Van the Homeless Man

A Van Morrison song is following me around like Marley’s Ghost, with a pennywhistle replacing the clanking iron chains. I wake up in the middle of the night and “Celtic Ray” starts right in:

“There’s a stranger, and he’s standing 
 By your door. Might be your best friend,
 Might be your brother,
 You may never know.”

All in Van Morrison’s guttural voice, like a glowing log in a fireplace dropping embers. What can it mean? What; can it; mean???

As a preemptive measure, I have for the past two days shared food and supplies with a homeless woman in Grand Park. The notion came to me while I was mulling over how to atone for not participating in the LA Homeless Count three days ago. That was supposed to be my way of doing something about the plague of homelessness in Los Angeles. Not that the people are the plague. Their lack of shelter is the plague.

I intended to participate. It was on my calendar and I thought I was signed up, but no one ever got in touch with me and when the night came to do it, I stayed at school analyzing reading comprehension data instead of going to where the meeting was last year.

Last year I went to the community room at Mar Vista Park. There were tasty treats and maps of different sections of the neighborhood, and everyone got a tasty treat and a map. We partnered up. My partner was a nice lady who sells antiques and whose husband is in the hydraulic lift business. We had lots of time to talk about the hydraulic lift business because we did not spot a single homeless person in our section of West LA between Sawtelle and Centinela, Palms and National. We looked, too, with flashlights in alleys that were already brightly lit. We had brought flashlights, though, and wanted to use them.

Had we actually seen any homeless people, we were not supposed to interact with them. No tapping on the window of the cars they appeared to be living in. No ducking inside of their tents. We were entrusted solely with tallying, so the city could get a better sense of scope of the problem. Within our square mile, there was no problem, however, and we were the first team to finish. The organizers looked at us rather askance, as though we had rushed through our work, which we hadn’t; or as though it was somehow our fault that we had surveyed such a fortunate swath of the city, which did ring somewhat true.

What to do about it, though?

“There’s a stranger, and he’s standing, at your door,” insists the Van Morrison in my head. For most of the year since the last LA Homeless Count I was thinking, “Well, I did my part” although I had technically done precisely nothing. Then the night came and went when I might have surveyed a square mile east or south immediately adjacent to last year’s section and assigned an exact number — rather than “at least dozens” — to the recognition that there are many homeless people living in those parts of my neighborhood.

While it is important to analyze reading comprehension data, I also felt like I was shirking my civic responsibility, so to assuage my conscience, I told it, “Maybe we can figure out a more direct way to grapple with this problem.”

I was still assuaging the next day when it came to me in a flash that all of the apples and string cheese and little cartons of milk that I typically dump at the end of the day because no students have partaken of them during Breakfast in the Classroom or afterward, when all the day’s foodstuffs are set out on a table by my classroom door — I could bag all that food up and give it to the first approachable-looking homeless person I encountered on my bike ride home.

This turned out to be entirely do-able. I packed up the two extra apples and milk cartons along with a spare backyard tangerine from my lunch, swooped two blocks out of my usual way, down Spring Street instead of Hill, was surprised not to see any homeless people outside LA City Hall, doubled back to make sure, and found a placid woman sitting on a bench in Grand Park next to a grocery cart wrapped in garbage bag plastic.

I said, “I have some food left over from lunch. Can I share it with you?”
 She said, “Sure” and we did the deal. Such distinctively soft but bright blue eyes she has, the color of a freshly detailed light blue Corvette. I saw such a car right after we talked about how important it was going to be to stay dry this weekend. She was concerned about me on my bike. She saw a bicyclist in the rain recently and his wheel got stuck in a grate.

“That’s happened to me,” I shared.

“It’s like a crucifixion,” she observed, after which I nodded and we bid each other farewell.

Yesterday I brought her a couple of extra garbage bags, some twine that was adding to the towering mess on the desk immediately adjacent to my cleared-off-at-the-end-of-each-day desk, plus one left-over stuffed pizza pocket and an applesauce.

“We were talking about staying dry,” I said, making the hand-off, which she graciously accepted. Both times there’s been a lean-faced guy standing right beside her, nodding. I don’t know who he is, but he seems all right. 
 I also don’t know if we’re going to make a regular deal out of this. It feels like a day at a time kind of thing.

Meanwhile, the song “Celtic Ray” is still stuck in my head: the whole stranger-at-your-door part, but also the “This old world is so cold/don’t care nothing for your soul” part, and the pennywhistle, and the beginning: “oh won’t you stayyy, stay a while, with your own one,” followed by words I don’t understand, but I do know that voice, Van the Homeless Man, so familiar and imploring.