was all a long time ago, so the details are fuzzy. I do remember, however, that she grew quite fond of him. And very sad when she learned he had died.
Though I often drop a dollar bill into the box or can of local panhandlers, and I’ve certainly been known to strike up conversations when I do, my boundaries had remained firm and consistent. Then, last weekend, I went to meet a friend at the Berkeley Book Festival, and parked in my acupuncturist’s lot. As I passed the white van, its owner was standing on the sidewalk talking to the back of someone who was leaning into the van. “Yep, I have so many books in there. You’re free to take as many as you like,” he happened to say just as I walked by.
“So, you like books,” I couldn’t resist saying, as I stopped directly in front of him and looked right into his bright, dark eyes.
“They’re my favorite thing in the whole world,” he told me, nodding as he spoke. “I just wish more people would take more of them from me.”
“I love them too,” I said. “And I now have a Little Library in front of my house.”
“I sometimes drive around and visit those Little Libraries. I go all around Berkeley and Oakland. And you know, whenever I take something, I make a contribution.”
“Good for you,” I replied, then said goodbye and hurried off to my friend waiting at the book fare. As I walked the several blocks to her booth, my steps felt light and I could sense a huge smile on my face. I had just made a new friend.