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It was a balmy night in Baltimore, late July. The plan was to meet my CouchSurfing hosts at a bar where they would be performing their guitar-fiddle-duo music – and for free! I was looking forward to this! Another friend dropped me on the curb, just up the block, and I made my way to the venue. As I approached the door, it became clear to me that the man sitting at the door was not going to just let me by. I began pulling out my wallet to show my ID.

“You here for the show?” he asked, eyes fixed on the guitar case strapped to my back.
“No, I’m here to see some friends play.”
“Oh, ok. Eight dollars.”
What? I thought this was free!
“Well, I don’t have any money. I was busking all day, only made a couple bucks.”
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He turned to another guy sitting in the foyer with him and continued their conversation. I pretended to be interested in it, standing awkwardly in the doorway and waiting for a good chance to chime in with something witty or charming enough that he’d let me in: one of the many behaviors that makes me socially awkward. After a long time of standing there silently and moving out of the way, holding the door for paying customers, I decided that it was now far too awkward. I would just slowly back out of the doorway and wait outside for my hosts to finish their set.


“Can you spare some change?”
I had watched him walk toward me. He was a tall white man with a thick gray beard, inappropriately dressed for the warm weather – with a jacket, long pants, and who-knows-how-many layers, he must have been baking under all that clothes! He was obviously homeless and there was no surprise when he asked for change. Still, I could hardly afford to spare.
“Sorry, I don’t have anything.”
[Which wasn’t true, of course. But this is my knee-jerk response to homeless people, unless I feel as though I can spare. The statement would certainly be true if I tacked  “to spare” on the end of it.]
He looked at me incredulously. There was a little bit of crazy in those eyes.
“Sorry, man. I wish I could help.” And it was true! I really wish I could. The thing that most upsets me about being a starving artist is the inability to be generous.
“You don’t have any money?”
I shook my head no, “sorry.”
“I’m hungry, I need food.”
“Me too, man, I can’t help you.”
This seemed to upset him. “I’m homeless! You’re not homeless!”
“How do you know? You don’t know that. You don’t know anything about me! How dare you assume anything about me?”
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I was truly upset about his attempts at leveraging his poverty to assert his entitlement to what little money I had. I don’t appreciate when homeless people have an attitude of entitlement about that which belongs to others. I was also somewhat concerned about my safety, standing in the dim light of the street. Would anyone see or hear me scream?
He ignored my queries “Look at me! I’m homeless! Do you have any idea what it’s like out here?”
 “Actually, I do have an idea. I’m homeless too. Traveling, hitchhiking, busking. I’m trying to make my way right now too!”
And I didn't mention this, but I slept on the streets of Orlando for a week during my spring break in 2006, just to see what it was like. I think I got a pretty good taste.
He said he had seen me busking earlier in the day. Still, “you have a home! You have a place to live! I have to dig my food out of the trash!”
Were we really having a who’s-more-homeless-than-whom fight? Surely he would win out; but not with the trash argument!
“So do I! I dig through the trash for food too!”
Stumped, he turned and walked away slowly. With shoulders slumped he looked so… lonely. Feeling compassion on him, I called to him after he had walked about half the block, “have a good night!”
He wheeled around and approached me menacingly, “good night?! How can I have a good night? This is where I sleep! This is my home! The earth is my home, I sleep outside! Rain or shine.”
He started telling me about himself, his parents and wife. To my great dismay, I can only remember a small bit of what he said; but here's the Cliff’s Notes version:
  • His parents are long dead, I think he said they died in a plane crash.
  • He had been married to Janis Joplin (but doesn't miss her)
  • He is Jesus. Like, you know, the Jesus.

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Jesus and I talked for a while longer. I was glad to keep him company for a part of his night. When my hosts appeared, I introduced them to Jesus. They were as surprised as I was! The guitarist, Ben, apologized about the cover ordeal. He didn’t know they would be charging at the door. Jesus didn’t stay much longer and the rest of us headed to Ben’s home. He was sorry that I had to talk to “that homeless guy” for so long.
“No worries, I didn’t mind at all! I love talking to homeless people. I’m practically one of them myself. Besides, I met Jesus tonight! In the flesh!"
How many people can say that?

