I just finished reading Dennis Cardiff’s Gotta Find a Home: Conversations with Street People. He has an equally engrossing blog here, which I highly recommend. The book is a series of essays detailing the lives of panhandlers; he writes in quick, easy-to-access vignettes. The people he writes about are endearing, despite their faults. He details their struggles with addiction, alcoholism and abuse with compassion, but without apology. I read the book quickly, but it stuck with me afterwards.
A lot of his experiences are very similar to mine, back when I was working in the high poverty area. Most of my work was with children, but I helped their families too, assisting them with understanding bills, gathering and delivering toys, clothes and food, and just sitting in my classroom listening to them tell me about their lives. Many of the parents would simply sit at my desk and tell me stories about their own parents, their jobs (or lack thereof), their children, their evenings at clubs or sitting around a garbage can with a fire in it. They told me about their money, their bills, their houses, and their friends. Sometimes, they told me more than I ever wanted to know, but I still listened. They needed that outlet, and just needed someone, anyone, to listen.
Many people ask me why those people I worked with spent what money they had on alcohol, drugs and cigarettes. Much of it can be summed up in a quote from one of the moms: “I know I should do other things with my money. I know I should, but I can’t get any higher than this. I never went to school. I don’t have a car. There’s no one safe to look after my kids. I can’t get a better job. My house is probably going to be condemned. I go home at night after my third shift at McDonald’s, and I just want to be away for awhile. I just want to not think about it and get through another day. that’s all.” When it seems that there’s no chance of upward mobility, why would you? There’s nothing to gain.
(If you’re going to ask me why someone would get hooked on drugs in the first place, read this: A Tale of a Drug Addict. It’s not that hard.)
And yet in spite of that, they could be incredibly nice people, even the ones I was initially scared of. Our area was riddled with gang violence, drugs and violence, but once I knew them, I felt protected. For example, one day, I was walking into school with one of my students and her dad. The little girl was holding my hand and he was quizzing her on her spelling words. To my dismay, I saw four men start casing my car, peering in the windows. I knew better than to say anything, but I was so afraid it would be robbed. The dad saw my face and said, “That your car?” I nodded. He stormed across the street, yelling rather profanely about what he’d do if they touched it. They fled, running faster than I ever thought capable. He came back and said, “They touch your car, I’ll take care of it. I’m a mechanic.” (and, it turned out, a drug lord.) He hugged his daughter, clapped me on the back and said, “You take care of my girl!” No one ever approached my car again, and he walked me out to the parking lot at night when it would be dangerous.
Another was yet another dealer, gang tattoos emblazoned across is arms and face. He sat down across from me at parent teacher conferences, arms folded, looking silently at his son’s work and grades. I was worried he was unhappy. Finally, he looked me straight in the eye and said, with an unmistakable wobble in his voice, “My boy can read now. I can’t. You did that, Ms. Ohnaka. My boy reads.” He shook my hand. “Anything you need, ma’am.” He walked out. He was another who hung out on the sidelines after school, watching. There seemed to be a silent law that the school was off limits.
I think so much of that was simply from being someone who would sit and listen. So few people do. Bravo to Mr. Cardiff, who, no doubt, has changed many lives by being willing to simply listen.