01 November 2011—–“Guitar Guy”, I call him; others call him “Smokey.” I see him nearly every time I drive up Market Street, downtown. Hopefully he is here today, I think to myself, as I approach his usual spot on the southwest corner of 22nd and Market Street on my way to the Denver Rescue Mission. Impossible to miss; he stands tall, fairly slim, skin; black as the night; a lively fellow, probably in his forties; jubilant and energetic as he performs one of many great songs from the concrete stage of his own personal street corner. A truly unique and spirited musician; he captures the attention of anyone nearby. Indeed, a smile lights up my face as I see him up ahead. He sports his usual casual attire; today consisting of a plain, sky blue, zip-up hoodie; black jogging pants; a worn pair of white, tennis shoes, and an off-white, baseball cap. I roll down my window to get a better view.
Traffic slows ahead as the stoplight changes from green to yellow to red, and I come to a stop just two cars back from the intersection. I see and hear Guitar Guy through my driver side window just a few yards away, and I remember how much I enjoy waiting at this light. Fantastic! I softly exclaim to myself, as I listen intently from the front row seat of my great spot in line. His joyous countenance warms my heart, as it always does, and I revel in the delightful and familiar blend of his mildly gruff, tenor voice, and raw acoustic sound. “I don’t know too much….” he sings with heartfelt soul and moves his body to the music. I fall in love all over again as I marvel at his brilliant spirit. How does he do it? I wonder, as I think about his life and his reason for this gig. How does he stay so positive? He appears fairly happy, clean and healthy on the surface; contrary to the many disheveled and dilapidated ones lurking around in similar shoes, yet his toothless smile reveals a deeper truth and more troubling reality to the careful observer that goes beyond a little negligence in dental hygiene. He fights a tremendous battle; a battle of basic survival; of the body, spirit and mind; a battle of dignity against the deadening traps and strongholds of the streets; one man among many, often misunderstood by the common passerby, condemned by the ignorant and the unaware. “Get a job!” I hear them exclaim, within the silent chambers of my own mind. “Lazy bum, pick yourself up by your own bootstraps!” they demand, as they turn a cold shoulder and hustle off to the warmth and comfort of their own posh dwelling places, bought with their ‘hard earned’ dollars.
A loud “Honk!” from behind draws my attention to the green light in front of me, and I realize I must continue on. What a treat to see him today, though! I think to myself, as I shift into first gear and begin to accelerate. …A wonderful, spontaneous treat! I remain attentive to Guitar Guy as I approach the intersection, and I can not help but notice again the familiar medium-sized, square piece of brown, cardboard attached to the head of his guitar; it displays a simple, clear, hand written message to his large, transient audience of drivers and passersby, “Anything helps,” it reads.
I drive a few blocks north then turn east toward my destination at Lawrence Street and Park Avenue where The Denver Rescue Mission operates an emergency, overnight homeless shelter for men. As I approach the area, I see several homeless men spread out alongside the sidewalks on both sides of the street; two sit up against the outside wall of an old, gray, run down building; a few lie down, nestled in blankets, with small bags of personal items under their heads for pillows; and others, stand together, engaged in conversation, smoking cigarettes, and drinking bottles of water, soda and unknown substances concealed in brown, paper bags. The intersection draws near, and the number of homeless men increases dramatically as the outside concrete area just north of the Mission comes into sight and reveals its daily array of faithful loiterers. Gathered together in various groups and singles, they cover the area like ants on an anthill, and I wonder to myself, how in the world this place manages to remain invisible and unknown to such a large number of the local ‘non-homeless’ population.
A red light stops me at the intersection, and I take the opportunity to admire the beautiful, fiery red, orange and pink sunset above the mountains in my rear view mirror. I notice the darkness of the night slowly creep in. Numerous clouds cover the blue sky like giant, soft, puffy, cotton balls and make for an excellent, ‘Colorful Colorado’ sight! I search the faces of many nearby men, hoping to find one who shares in my wonderment, but I find no one. I imagine myself in their shoes; in such grave and dire straits and wonder how this kind of beauty and brilliance might appear to me. Would I find myself ever more amazed, as if a bright light shines into my world and illuminates my darkness and disparity, or would I find myself apathetic, bitter or blind? An old, frail man in raggedy brown pants, boots, and a dark green t-shirt slowly crosses the street in front of me; his body, stiff and worn; his back, arched over and bent to one side; his left hand clenched to an old, weathered cane. His face turns toward mine but resists eye contact. Twice, I feel the urge to get out of my car and assist him, but I refrain. A great sense of empathy floods over me as I watch him reach the other side of the street.
I drive around the block and into the paved parking lot on the west side of the building just across Lawrence Street and look for the shelters’ designated parking spaces. I want to avoid a possible parking ticket, as volunteers and visitors often get ticketed for parking in the wrong spaces. Several men, varying in age from twenties to probably fifties, linger together in every corner of the parking lot. I often see this scenario when I come to the shelter, but even after several visits, a slight uneasiness still creeps in as I enter this strange, foreign, and uncomfortable land of the homeless. However, a deep compassion and understanding for these tattered souls, together with tremendous curiosity and genuine interest, continues to propel me forward into the uncertainty and discomfort, and I find that remarkably, my fear often dissipates and turns into something rather rich and beautiful.