By: Gio Andollo

 
 
I left for my Vagrants & Vagabonds, Outlaws & Thieves tour in late July, which Joe played no small part in inspiring. About seven weeks later I spotted him in his usual Tuesday morning location. The first thing I noticed – and it still makes me cringe, just thinking about it – was the abrasions on his scalp. Still open and bleeding after 7 weeks! As I sat and talked with him, he would reach up every now and again to scratch at the scabs. I decided not to mention it, I only pray this doesn’t lead to something worse, like infection.
Joe was dressed rather comfortably for the cool September climate, donning jeans and a light jacket. On his feet he wore a pair of women’s black pleather sandals.
I noticed something else about his appearance recently. With a thick, square, graying beard he looks very much like a balding civilian Fidel Castro (it’s hard to imagine Castro without the fatigues). Joe even has huge ears, characteristic of old Cuban men.
I caught him up on my tour, vaguely describing my itinerary and everything that happened on my trip. He was glad I was still alive. I noticed that he had a sketch book lying nearby. What a find! I asked him whether he’s an artist. Indeed.
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He showed me some pages from his sketch book. Most of his drawings are just ink pen scribbles. His art is either crudely infantile or brilliantly genius; it reminded me of some Woody Guthrie art work. Other pages had diagrams with perfectly drawn arcs and what appeared to be dimensions.
“How did you draw those arcs?”

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“With a compass!”
Of course.
These reminded me of Da Vinci’s prototypical helicopter designs.
He asked me what I was doing later.
“Just going back to my place to get some work done. I found out recently that I don’t have a job anymore, so I have to figure out how to make money with my music. How about yourself?”
“I think I’ll go down to a café where I can use their computers.”
“Sure,” I replied, “I went to a few places like that on my tour – coffee shops that had computers available for people to use for free. It was really great!”
“Oh, well I don’t agree with that! Free computers! And who pays for that?! The tax payer? No, I don’t agree with that!”
Now I was really confused.
“No, the tax payer doesn’t pay… it’s the business…”
“Healthcare! Education! Those are necessities! Not computers, I don’t agree with that. Who pays for it, the tax payer?”
“But if the business wants to provide it…”
“Well sure, a business. If the business wants to. But the government shouldn’t provide computers, it’s not a necessity!”
We played this game for a little while. Joe tends to repeat himself several times, usually cyclically, and rarely changes his mind, regardless what you say. It’s a little strange, but I guess that’s just how his mind operates. I was still really glad to have used free internet, no matter who was paying for it! And my guess is that Joe still thinks the government should provide for housing, health care, and education; not computers. I can let it go.
I changed the subject, “This is great whether we’re having, huh? But I bet it’s starting to get cold at night… where do you go when it gets too cold, when it snows?”
He said he heads down to Penn Station or to homeless shelters. He started talking about the seasons again with his usual hand gestures. Again, I could hardly hear anything he was saying; but I have a general idea. I once spent a week sleeping on the streets – but it was in Orlando and the middle of March. It must be much colder on the NYC sidewalks at 2:00AM in mid-September. I know he won’t be able to stay out there too much longer and it’s only a matter of time before I can’t expect to see him at his usual Tuesday morning location.

By: Gio Andollo

 
Say My Name 07/08/2010
 
Tonight I met David as I emerged above ground from the 145 street ABCD subway stop in Harlem. As I walked up the stairs, I ignored, or at least tried to ignore, the pleading cries of a man in his mid 30s who was sitting on the top step, “Lord God, help me, please I'm hungry, I'm homeless. Oh God, help me please, I need food...” I made it past without making eye contact. But I didn't get far.

