The invisible man 

A writer goes homeless to see who cares

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During the two-hour session, 336 students, staff and faculty passed. Four persons helped. Number 337 did not. Roger Strobel, UC Assistant Director for Building Services, reached for my cup but I grabbed it.

"What's the cup for?" he asked.

"It's for food or—"

He frowned. "No. You can't do that."

I wasn't sure what he meant.

"Panhandling is against university policy." He looked disgusted. "If you're not gone when I come back, I'm going to call the police."

He trudged down the sidewalk, glancing back to see if I had begun to move. I had not.

Another 45 people passed. A hundred feet away, a man with an old white St. Bernard strode toward me. I could feel the dog's gaze and knew what it would do. Of eight dogs that had passed me during my sessions, six had stopped to visit.

The dog, its stained teeth showing and tongue lolling, stared eye-to-eye with its big browns. I offered the back of my hand to its nose. It took me in and then, wagging its tail, eased so close that I could smell its breath.

click to enlarge A straw bed beneath the Madison Street Bridge - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER

"What your dog's name?" I asked.

"Tor," the owner said.

They moved on.

I pulled down my hat and settled in again. Then came the black rubber-soled shoes, navy blue trousers, leather holster and pistol. My heart raced.

"Have you had anything to eat?" the policeman asked.

This line of questioning was not what I had anticipated. "I ate a banana," I said. "Someone gave me a muffin. Am I under arrest?"

"Do you have any ID? Do you have a driver's license?"

I shook my head. I had intentionally left my identification at home.

"Any government ID?"

"No."

"What's your name?"

My pulse quickened and my hands started to shake. I spelled my full name and the officer called it in. I imagined myself in jail, using my phone call to secure a long-term substitute teacher for my class. "Have I done something bad?"

"No. I just like knowing who I'm talking to." He spoke my name into the radio, probably never suspecting I might be a student and teacher. I felt confident that no warrants for me existed, but still that pang of doubt lingered and my hands began to sweat.

"Have you had anything to drink?"

For a few seconds, I thought he was going to offer me a cup of coffee. My puzzlement registered with him and he rephrased his question: "Have you been drinking?"

"No."

All the questions were leading to one result. "You're making me go?" I asked.

"It's your choice," he said. "Panhandling is not illegal but I've had a couple of complaints."

His expression left no doubt that it would be best for everyone if I left.

He asked me if I knew about the Poverello Center. "They serve free food," he said. "Would you like a ride?"

The thought scared me. "No."

He smiled. "You're not under arrest," he said. Pointing this way and that, he explained the way to the Pov. Although I didn't understand his directions, I knew that he was explaining the most direct route away from campus. I slung my duffle bag over my shoulder and hurried away, looking back at the officer, who stood conferring with Strobel.

I hiked across campus, toward my truck, and thought about all of the encounters I'd had, the many people who'd ignored me and the few who were kind or harsh. Mostly, I thought about facial expressions, especially those of the children who seemed to see beyond appearance to my person.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER

It's amazing how we treat others based on the frame through which we experience them. A few weeks earlier, I'd attended a reception at UM President Royce Engstrom's home in honor of Bertha Morton Scholars, a group of top graduate students. I gathered with my fellow Morton Scholars in the library, a room with wood paneling and bookcases. Hors d'oeuvres. Suits, sweater vests and shiny shoes. Hearty handshakes and congratulations from faculty and administrators who seemed certain my peers and I would accomplish something with our lives. How strange that just a few hours before the reception I'd sat ragged on Main Street, devoid of potential.

I shaved, cut my hair and counted the money I'd collected from more than 40 hours on the streets, with 26 hours of that time spent panhandling.

$8.07.

I thought for a while about what to do with the money and then gave it to a guy named Jesse who camps along the Clark Fork near the Reserve Street Bridge. Jesse had to buy a new tent because the zipper on his old one broke.

I left Jesse's camp and hiked toward Reserve Street. Had my experiences taught me anything about human nature?

No. Reactions had run the normal gamut of human behavior. I did learn something, though. I prefer the company of children and dogs to that of adults who cannot see beyond the appearance and status of a person and see his worth.

I remembered the emptiness and isolation that had slowly taken hold of me on the streets. What I had really wanted was someone to say hello, to shake my dirty hand or to make small talk about the weather. I'd yearned to feel connected. It could be that what homeless people really want—some of them, anyway—is a gift bigger than a job, money, shelter, food and drink. They want to know that they're part of the human race.

On campus a couple of weeks later, I sat eating a brownie on a bench within sight of my panhandling location. A little girl, maybe six years old, strolled by with her mother, grinned and waved her fingers. Later, on my way to class, I spotted a large white dog in the distance. Tor. I remembered his brittle hair and his labored gait, signs of a dog not long in this world, and a feeling of fondness came over me.

Tor padded down the sidewalk with his owner, stopping to greet a young woman. She reached out her hand and patted Tor on the head and the old dog wagged its tail.

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