Tag Archive for Poverty and Homelessness

Shards of Memory

The light steps of John O’Malley sank into the thick, muting cushion of snow without the faintest snatch of sound. The flakes settled softly in his wake, swirling flurries of a gentle blindness, slowly, sweetly tucking away all slips of sound in the deep caress of forgotten dreams. The late hours of evening had yet to pass over the day, and O’Malley’s worn leather soles, peeling and brown-black from the snow, halted their steady procession, paused, and settled their weight firmly to both feet, as their owner craned his head, one hand subconsciously clutching an old tweedy hat to his head, as he stared, squinty eyed through the snow at the large, red “Condemned” letters spelled out across the cracked and dusty windows of the old building. Marked out against the expansive white banks, the fresh new sign peered out from the midst of swirling snow flurries as a trace of unwanted color, in a world comfortably black and white.

A stray, still form in the midst of bustling bodies, collars up to the chin, cheeks flushed with cold, eyes beady and black, O’Malley painted a queer picture in the middle of the shabby street, an oddly clear figure frozen in time, surrounded by the grey-blurred outlines of rushing passerby. Stepping closer to the building, the sound of his own footsteps crunching in the snow seemed suddenly more solid, and, as he pressed a weathered hand to the frozen bricks of the towering old Grand Hotel before him, a shiver ran down his spine, an empty echo sounded down the street.

Hours, or perhaps minutes later he still sat, hunched against the rough stone wall, his patched, wet coat drawn up to his ears, his once fine face paled with the cold, tinged blue around the eyes and lips, pale blue eyes sunken deep into their sockets, fine wrinkles the only outline of what had once been. He had placed his hat before him, weighted with rocks to keep it from being blown away, and as he sat half in, half out of the world, a man who had once opened doors to him dropped a coin in his hat without looking at him. O’Malley remembered that man, the superb quality of his tailored suit, the look of respect in his eyes, the way his eyebrows lifted in barely concealed surprise, the quirk of his mouth as though unsure whether he was permitted to smile. But perhaps it had only been a dream after all…the days of golden arches , of strings of pearls wrapped around swanlike necks, of glittering jewels presented for his, the largest, grandest parties, the awed whispers of his hotel, present under even the most insincere and same-standard cordialities. Black Thursday as it was called had shattered those dreams…or begun them, for reality now faded into sublime, and sublime faded away with the snow.

The next morning an irritated demolition worker leapt angrily from his crane to see what had caused the delay, cursing as he pushed through the small crowd of workers around the condemned building. He stopped as he saw a man curled and small at the base of the old hotel, and paused. Soon however, the crowd dispersed, grew disinterested, resumed their tasks, and with the aid of a couple fellow workers, the body was hosted unceremoniously down an alley way, and buried in a makeshift grave of snow. As the building fell in crumbling ruin, and the carefully crafted might of the hotel crashed to the ground, empty echoes streamed down the snow-muted streets, lost on the ears of the deaf-toned passerby.


My friends often describe me as a cynic and a pessimist. For the most part, they ’re right. Sentiment loses value when it permeates one’s attitudes and behavior just as the value of a commodity decreases as it becomes ubiquitous, so as a rule I reserve expressing sentiment for rare occasions that I deem worthy. Fortunately, even the harshest cynics are surprised sometimes.

To begin, most people in my hometown know who Mike is. But I would bet that ninety-nine percent of those people don’t know Mike’s name. Mike is a homeless man who lives at the public library. He didn’t really attract my attention until several months ago; since then, I have found him impossible to ignore.

At about eleven o’clock one Friday night, I left my house with the intention of buying a CD at Discount Den. I grabbed my coat to shield myself from the chill air, the result of a cold front and incessant rain, lowering temperatures into the 40s and threatening to drop them even more. Before I reached the Den, I passed the public library and noticed Mike sitting on a concrete bench. Stopping at a red light just beyond the library, I attempted to force myself not to look back at his cold, shivering form. With guilt welling up inside my chest for driving past Mike so many previous times and overlooking him, I couldn’t make myself look away.

As the light turned green, I sat for a moment, not moving, and asked myself what I was going to do. Then I accelerated slowly, waiting for the car on my left to pass as I changed over to the left lane. I made four left turns at four consecutive stoplights until I approached the library again. Pulling into the library’s parking lot, I turned off my lights, radio, and heat. As I opened the car door, the cold air stung me like a quick slap to my face. Slowly and uncertainly, I walked toward Mike.