I have recently established a firm policy of not giving cash to beggars and homeless folk. I spent years always giving at least a dollar or whatever change I had in my wallet out of good charity and, what I perceived as sincere love. But one day, a friend challenged me, “did Jesus hand out money to people?” He made the point that in our culture we have ascribed an objectively “good” quality to money. Meaning, because money has value, it carries an inherent positive force that helps people and is, therefore, deemed a charitable, “good” gift in all situations. But maybe that's not the case. Perhaps money's benevolence is subject to the way it is used, spent and treated. Hard as it is for me, a middle-class American young adult to grasp, perhaps money can't solve, fix or even help some situations. I realized that, in David's case and the case of so many others, an expression of love couldn't come from dollar bills and dirty coins.

After walking less than half a block, I turned around and approached the man at the top of the steps. I asked if he was hungry. He said he wanted some meat, which I neither had with me nor back home, but I told him I live right around the corner and would find something to bring him. In my apartment I grabbed a large chunk of bread I had bought at the Dominican bakery down the street, a banana and a chocolate cookie. After bagging the items, I went down the stairs and onto the street. I found David in the same location, devouring a small chicken wrap someone had graciously left him. He was delighted to see the food in my hands and wished God's blessing over me as I told him what I retrieved. I asked him his name, “David,” he said. Then he told me he's staying at the shelter down on 125 street. When asked if he was having a rough day, he told me he's having a rough life. Living in a homeless shelter is tough he said. The people are not very nice there and a lot of ex-convicts come stay there. Two weeks ago, a couple of guys recently released from jail stole all of his stuff and raped him at the shelter. He said he didn't get anything back and the folks he recounted the incident to told him he deserved it. When I asked farther questions, he said he doesn't like talking about it.

I don't know what David did to antagonize the ex-convicts, but I do know David did not deserve what happened. He said he has no family, because both of his parents have died and he was an only child. The world is broken and cruel, but no one deserves that kind of life, while millions of us are happy, wealthy and loved. Situations and circumstances like David's are incredibly complex and cloudy. So many different factors caused, continue to feed and will sustain the harsh reality these individuals face every day. But when I talked to David, and whenever I talk to beautiful people like him, I'm deeply challenged and moved. Although I don't have many solutions on how to “fix” their situation and how people like me can truly love those in his shoes, I know the first step requires talking to them. For me, that meant taking seven minutes out of my day, collecting 75 cents worth of food in my apartment and asking someone his name. For others, maybe it means giving away money, and that's fine to. I'm just going to try and look at those individuals in the eye from now on and treat them like more than a Salvation Army tin. Tonight, I'm praying for David, because there's a pretty good chance no one else is. And for now, that's the least I can do.

