By Robert Gillis
Published in the Foxboro Reporter and the Boston City Paper, 7/2018
“When I close my eyes, so I would not see / My Lord did trouble me / When I let things stand that should not be / My Lord did trouble me / Did trouble me / With a word or a sign / With a ring of a bell in the back of my mind / Did trouble me / Did stir my soul / For to make me human, to make me whole”
– “Did Trouble Me,” by Tom Jones
For the six years I worked in Boston, I encountered many homeless people. I got to know some of them pretty well, made friends with more than one, stopped and chatted with some, and others I would just sometimes drop a dollar or two in their cup or buy the Spare Change newspaper. For the guy with the “hungry” sign, sometimes I bought him lunch.
I may an easy mark, but I still keep an eye out for the scammers. I vividly recall the lady with the bizarre knitted hat who told me on two separate occasions that her purse had been stolen and she needed to get back to Worcester. In both cases, I recommended she speak with the T police, report the incident, and I was sure they would get her back to Worcester. To not be a jerk, I did not tell her that she needed to change up her story. And there were others where it was SO obvious they were not exactly in need.
While there are scammers out there, I maintain that no one voluntarily scams people by sleeping in a doorway when it’s below freezing outside. A scammer isn’t going to stay in torrential rain or blazing sun for days just to get a few bucks from you. There are SO many genuinely homeless and needy people in Boston who are not trying to scam or deceive, but to survive.
BUT — It’s often hard to tell the difference.
Also, and I’m ashamed to admit it, but I don’t always help. There were many mornings when I would cross the street – I either didn’t have change on me or couldn’t deal with it. Some mornings, I brought a McDonald’s breakfast to John, or we’d chat for half hour after work. Some days, Wayne got a few dollars. Other days, I crossed the street or just waved or smiled, it was the best I could do. I don’t always help. And sometimes, I don’t even help when asked. But I try and I do what I can.
Last year, I was in Copley Square and it was VERY cold out; the homeless woman was selling the Spare Change newspaper. I brought her a sandwich, milk and apples from CVS, gave her a few dollars and asked if she had a place to go that night – she did; and she was grateful for the help. I once passed a homeless man and said I was going to the store, could I get him something? He asked for a package of Tums; his stomach hurt. I picked up a large bottle of Tums for him, and some milk.
I don’t tell you these because I am a great guy who wants praise. I do these things because I can. And it’s the right thing to do. And as I mentioned, I don’t always help.
I bring this up because I had a remarkable experience in Boston a few weeks back. It was a vacation day, and I am back in Boston, walking and taking pictures on a gorgeous blue-sky day. That day’s photo expedition / walking tour was to the North End area, and I captured many new images and took in the joy of just walking in a city I love so much and enjoying all it has to offer.
What happened next is what I want to talk about. And this exactly what happened, no embellishment:
I’m done for the day, been out for hours, ready to head home. I’m at Government Center and I’m thirsty. I walk over to the CVS for some of that cool antioxidant drink and there’s a guy with a cup asking for money – he doesn’t say anything. I just tell him (truthfully) that I don’t have any cash on me. I get my two bottles of fruit juice and I don’t make eye contact as I leave.
And for some reason, this time, it feels wrong. I start feeling really guilty. I start the excuses. I can’t feed everyone (and I know I can’t) I can’t say yes to everyone even if they ask.
But something feels off.
I sit on a bench in front of the T station and have my drink and I am feeling like dirt. And I keep making excuses in my head. This one I nagging me. Why?
And suddenly, the woman – presumably homeless and I’m guessing in some way mentally ill — is stomping past me, muttering what I can only call gibberish and talking about serial killers…
…and then she spits – yes, spits – at my feet.
I’m a little shaken by the experience. OK, a lot shaken and spooked, I pay my fare and go downstairs into Government Center station, telling the T employee that when someone spits at you in Boston, it’s time to go home.
But as stand by the escalator and finish my drink, I can’t shake the feeling that I need to go back. I’m not kidding – I HAD to go back.
So I head upstairs, back to CVS, and I say “God, you sent me back here, what does that guy need? Seriously, I need some advice here.” And I picked up a sandwich, some fruit, and a bottled water. I got $10 cash back on the purchase and pocketed one of the $5’s – I didn’t know it, but the Good Lord had plans for that fiver.
I walked back outside and saw the homeless man with the cup. I said to him, “I know this will sound strange but I had to come back to you,” and I have him the food and $5. He didn’t say anything; maybe he was confused, maybe he didn’t understand. It didn’t matter. He needed it. I knew it.
I crossed the street to the same bench and there’s a kid sitting there, probably a student, maybe twenty, and suddenly, unexpectedly, serial killer lady walks by again, muttering about serial killers and crosses the street and sits on the sidewalk near Three Center plaza. I just sort of stare across the street. She really freaked me out.
I said to the young man on the bench to be careful, and explained that the woman spit at me right here he was sitting and clearly had issues.
His response REALLY surprised me. It was what I call a God moment. When you know the person you’re speaking to is there specifically for you — to tell you something. This is NOT a coincidence.
He said something like, “It’s so sad. There’s such a stigma. She clearly has problems”
I agreed and said it’s very sad, my perspective suddenly more focused.
Then he asked (this was the gut punch, by the way):
“Did you notice that her right hand is broken?”
No, I hadn’t noticed that. No.
My encounter with a total stranger, muttering about serial killers and spitting at me was suddenly replaced by compassion. I chatted with the young man another minute or two and I told him, “I can see you have a good heart.” And I get that vibe again. There’s more going on here that I can see. Why is this kid in the same spot at just the right moment with the right words?
So I see that “serial killer” lady is still across the street. Now, I am NOT advising most people to do this – you have to evaluate what could be dangerous and what is not. Confronting strangers — especially people who appear mentally ill – is not advisable. Kids, don’t do this.
But speaking ONLY for myself, I had a vibe it would be OK. It was a crowded street, I felt no danger. So I crossed the street to the lady, still sitting on the ground with (presumably) all her belongings.
Carefully, slowly, like approaching a scared cat, I smiled and said, “Hi, can I give you 5 dollars?”
BIG SMILE. “Yes, thank you, God bless you!”
I hand her the $5 and say God bless you and hope that she will be OK. I notice her hand. It’s in a splint or two and looks like she’s in pain. It must REALLY hurt. I feel very bad for her because she clearly isn’t going to be able to get it fixed any time soon.
And I will pray for her.
And just in case I had any doubts that there was some divine intervention at work here, I head back downstairs to Government Center to wait for my trolley and I swear this is true, there’s a billboard for “Oculus Go,” a new virtual reality goggles/headset. And their tagline flashes on the billboard.
I am not making this up. It says: OPEN YOUR EYES.
Sometimes the Good Lord is subtle.
Sometimes the message is delivered with a gross action and literally flashing on a billboard.
But the message was received loud and clear.
It took someone spitting at me to make me realize that sometimes I get a little too lost in my own complacency. As a priest I respect very much often says, we should never be COMFORTABLE in our spirituality.
The experience was a wake-up call I needed. Because it made me think.
I still can’t help everyone in need. I still can’t end world hunger. And in the future, there will still have to be times when I can’t help, and when I will cross the street. But I will THINK first, and evaluate it first. And try to do better, try to do a little more.
I will try to OPEN MY EYES more.
Because I got tapped on the shoulder and reminded to OPEN MY EYES and see beyond the surface and maybe look a little closer before I automatically say no to a homeless person.
So — for those folks who say God doesn’t exactly flash messages on a billboard?
Um, yeah, sometimes he does exactly that.
Open your eyes.