I see lots of people in deep despair almost every day. I have worked in downtown Boston since 1997. I walk a mile or two every day back and forth from the train and at lunch. In the process I see the disadvantaged, the homeless, and those struggling just to get by on many corners and down many alleys. Over the course of time, you get to know some of them, certainly by sight and some by name.
In the morning near the Boston Public Library there are two men on opposite sides of the street. Each distributes newspapers. Each possesses charisma in abundance. One of the gentlemen sells a paper called Spare Change News, a weekly paper that focuses on the plight of the homeless. Each issue is $1 and it lets the homeless help themselves. The best word to describe his fashion sense is debonair. He always wears sunglasses. In the cool weather he wears a jacket and tie, often with a handkerchief. In summer he wears plaid cabana suits that he somehow pulls off as stylish. Every time I see him he points at me and with a gravelly jazz voice he says “There he is..” I am pretty sure he is so good at what he does that he is not homeless. He cheers me up.
On the other side of the street is a young man probably about twenty five or thirty years younger. He is there every day distributing a paper called the Metro. It is a daily free paper produced with commuters in mind by the same people who publish the Globe. His style is more hip hop. He also has a great sense of style. He greets everyone he encounters with some positive message. He exudes the same charm that David Ortiz flashes in a post game interview after a game winning home run. If you don’t take a paper he’ll give you a fist bump. If you are pretty enough he’ll give you a hug. Every time I see him he flashes a Hollywood smile and says “my hero”. He cheers me up.
My heart doesn’t ache for these two. I do not mean to present them as subjects of despair. I respect and admire their work ethic. They are out there day in and day out fighting the battle. In the process they spread some sunshine. I need it sometimes and I’m glad they are there.
On the other side of Copley Square, by the steps of the Trinity Church, the scene is a little different. There is a man who has all his possessions stored in about four shopping carts. He is a mountain of a man and he wears layer upon layer of tattered clothing, even in summer. If you have ever seen the play Cats, he is a nearly exact visual match for the character “Old Deuteronomy.” He often sleeps on top of a grate that expels God knows what type of exhaust from deep beneath the city. It is nearly impossible to walk by without a little bit of heartbreak. One thing I noticed, however, is that he is never panhandling or asking for anything. I get the sense that he is a self-sustaining survivor. He accumulates and travels with what he feels he needs to help him get through another day. I take some comfort in that.
But this morning I saw something remarkable. Amidst all of his dreary, shabby possessions I saw a splash of color out of the corner of my eye. On top of one of the carts, Old Deuteronomy had a small collection of coffee cups, some from Starbucks, some from Dunkin Donuts. In those cups he had soil and in that soil he had little plants, little flowering plants. I desperately wanted to snap a picture with my phone but it felt disrespectful.
I have seen some beautiful gardens in my travels. Usually they are over the top expressions of power and wealth built by aristocrats during some by gone era. In stark contrast, here was this little personal garden, planted and cultivated by one the most unfortunate souls you will ever encounter. It stopped me in my tracks. It cheered me up.
We live in a complex world and sometimes it is easy to get discouraged. Then again, it could always be worse, much worse. I just need to keep reminding myself to look at the bright side. And cheer up.