Saturday, December 03, 2011

this is a hard one

Gavin and I enjoyed a really fine meal at some fancy Italian restaurant tonight downtown.  White linens and people waiting right beside you to refill a drink or take away a plate.  One could get comfortable like this.  Ahhh, this is the life.  We had a $100 gift certificate and we still owed $85 at the end of the meal.  All those around us looked very happy.  Very tan.  Very well-groomed.  Life is good when you are rich.  Not that we are.  We were just pretending tonight.  Just rubbing shoulders with those that can afford to eat like this every night.  You know the scene from Bridesmaids, where she gives the valet her car, and it won't turn over?  That was us.  Our "nice" car (nice being a five year old Saturn) was out of gas so we'd driven our Jeep that rattles not just from car issues but from the ten tons of glass in the back that have been in there for a decade waiting to be taken up to the parking lot behind the zoo where you can recycle glass.

So, Gavin and I are walking out of the restaurant, about to return to the reality of our junker car.  When I pass a man.  We recognize each other.  But we pass him before I can say anything.  And by the time I can tell Gavin who it is, the man is down at the end of the street.  It was someone we knew in Boston.  Another life.  Gavin was a youth leader in our Boston LDS ward.  I guess that I, by default, was too.  This man was a teenager then.  I won't go in to details about his life, but let's just say that he had about as many hurdles thrown his way as a human in America could possibly have.  I could not even fathom what he had gone through with my sheltered existence that I'd had in my bubble of a reality.  And here we were, these naive White, privileged people who took him in to our house every Wednesday where we would show him, look, if you just believe, everything can work out.  You can have a life like ours.  You can be happy.  Gavin would take him, and the other inner-city boys like him, in our Lexus SUV, to bowling alleys, and out for pizza.  We'd give him a ride to church on Sundays.  He'd stay over for Sunday dinners.  In our minds, his start had been rough, but he could beat it.  He could overcome all the odds that had been stacked against him.  If he was just good enough, just worthy enough, it would all work out.

Fast forward six years.  Gavin and I are living in Utah.  We've been in Salt Lake, living our comfortable life.  All of those "inner-city people" are just memories to us now.  Sure, we could have stayed in contact, but what did we really have in common with them, now that there were no ward obligations tying us to them.  And I am sure that a new batch of eager young White well-to-do families moved in and took right over where we left off.  I am sure he, along with all the others, became someone else's project.

And tonight here he was, standing at the corner.  He looked homeless.  And maybe that's why I didn't grab him right when I saw him.  I didn't grab him and hug the teenager that I loved.  The teenager that was darling with my young son.  The teenager that had been a part of our family.  Did I not say anything because I knew how pathetic I was to drop contact with him after we moved?  Or did I not say anything because I had heard through the rumor mill that he was homeless.  That he had moved out here hoping for a better life, but it hadn't happened.  Was I scared of his situation, or the reality of how I had behaved?

Gavin didn't believe it was him.  How could it be?  But I knew.  We got in the car, and drove to the corner.  I rolled down the window and shouted his name.  He turned around, he knew it was us.  Then we were screwed.  What did we expect?  That it would be like old times?  What DID we really have in common with him now?  We'd tried to save him once...were we there to try it again?  It was obvious that he was about as down on his luck as he could get.  How do you even start small talk?

We attempted.  Greetings.  Hugs.  Overly cheery inquiries as to how he was.  He stammered.  He felt ashamed.  He made excuses.  He said he had to be somewhere soon.  We must have looked like the Gestapo.  My heart hit my feet.  How can I even be studying social work, and the pursuit of helping those in need, when I can't even befriend someone who is in the same marginalized situation?  It's fun to talk about the poor, the minorities, the mentally ill, the needy, the homeless.  It's fun when you don't know them, and you don't know that they shouldn't be in the situation they are in.  That they are bright and funny, and wonderful, and someones child, and that they have dreams and hopes.  That's when it feels like crap- reality.  That's when you simply feel like crap.

I proceeded to make it worse by offering him money.  Gavin gave him his card.  WHAT WERE WE TRYING TO DO??!!  I have no words.  The sadness for him.  The furry over the situation he was in.  The frustration at my own ineptitude, my self-loathing over my own abandonment of this person.  I could not digest it all.  And that was our night.  The sexiness of the $200 dinner waned when we were confronted with reality right outside.  Tonight, the homeless have a face.  It's one that will haunt me until I come to some conclusion as to how I can be an advocate and a friend.  I have no delusions about taking this young man in to our home and saving him.  I know that I honestly can't even be his friend at this point because I don't know what his mental state is.  I would never put our children in danger like that.  Hello, Elizabeth Smart.  But I can not just pray for this kid anymore.  Nope.  This young man needs more than good karma.  He needs help and support.

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