Even during the rainy season, a bicycle trail is a perfect paradise for someone who dislikes driving as much as I do. I find it calming to be fully engaged in the physicality of getting from here to there.
As soon as I begin peddling, little sparks of joy bubble up in me like fizz. But the real point is that we notice more at bicycle speed, and I want to notice. It would feel like a mistake not to notice the newest jury-rigged tarp strung between branches along the trail, so stark and, yet, so full of determination, I need to look away.
Everything about makeshift survival is admirable and horrifying at the same time. I feel queasy to think of this now, nearly as queasy as I felt then, but what on earth will it be like in 10 years as our city becomes more crowded and even more expensive, every tent standing alone and, yet, together, simmering like a huge pot? Until it boils over again.
Last summer, during the heat wave, I remember looking down on one of my favorite beaches only to see several crooked tents against the bluff and thinking, of course, the homeless like this beach as much as I do. Why didn’t I think of camping there?
But today, a young man is standing on a sheet of muddy cardboard next to the new tent, and for a moment, the earth seemed to fall away under my feet. Because what else I see is tender and good and yet countless kinds of wrong in a country rich as ours: He (her father or brother, I don’t know) is holding a little girl, maybe a year old. Their campsite is trash-strewn and reeks of urine, that horrible smell we try to protect ourselves from.
I slowed, stopped and, without thinking, said, “Good morning.”
He was a man battling some kind of chemical addiction — all you had to do was look at him to know it. And I had this clear impression that I was looking at someone struggling to cope and observing his own struggle at the same time. To have to raise a child in filth and chaos is visible in the eyes.
He looked at me, squinted, and said, sort of absently, “Good enough.”
I tried to continue riding as though nothing was different. But I live with that image every moment now; I can’t let it go.
A maternal anger has come over me. We don’t have time to work out what’s going wrong with the system, not enough to save that little girl.
I rode off wondering if her generation won’t even find homelessness newsworthy anymore because it’s so common.
My friends lean both ways. One thinks that the homeless should be “rounded up” — that is exactly what she said. As if, like the sunspot she had lasered off her cheek, we can arrest them away, like the whole problem will disappear if we’d just apply enough heat.
But another started helping in a soup kitchen long before it was cool to do so.
My mother used to say, “There but for the grace of God, go I.”
I say, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can and the patience not to smack the man in my building who said, “Mary Lou, Mary Lou,” repeating my name twice so that I, silly liberal, would understand: “What’s the point of bike lanes if they encourage more bums who can’t afford cars?”
“You are an imbecile,” I said.
It’s the kind of thing I say when I trust myself the most. It’s the kind of thing I say when I’m fed up with our failings.
I tell you, homeless children are the essential failing.
MARY LOU SANELLI’s latest book is “A Woman Writing.” For her other writings, go to www.marylousanelli.com. To comment on this column, write to QAMagNews@nwlink.com.