My daughter, a magazine journalism student, is always writing and editing stories for her classes and for campus magazines. It's fun to listen to her talk about her writing — what angle she's going to take, what she is going to emphasize. Last week, her assignment was to interview someone from the local community for her travel writing class. The rule was that she couldn't talk to anyone connected to the university. The teacher wanted students to go beyond campus.
Of course, Wonderful Smart Beautiful Daughter has lived here her whole life so, unlike many of her classmates, she knows all kinds of people in the community. She has all kinds of contacts.
"But I didn't want to do anything with a public official," she told me later. "And I didn't want to talk about snow."
She paused. "Or salt. Or the canal. Or the mall."
Those stories have all been done before.
On the way to my daughter's off-campus apartment, right near the ramp coming off the highway, a homeless man often stands with a big sign that reads, "God Bless You." The on-ramps and off-ramps are popular places for street people to beg for money; when the light is red, they have a captive audience.
My daughter decided that a person who lived on the streets of Snowstorm City might best the best person to interview for her story. She parked at a gas station and watched Man With God Bless You Sign for almost two hours. "It seemed weird at first," she said, "like .... was I just going to go up to a stranger and say, hey, can I talk to you?"
But finally she just walked up to him and said, "Hey, want to go get something to eat?" and gestured towards the gas station. He smiled and said, "That would be nice."
"And after that, it felt normal," she said. "Once we started talking, it was fine." She introduced herself and told him that she was a student at the university. They went into the gas station and bought coffee, chips, cigarettes, and hot cocoa. ("Nothing nutritious?" I asked. She laughed. "I kept asking him that too, and then he kept saying to me, 'Are you sure you aren't hungry?'")
It was a cold day, so they sat inside her car and talked. He pointed out the other street people. He said he knew which ones were really homeless and which were not. One man had a disability and slept under the bridge at night. But then he pointed out one man who isn't really homeless. His wife has a job, and when he makes about $40, he give her $5, and then spends the rest on alcohol.
Then he told his own story. He'd been in prison, he said. For two years. He was with his cousin when the cousin was stealing tools from a high school tool shed. He was just an accomplice, he said, but he already had a record, so he went to prison. Before prison, he had family and friends.
When he got out, he had no one.
After talking for awhile, my daughter asked Man With God Bless You Sign if he needed a ride, and then drove him to the next place he wanted to be. When she said goodbye, he said, "If you ever want to come and hang out, you know where to find me."