As I settle into my parking space for the evening, an older man from one of the nearby groups takes notice and approaches my car. Oh dear, I mutter to myself, as I observe the stagger in his step and the empty plastic bottle in his hand; …he looks drunk. I proceed to roll down my window to acknowledge his presence and invite conversation, stopping just a third of the way down to keep a comfortable barrier between the two of us. He peers through the opening with glossy, bloodshot eyes. A malodorous blend of cigarette smoke, alcohol and body odor quickly permeates the space between us, and I try not to breath.
“Do you work here tonight?” His words slur together and confirm my suspicion of intoxication.
“No, not tonight,” I reply. “I only intend to visit for a bit.”
His clothes resemble filthy rags; stained, worn and tattered; his body un-bathed for days; an entirely different sight than Guitar Guy. He asks for cigarettes;
“You got any smokes?” then proceeds to mutter his disapproval and disdain toward the US government and cigarette taxes.
“Nope, sorry, I don’t smoke” I reply.
“Do you volunteer at the mission?” he asks; then grips the top of my window with his left hand as his body begins to sway.
“I do, but not today.” I answer; my eyes now intently on his hand. “I only stopped by for a short visit.”
He appears to like my response and affirms my service to the Mission; “Shows a nice heart, lady, a real nice heart. We need more people like you.”
His words warm my heart and bring my guard down, as I feel relieved at his approval; I can not help but return a smile. “Thank you for your kind words,” I reply.
He lingers a bit longer and offers more sentences of slurred words and nonsense; his opinion on the legalization of marijuana; a story about his deceased golden retriever dog; and comments about the upcoming fall and winter weather.
He soon says “goodbye” and leaves me with a friendly invitation “You come again now, you hear? God bless you!”
I notice a slight southern accent in his comment, and I wonder what state he comes from as he rejoins his group in the parking lot. Oklahoma? What a nice man, I think to myself. I briefly ponder his alcohol and housing troubles and find my empathy stirred once more.
I roll up my window and grab my purse from the floorboard of the passenger side. I remove my bees wax chap-stick and place it securely in my pocket, then I hide my purse under a blanket, grab my sweater, my phone, my keys, and hop out onto the graveled parking lot to begin my short walk up Lawrence Street toward the concrete area. A truck sits parked near the East side door of the Mission building, filled with various food donations. I try to recall a time when I came to the Mission and did not see a truck sitting there. Never, I surprise myself to realize. Two men unload the food and disappear through the doorway while two others stand outside and smoke cigarettes. I recognize one of them immediately but can not remember his name; Keith, maybe? We met nearly one year ago before the evening church service, after one of my first volunteer shifts in the kitchen. He shared some of his story with me, along with his involvement in the drug rehab program there. Short and bit overweight, several tattoos on both arms, brown hair with a trimmed beard, this man told me he thought I would make a good social worker and thus encouraged me to go back to college. He notices me from across the street and waves; I wave back, call out a hello and continue along.
The west side of the Mission does not see nearly as much traffic and loitering as the north; where benches and concrete provide a number of ‘beds’, and the central location provides easy access to both the Mission and the Samaritan House just across the street, which houses women and children. People stand in long lines at both facilities, with high hopes of receiving a plentiful meal and shelter for the night. However, with only a limited amount of space and beds available, I know many who stand in these lines will remain hungry and end up sleeping on the streets tonight. Dozens of men litter the area, like any other day, confirming it a prominent hub for the homeless; very few women and children reside here. Some sit alone; some sleep; some stare off into the distance with a seemingly absent mind. Men completely surround me; sidewalks on both sides; lines at the front doors to the Mission, and lines at the front doors to the Samaritan House located just northwest. Most of these folks own nothing but the clothing and items they carry; few keep shopping baskets full of bags and various items picked up off the streets. I hear laughter even among so many worn and despairing faces, and a few teenagers huddle together just across Park Avenue. Drug deal? I wonder. Most ‘normal’ people tend to avoid this area; some unaware of its existence; some afraid; some appalled. It evokes an inevitable discomfort that people do not want to experience or face. I however, find my heart longs to be here, strange as it seems, in the presence of people such as these.
Time passes and a large number of sleeping bags and blankets cover the ground as people settle into their concrete beds for the night; it reminds me of a horror I saw in Kolkata, India three years ago. I remember countless men, women, and children scattered along seemingly every sidewalk. The sheer number alone was sufficient to radically shock me, but the reality I saw with my own eyes had a profound impact. How can I go on with life, doing nothing, ignoring and pretending this tragedy does not exist while I carefully chase after the American Dream?? I remember thinking to myself.
Here in my own hometown, I meditate on this question as I look out and see men, women and children right before my very eyes who have no place to go. The questions that follow provoke tremendous thought. Do I embrace those who are ‘the least of these’? Do I engage those who many call today, ‘the other’ or simply remain an outsider looking in; a mere observer who remains comfortable, safe, unchanged and uninvolved? Do I use my voice to inform the world of this real life, real people, and real need?
Video of Guitar Guy on YouTube