I was on trash duty wandering the parking lot carrying a 50 gallon black trash bag and picking up litter off the ground. Trash duty is cool because it gives you the opportunity to wander about casually watching everyone. Generally speaking, homeless folks get pretty suspicious when someone is watching them. My guess is that they’re more comfortable with being ignored than being watched.
I was watching because I needed to offer to take trash when folks were finished with their plate and utensils. It might seem irresponsible to most of us, but when you’re constantly hauling everything you own in a backpack, cart, or box the last thing you want to do is carry around trash you don’t need. Hence, a lot of our homeless folks simply drop their trash to the ground and keep moving.
It’s all about movement. When you live on the streets, constant daytime movement is the key to staying out of trouble. Sit stationery and people begin to notice you. Then they begin to suspiciously resent your presence. And, eventually, they complain that you’re a public nuisance. No one wants to see the homeless. Hence, when being watched homeless folks get twitchy.
It was Easter Sunday and I was downtown with my family at the ANC (Austin New Church) cookout. It was my first year to attend. My wife was working the food line doling out chips to go with the burgers. My daughter was standing at the prep table squirting ketchup on people’s hamburger buns as they came by. For whatever strange reason, this felt like EXACTLY how my family should be spending Easter together. We’re weird like that.
One of my closest friends, Brandon Hatmaker (Vice President of our MC), was lead pastor of ANC. He was wandering around chatting with people in line that day. Another friend, Tray Pruet (Treasurer of our MC), was working his way in and out of the crowd keeping an eye on the large “machine” that is an ANC Cookout. Dozens of our wives and kids are mixed into the crowd serving, laughing, chatting, and humbly offering a bit of friendliness to a bunch of folks lined up in the parking lot across from the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless.
I learned that food we serve at the cookouts isn’t all that important. Food is not hard to come by for the homeless in Austin. This cookout is about providing an opportunity for us to embrace our humanity. These are people deserving of dignity and care just like the rest of us. They are deserving because they are us and we are them.
At the core, we’re all in this together. If we intend to do more than PRETEND our social structure doesn’t need repair, we have to realize that US versus THEM doesn’t work. It’s got to be WE. That’s what I’ve learned the cookouts are about. It’s about understanding how to look at people diversely different and say, “You are not the enemy. WE are in this together.”
So, I was on trash duty.
I’d been cruising the parking lot for over an hour when I looked up to see a homeless guy standing about 50 yards away. I recognize this guy. Without hesitation, I began to walk directly at this person stepping around a few people in the process. As I come to within 10 yards, the guy notices me coming his way with a purpose. He’s reading my body language and uncertain of my intent. I see the guy shift his stance and set his pivot foot as I’m within 5 yards, so I stopped. I looked the guy straight in the eye and said, “Ricky, it’s me, Bonar.” He blinks twice and looks at me really hard before saying, “Bonar Lee Crump, what the hell are you doing here?”
Ricky is my first cousin on my dad’s side of the family. My earliest memories of Ricky were being pulled behind his dad’s boat on inner tubes and later honing our waterskiing skills together. My later memories of Ricky were of visitations in state juvenile facilities. Later still, years would go by without seeing him at family reunions. He seemed to spend all of his time in jail. Ricky never fit in. I don’t think anyone ever knew what to do with him. I don’t think anyone ever knew how to coach him, parent him, mentor him, or live with him. I refuse to pretend to understand the boy that he was—the man that he became—or the man that was standing in front of me that day. To offer some form of explanation of his life would do nothing more than strip the man of his dignity and suggest that he’d failed somehow. I’ve been treated that way at times in my life, and I try not to author any such prejudice on others if at all possible. In truth, we’d all failed HIM as much as anything.
Once he recognized me, I stuck out my hand. When we shook, I pulled him in for a half shake/hug. I was genuinely excited to see Rick. The last time I’d laid eyes on him he was in a wheelchair. I seem to recall that he’d been living under a bridge in Waxahachie when he was attacked by someone with a tire iron. Ricky earned two broken ankles from that encounter.
I drew back from the hug and said, “you made it out of that damn wheel chair, and I see you’ve got your pivot foot back.” He smirked and admitted he was about to square up and strike at me before he realized who I was.
I hung out with Ricky the rest of the afternoon. We talked a little about family. I tentatively asked where he was staying and if he needed any family members’ phone numbers. He asked about my family. I took him over for an introduction to my wife and daughter. Then I asked Brandon to take a photo of me and Rick. I’ll never forget the look on Brandon’s face when I introduced him to my cousin, Ricky Belk. We had big smiles and parted ways with a hug. I made sure he had my business card and cel number before leaving, but I knew he’d never call.
One year later, at the ANC Cookout I ran into Ricky again. Ever since then, I look for him whenever we go downtown. I’m always hoping to see him so that I can relay his whereabouts and general sense of well-being to other family members scattered across the state.
Ricky fits my limited understanding of what “chronically homeless” means. The dangers that come with living on the streets are more familiar to him than the “normalcy” most of us embrace. I would guess that he considers the folks he “camps” with as closer family than those of us that share his same DNA. Of course, I don’t know any of this for sure because when I see Ricky all we do is swap info about family and talk about where we’ve been fishing lately.
Ricky is a part of me. I am a part of Ricky. I do not pity him. He doesn’t covet my life. We are two men from different walks of life that can sit on the same curb and share a burger together. It really doesn’t have to be any more complicated than that. Sometimes I can tell he’s high. Sometimes I can smell the alcohol on his breath. Sometimes I can tell by his body language that he’s answering one of my questions with uncertainty and telling me what he thinks I want to hear. Sometimes I hand him whatever cash I have on me not knowing what he’ll spend it on. When I get to see Ricky we always smile, hug, talk, and walk over to my girls so that he can say hello and give them a hug.
I couldn’t wait to tell everyone we’d stumbled upon one another. I hope people feel that way about me sometimes. I hope that other people feel that way about Ricky from time to time. I hope that we can all stop occasionally and have a burger with someone that’s different. I hope that we can appreciate the diversity of our lives and experiences and GET the fact that sharing the burger might be all that’s necessary. You don’t have to justify who you are, and I don’t have to justify who I am. I think that’s the kind of thing that breaks down our US versus THEM dilemma.
But what do I know? I’m just the guy that picks up trash…