The street was eerily quiet as I crossed. So was Mike. Staring at me unwaveringly, he said nothing as I approached. The crow’s feet framing his eyes, the ridges in his forehead, and the crinkles in his cheeks still stand out in my mind. How many nights had he lain on that bench, covering his face as the wind whipped against it? Now he hugged his body tightly. He was wearing an old pair of tan khakis, a shirt that I couldn’t see clearly, and a light multi-colored jacket, its sleeves ending above his pale wrists, that was just slightly too small and clung to his body. As I gave him the money in my wallet, he took it—slowly—and stared at it for a second in disbelief. Although the street in front of the library is usually an amalgam of car horns, headlights, whining engines throughout the night, nothing—not one honk or screech of tire—disturbed the silence. Mike’s head rose slowly, and he looked me in the eye with nothing but sincerity and kindness as he uttered three simple words: “God loves you.”

In nearly any situation, I can think of something to say in response, but this time I was dumbfounded. It was as though a thick cotton sock had been jammed into my throat to suffocate any reply. I felt inadequate. After several seconds, I muttered something unintelligible and shuffled across the street to drive home.

During that particularly snowy winter, I often drove by the library looking for Mike. I was encouraged when I didn’t see him lying on the hard concrete bench. I haven’t seen him outside at night for quite a while. However, I did see him a few times inside the library during the day. After that first encounter, I stopped and gave Mike some money a few more times. We exchanged names and talked some more. These subsequent meetings made me question why I had been stupefied when he had first thanked me. When I hear a televangelist with a Rolex watch, an expensive suit, and a fancy hairstyle tell me that God loves me, it doesn’t move me in the least. Mike’s words are powerful not because he is a man who lives a life of luxury. His words are always powerful because he has no home, often no shelter, yet he is neither bitter nor resentful; it would be easy to succumb to anger and spite, but he doesn’t. Because my offering is so paltry, he could easily refuse it and ignore me, but he doesn’t. Instead, he tells me that God loves me, sincerely and without pretense. For this reason, Mike deserves my sentiment.


This work received a Gold Award in The Scholastic Art & Writing Awards of 2002.

Siinter Klaas

I saw him today, I swear

on the sidewalk beard and all




with a burlap sack of treasures in a battered shopping cart.

He was walking past some guy in a red suit

ringing a bell chiming gimme gimme—


quite unlike santa, who didn’t beg

and sat slouched alone with a bottle of paper-bag wine.

Just Mere Chance Decides?

I was returning from school, blowing big bubbles out of the Big Babol bubble gum in my mouth, trying to decide how I would spend the evening, when I felt a light tug at my knees from behind.

I turned around. It was a little boy of five or six: brown skin burnt in the sun, tattered shorts faded but dark with dirt. Black hair turning reddish; lack of protein, I remembered from biology. Swelled belly. Yep, lack of protein. He produced a small, cupped hand. “Baia, ekta taha than na!”* Dry broken voice. Parched throat: extremely thirsty. I brought out my wallet and fished for all the change; it totaled around five or six taka, I guess. Put them down into the little hand. The sheer magnitude of the offer was a glow in his eyes. Maybe his first earning of the day. Without second thought, I turned back on my way.

On second thought, a few seconds later, I turned around again. He was counting his income. A little, undernourished child: not at school, but in the streets. Not enough clothes to dress properly. No one to take care. I looked up. There was another boy, also five to six. Neatly pressed grey shorts and white shirt. A young lady, the mother perhaps, takes the school bag from the child and gives him a small chocolate bar. He throws it away. I looked to the other side of the street. Yep, ice-cream; that’s what he wants. The mother gets him a big one from the vendor. And then the chauffeur descends from the car and opens the door for the two of them. The car speeds away. A newly washed Honda: polished dazzling deep green.

I looked down on this other boy. He was staring at me. Wondering. About what, I don’t know. I took out my wallet, again. A fresh, twenty-taka note. I gave it to him. He was more confused and amazed than ever.

I turned back and returned home.

Being a citizen of this Third World country, where a majority of the population lives in abject poverty, in conditions worse than that of the boy mentioned above, I could never justify the differences between the rich and the poor. Why is life so fair to some people that they have enough money to spend on lavish ice cream and candies, while so unfair to others who can hardly eat even once a day? Why is it that some people have to sleep in the open air, on the footpaths, while others at luxurious Home Sweet Homes find it hard to decide which side of the huge, soft, bed they’ll sleep on?

I never found the answer.

A dirty little child, or an old hobbling beggar is something I never wanted to face when I go out into the streets of the city. It sets off thoughts in me. I start calculating. If the 120 million people of the country were to give one taka each, we’d have 120 million taka. That’s a lot. No, maybe only 60 million people can afford to give just a taka each. Sixty million bucks. That’s still a lot. No, why not just 5 million people give ten bucks each. 50 million taka. We could use that to feed a lot of the poor. Save some lives.

