February 13, 2008

Street edge

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."


kathy a. said...

i love your daughter! not sure how this interview will work for a travel writing class -- the trip you don't want to take? but it is good journalism. and i suspect that she has an eye for stories that go deeper.

better yet, she now has a new lens for looking at the invisible people in snowstorm city. this man has the inside scoop on his colleagues. his own story is very sad, but not all that unusual. he made stupid mistakes, and ended up with less than nothing; he ended up with nobody.

Mom2BJM(Amy) said...

Your daughter is a very insightful young lady.. what a neat story.

We have an elderly man that stands next to the exit of a grocery store.. with his walker!! I drove past him to the store yesterday, and decided I could spare a couple of dollars, but alas.. he was not there when I left. Thankfully we are not a snowstorm city, but yet a city where the snowbirds flock to when it is cold outside!

Cathy said...

I dare say there was no one else who interviewed someone homeless.
What a great learning experience for her in so many ways.

Anonymous said...

What a powerful story. I am sure you have been an amazing influence on this young woman/writer. You have a lot to be proud of.

Liz Miller said...

What they said.

crazymumma said...

Incredible woman your daughter.

Girlplustwo said...

what a wonderful thing. i have the pleasure of working with homeless folks daily - and the simple courtesy of acknowledgement can mean so very much.

the young shall lead.

Yankee, Transferred said...

The apple doesn't fall far from the tree, does it? She's terrific and it's no wonder.

You must be so proud of her.

YourFireAnt said...

Ja(e), your title immediately intrigues me. Then the writing subtly builds its edge: the highway off ramp; the streets, gas station, cold day, the man coming into her car, the prison record, the nothing, the no one.....

By the end he could not be more other, and you have scooped me right into your narrative with the daughter who is bravely out in the streets on a cold day, maybe even a little scared, and willing to go where she needs to go for the story she will get.

Good writing.


Wayfarer Scientista said...

good for your daughter! she sounds fabulous.

a/k/a Nadine said...

I have to agree with everyone, your daughter sounds fabulous.

ccw said...

A wonderful young woman. You must be so proud of her.

Anonymous said...

My first thought was, I hope she wasn't alone.

That strikes me as an incredibly risky thing for an attractive young woman to do.

Peter said...

Tangentially relevant: check out this morning's New York Times. There is an article on the increasing number of attacks by youth and young adults on homeless people. Many of these unprovoked attacks are fatal.

I agree with all the comments applauding your daughter's courage and compassion. Her writing may be part of what has to become a turn-around in attitudes about homeless and other victimized people.

Anonymous said...

Allowing a homeless man in her car I agree was risky.If you have lived someplace where you see the homeless every day , you will see how mental illness, + or substance abuse can suddenly change the behavior of people that seem quite docile most of the time. There is a difference between courage and simply being naive.

RageyOne said...

I bet that will be an intriguing article.

angelfeet said...

That's a very special story.