By Rick Hartwell
I see, on a page of poetry by Thomas Merton, the line “My sweet brother.” What I read and process instead is the line, “My street brother.” It sticks in my mind and becomes mixed with the scenes and people on a certain street in San Bernardino, California. I travel this route twice daily, and I see many of the so-called street people. And yes, they are my brothers and sisters; perhaps not by blood or birth, but by the shared humanity we must all have in common.
There are the dealers: drugs, sex, hot items of all kinds, religions, cultures, and philosophies possible. There are the users: drugs, sex, hot items of all kinds, religions, cultures, and philosophies available. And there are the refusers: drugs, sex, etc. One quickly memorizes the picture. But there are unique individuals growing through the cracks of the asphalt and concrete.
I noticed one morning the typical gang-banger walking down the sidewalk with his friend. The pants were slung low; the oversized, blazing white tee shirt was covered by the long-sleeved, flannel shirt buttoned only at the collar. He wore a thin strip of bandana around his head and across his forehead. His hair was oiled back and pulled taut into a short ponytail. He swaggered and loped from side to side down the sidewalk in unison with his similarly dressed friend.
Suddenly he turned and ran diagonally across the street, back toward what I presume is his home. He had heard a cry, or someone had yelled to him, or he had merely felt the impending loss of something that mattered to him. In any event, he dashed back across the street and scooped up the tiniest of kittens from the sidewalk. He strode purposefully back through the open gate to deliver the kitten safely back into the house and off the street -- my street brother.
I noticed one morning the newspaper vendors selling the local newspaper, The Sun, for a quarter from the corners where there are traffic signals. They make only pennies each sale, and yet they cooperate, sharing the same intersection, ducking and dodging the traffic like ricocheting pool balls bouncing from sale to sale.
There is one who stops and pauses and then dashes for the rear of a pickup truck momentarily stopped at a red light. Some might be inclined to think he intends to grab the ladder protruding from the opened camper shell, or to grab one of the available gallons of paint sitting on the bed just back from the open tailgate. He doesn’t. All he wants to do is retrieve a loose rope trailing behind the truck, unwound somehow from holding down the ladder, and stuff it back into the center of the pickup. He doesn’t even await a “thanks” or even try to sell a paper to the driver that might easily have been his natural due. He turns and dashes back across the street, dodging the starting traffic, to resume his calling -- my street brother.
In Christianity there is an ill-practiced theory of treating every stranger as if he were the Christ. I understand that myriad other religions also respect the inherent value of each person. From my perspective, of limited travel and views and streets, I try to see my street brothers and sisters for who they are and what they do beneath the stereotypes and societal labels. I try to carry their small kindnesses forward. I try to live the life I see on the streets.
Rick Hartwell is a retired middle school teacher (remember the hormonally-challenged?) living in Southern California with his wife of 47 years, Sally (upon whom he is emotionally, physically and spiritually dependent), two grown children, a daughter-in-law, two granddaughters and 16 cats! Don’t ask. Like the Transcendentalists and William Blake, he believes that the instant contains eternity.