Nah, won’t work. People don’t care.

Is it just mere chance that decides whether the boy I mentioned above is not the one that goes to school and that the rich kid is not the one that begs? Is it just by a mere game of chance that some are born in marbled palaces while others are doomed to slum-life? The persistent, irritating beggar who asks you for a little money or food, do you think it is his fault that he was born to do this job?

Do we just let it go like this?

Don’t you think we could do something?


* – “Just a taka, please?” (The author is a citizen of Bangladesh, a country of the Indian subcontinent with a population of 120 million. Taka: Unit of Bangladesh currency, equivalent to approximately $0.018 at the time of writing.)

Land Lost in the Current

I noticed the rivers first. From the airplane window I watched them pour, brown and silty, into the blue ocean. Smaller streams converged, carrying the island’s sediment to the sea. I didn’t have to fall back on my boy scout training in soil and water conservation to know that something was out of balance. It seemed little wonder that the rivers were so dirty—hardly any vegetation stood out on the brown hills.

We began descending, and the land flew by as the plane grew closer. Open land, scattered with villages, came into view, then individual shacks, structures amounting to little more than scraps of tin, cardboard, and spare lumber. It was difficult to get a good look at them from the sky, but soon people were visible, black specks laboring in dirt yards. Thousands of feet overhead, their suffering and sadness was thick around me.

Then, out of the distance, a cluster of cement and rust and walls: Port-au-Prince. It looked bad from the air—the place emanated poverty—but once inside, it was more a hellhole of humanity.

Buildings rushed by faster now, and although they were not far below, they grew more difficult to distinguish. The airport came into view, our runway straight ahead. We landed for the third time that day. When the plane came to a stop on the airstrip, we strained to see the airport building through the windows, catching glimpses of turquoise walls and black men pressed to the railing that lined the rooftop.

Finally, the aisles cleared enough that the fifteen of us from a church of sixty in Glen Rock, Pennsylvania, could make our way past the cockpit to the door. I came squinting into the bright sun at the top of a set of stairs, and my senses sprung to life, soaking up as much of the scene as my spirit would contain. The air was hot, but less humid than at home; the sky was bluer; clouds wisped by. Directly before me, only a few hundred yards away, stood men, flesh and blood humans, black skin shining in the sunlight on the airport rooftop. I had tried, but never had I imagined them to be so real.

A member of my group who was ahead of me, already on the airstrip below, waved and yelled “Marcel!” One of the Haitians crowded onto the rooftop broke into a broad smile and waved. I waved back as I began descending the stairs. He would be our guide and primary translator for the next nine days. On the gray cement runway, littered with long, zigzagging cracks, our group collected, then walked toward the glass doors of the airport.

Inside we waited in line on pale red tiles with white speckles. A white sign on the wall read, “We apologize for the poor conditions at the airport, but we are doing everything we can to repair it.” At the customs counter, which looked more like a ticket booth, two men muttered a thickly accented “Hi,” before checking, stamping, and signing our passports.

We walked down a hallway to a large room where luggage conveyor belts wove amongst the crowd. We watched for our suitcases and we looked around at the chaos. Two murals brought life to the room, celebrating some event in Haitian history. Bored army officers stood with machine guns.

We piled our gear onto carts, then took them to a waiting room where Marcel met us. He quickly briefed us on what to do when we entered the courtyard outside, but I only caught a little of what he said.

“If someone touches the suitcase you are carrying, even just lays a hand on it, tell them, ‘no.’ They’ll expect payment for even appearing to help you carry it.”

Reentering the Haitian heat, we were immediately approached by lines of men in dirty polo shirts, and we kept our heads down and told them “no.” We piled our gear in the middle of a macadam courtyard surrounded by a chain-link fence and circled around it to keep anyone from trying to carry it for us. Marcel and two of the adult leaders went to bring the trucks sent to carry us to St. Marc, where we were spending the week at a missions compound.

They were stalled by men arguing that they should have a chance at carrying our gear. Once they were in the parking lot, the gate shut behind them. Black men lined the outside of the fence, holding onto the links like prisoners clinging to the bars of their jail cells.

It was a stirring portrait of the country’s plight, so for the first time I grabbed my camera and focused a shot, until a man to my right hollered at me in Creole to put it away. I didn’t get the shot on film, but it stands in my memory: desperate, impoverished men, clinging to a fence, believing with all their might that if only they were to get past the fence and place a hand on our bags that they could eat for a few days.