A few months ago I took a photography class and while I had hoped to simply learn my machine better, the instructor had art in mind. His assignments were thoughtful and could be intense. One week was never enough time to do them justice; even for the people that could devote their entire week with little other distraction.
One of the early, less intense assignments was to use color as our subject. During the critique while viewing my image of some complementary colored kayaks, he asked if I had moved the kayaks in my quest for the colors and position I captured. Of course not, far be it from me to impose myself on a kayaking company in the middle of class, or anytime really. Hell, I was impressed with myself for trespassing the private property sign on the beach to get the proximity I wanted. He reminded us not to be afraid of boldness.
I had had occasion recently to be in the less trendy parts of downtown for several evenings. I was frightened and motivated by the community of homeless people I encountered each of those evenings. Each time I passed under that bridge I cried, my stomach tied in knots, I laid awake thinking of them for hours into the night. I felt a call to do something, but what? I wondered about social programs our city offered, I thought of starting new ones, I thought of statistics and who these people might be and how that profile has likely changed dramatically in recent years. I was determined to do something the very next week I was scheduled to be in the area, and it came to me. I knew how to make a sandwich, these people were homeless and might be hungry, they might like a sandwich. Next, not only did I need to buy a loaf of bread, I needed to figure out why I was terrified, and how I was to get over the hysteria that was quickly layering atop a firm foundation of cowardice. What if I offered someone a sandwich that was neither hungry nor homeless? Now I was going to be insulting people. Perhaps even those that did need or want a sandwich didn't want me assuming they needed or wanted one. Who the hell was I to shine a light on their misfortune by offering them a damn sandwich anyway?
I might have gotten over the sandwich fear, and also facing my own fear of homelessness. But the fear of the unknown in the darkness of the city I did not get over and ultimately aborted the sandwich mission before it ever began.
I did decide to take a drive downtown one luminous Sunday morning with my camera. Later my photo instructor advised us not to photograph the homeless for many reasons, the most poignant of which was that a portrait should be a gift of sorts from the subject, a sharing of themselves and many times, the homeless don't have a lot to give. I'm glad he shared those thoughts after I had already been, as he may have dissuaded me from going. My camera was secondary on my excursion, perhaps a security blanket of sorts. My main purpose was to face what I considered unreasonable fears, in the bright of day.
I'm no master of navigation but it didn't take long to find a few streets lined with people starting their days. I circled the area. I was a stalker, a peeping tom looking in on what I take for granted are relatively quiet, private moments in my world. There were people discreetly changing clothes, having coffee, reading, brushing their teeth, chit chatting with their neighbors and sweeping their sidewalks. I saw more than one person sitting on their bedrolls putting on bright white socks, that really connected me to the experience for some reason. I do love brand new white socks myself. Still I was frightened. There was no way I was going to stroll down that street; it would be like walking through their home uninvited, how rude would that be? Also, I reminded myself sometimes we are fearful because there is actual danger.
Finally, I parked my car, got out and walked down a side street, on the right hand side that was completely uninhabited. I later found out it was uninhabited because the building had an LO8 posted, which is basically a no loitering sign. There were a couple of people that had set up their living space across the street. My intention was to cross over and maybe strike up a conversation with one of them. I don't much like to strike up conversations with any strangers let alone ones that might see me as a threat. I stayed on my side of the street. There was a woman across the way bent over a planter in the sidewalk pouring water over her head. She cared enough to wash over the planter, her run off watering the spindly city tree trying to survive. Back on my side of the street, I passed a warehouse with a large roll up garage type door halfway up. Inside were a good fifty men busting out of their wife beaters all seated in metal fold out chairs listening intently to someone lecturing about how to further thicken their necks. I crossed over and approached who I would learn was Cynthia. By this point she had also brushed her teeth and changed her shirt. There was a faded ring worn into a back pocket of her jeans. She was an ample woman, not young, not old with clear blue eyes and a sprinkling of freckles across her face. In another time and place, she might have been pretty.
First, I walked by. She was gathering her sleep mat and putting it away in her shopping cart. I turned and asked if I could photograph her, I didn't know what else to say. She was abrupt, angry, told me about how just the night before some of the guys from the other street jumped a woman with a camera and smashed it to bits. She wasn't sure about the well being of the woman. I began to relax, just a little, afterall it could have been true. Cynthia then let me know that if she were offered some money, she might be willing to be cooperate. I had expected this and it seemed reasonable so I gave her a few bucks. Her demeanor changed remarkably. She loved to talk and told me all about the routine on the streets of San Diego. Apparently she's been here only three months and moved here (how?) from the streets of Phoenix, AZ. She knows when the van comes to distribute clean needles, knows the beat of all the local police, knows where to get an afternoon shower, the library schedule and an occasional hot meal. She's found a dead body, collects used needles for money, has two kids, likes video games and reads lesbian literature. I learned that the residents on the better streets keep their shopping carts covered with tarps neatly tucked in and sweep their streets every morning to keep things looking tidy so the cops will give them less trouble and not shoo them off.
She spoke of missing her children, they were her security. Her expression darkened and she spit the words of her daughter leaving her just when they approached the top of the list for housing. Without a dependent, she lost her spot and had to go to the end of the line. She said her son was serving our country in Afghanistan. It had been her life's mission to get him in the military. She had tried to get in herself with no success. I've always appreciated the thought that one of the things that connects us, whoever or wherever we are, is that we all love our children the same. I still believe that's true in its depth, but man oh man the business of survival is tough.
Meet Cynthia, she had a lot to give. She gave me a new perspective, helped open my mind and heart and I'm thankful to have met her.