C and D are for “City Dweller”: face-to-face with homelessness

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It’s been an adjustment living close to downtown. Besides my door mat being stolen (what the hell is a thief going to do with a turquoise welcome mat that says “live life in a bikini”?!) and navigating the bus system and the catcalls, I’ve enjoyed the fall color changes.

One of the main arteries in Denver is Colfax street, which runs east and west all the way into Aurora. Let’s say that it doesn’t have the most polished reputation. It’s well-known as a street where you must be vigilant if you’re walking  there at night. I live close to this street, which buzzes with cars, restaurant go-ers, and folks who “experience” homelessness. Just on Thursday, I walked out to the apartment complex foyer, and a man was curled up on the floor, sleeping. Honestly, my first thought was “I’m not going to wake him up because it looks like he needs rest.”  Who am I to ask a fellow struggling human being to take their problems elsewhere? To be completely honest, a couple of months ago when I went into a dental clinic and marked down “transitory” on their intake form, and realized that “crashing at a friend’s house temporarily” fell under their umbrella of “homeless”, my face flushed with shame.

Call me calloused, but I don’t smile when assholes pester me (“How about a smile, huh?”) while I’m walking. I don’t say hello to the man who smells like piss and holds a cardboard sign at a corner. I don’t make eye contact with the men and women sitting on the sidewalk who park their grocery carts piled high with belongings. If my own Malagasy people think all Americans are rich, I will walk them around this city to see veterans peddling for money, a man holding a child stopping people coming out of Walgreens as he asks for however much he needs for this child/nephew/random kid who might not even be related to him, and pregnant moms approaching others at gas stations to ask for gas money. If we aren’t addicts, fighting mental illness, or scrounging together change for bus fares, then we certainly know someone who is.

Living near the heart of the city feels like being exposed. You see the streets’ filthy grime. You observe the composition, color, and style of graffiti on abandoned buildings while you ride the rail. You hear teens laugh on their way to or from 16th street mall. You catch the business folks biking to work or taking a lunch stroll.

But it’s here that I learn the most about what it means to be human. There is little to buffer me from poverty, pretentiousness, pain, or brokenness. Luxury high rises aren’t far from squalid alleys. That good-looking couple with their fancy shopping bags has things to hide like that haggard old man who sits almost lifelessly on a street corner.

I’m learning about my own prejudices, and hoping that I garnish wisdom from the visible gaps I sense between me and my neighbor. Even the ones who take my cool welcome mat.

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