By: Timothy Meinch
 
 
It's hot in NYC.
So Joe is sitting in his usual spot, dressed a bit more... immodest than usual. With a t-shirt (which more closely resembles a ragged tank-top), shorts, and bare feet, he looks like your average beach bum - except that his "usual spot" is a busy intersection in midtown Manhattan.
Upon greeting him, he immediately asks whether I've heard of a book he's recently bought, Infotopia. I admit that I haven't, to which he responds by busily rummaging through his shopping cart.
"Actually, Joe, I have to get going. But we can talk about it when I'm on my way back."
A few hours later I approach him again and sure enough there is resting before him a bright red paper-backed book with the word Infotopia spread large across the face.
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"It's fifteen bucks, but it's good."
He flips through the pages, stopping indiscriminately and reading the headings aloud, as though they might bear some kind of meaning in and of themselves.
"May I take a look?" I ask, genuinely intrigued about what kind of book might pique the interest of a homeless man. I read the back cover to learn that, in short, the book describes the manner in which information is created and/or proliferated in our hyper-technological culture by the collective digital society via such means as wikipedia, open source software, and the like.
For Joe, this book raises the question what is knowledge?
What indeed.
Over some discussion it occurs to me that Joe is a philosopher. "What is the criteria that determines whether something is 'knowledge' or 'truth'?"
I wish that it was not always so noisy on the street, for I then might understand more of what he says. It's as though he doesn't realize that the din of the city vastly overpowers his softly-spoken voice. I struggle to tune in to the frequencies:
"A equals B... B equals A..."
I hear him repeat this at least a couple times and assume that he's talking about logic. I answer "I once took a logic class at university. It was really interesting."
It's true! What can I say, I'm an analytical person.
I proceed to discuss critiques against wiki technology, the idea of collective consciousness, and other issues that the book seems to touch on. Joe confesses he has not really begun the book yet (and besides, I feel strange talking about technological luxuries with someone who could never possibly afford them) so I switch the topic rather abruptly.
"Have you ever gone hitchhiking?"
I can't really understand anything he says at this point but his body language appears to answer the affirmative. I divulge some tentative plans I have a-brewin' and he cautions me "well, you have to be very careful..." He goes on, but I can't really make anything out except "You really have to be careful.... careful... be careful... [etc]."
"I will, Joe, thanks for the advice."
Then we briefly talk about his experiences freight hopping. I am very jealous.
We chit-chatted for a while longer but I soon said my farewells and headed home with the usual "see you next week!"
I bet that if I could actually understand everything the man said, I would have much to learn from him... the kind of information that even wikipedia can't offer. Relational information, experiential. I can only hope that I'll be able to tune in, ever more finely, to those dim frequencies.
I enjoy talking with Joe.
He is always in remarkably high spirits, all things considered. But I do have some concerns for his health and well-being. I noticed today that he has a number of abrasions on his scalp, bleeding open sores. I'm not comfortable mentioning them to him because 1) I'm sure he's already aware of their presence, which he may or may not be embarrassed about and 2) there's probably nothing he can do about them, as he almost certainly does not have health insurance. It also appears that at least one of his finger nails is so rotted that it's on the verge of falling off. I'm more concerned about the former than the latter, but perhaps both are due some intercessory prayer and/or good juju, depending on your spiritual worldview, lol.
As for me, I pray above all that Joe will have a sense of peace amidst this hyper-technological, hyper-sped, and hyper-violent city. I also wonder, as I also invite you to do, whether love has a frequency? If so, are you tuning in?

By: Gio Andollo

 
 
I stepped with care through the silver door
over the green apple core
and marveled at the apple peel confetti.
Looking up I saw you there,
could hardly help control my stare -
though for your beauty I was still not ready.

What's your name, girl?
Please tell me what's your name?
Don't tell me it's not important,
That you're not that important.
Just tell me, girl, what's your name?

Huddled over in your seat,
with your hair in a bun and crocs on your feet
your face was hidden deep inside your bosom.
You poured some liquid in your hand
and rubbed it on your canvas bag,
then showed your face, you looked a lot like Golum.

You were dressed in black from head to foot,
with matching ankles covered in soot,
and peering about with tired frightened eyes.
you smeared some liquid on the floor
then on the wall you rubbed some more.
Your heart could never be so sanitized.

Where were you from and where were you going?
I wished that I could know your story,
but the least and most that I could do was pray.
So sitting across from you on the train,
I hoped that you would say your name
When I asked you to tell me...

What's your name, girl?
Please tell me what's your name?
Don't tell me it's not important,
That you're not that important.
Just tell me, girl, what's your name?

As we made local stops uptown,
I started writing all this down.
I wouldn't let this mem'ry fade away.
You pulled a harmonica from your bag,
pressed it to your lips and took a drag -
amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saves.

With a desperate petition you addressed the crowd,
"Donation 'preciated," you whispered it loud,
and none but me bothered to look your way.

I took out a dollar to make a donation.
You gave me your thanks, and I said "your welcome,
I really enjoyed the songs that you just played."
But it was nearly time to get off the train,
so that's when I dared to ask your name;
but you'd never dare to tell me...

What's your name, girl?
Please tell me what's your name?
Don't tell me it's not important,
That you're not that important.
Just tell me, girl, what's your name?

You looked at me with a weary suspicion,
"My name doesn't matter, I'm not that important,"
My heart raged against these lies you'd come to believe.
I extended my hand, which you shook reluctant,
another attempt at an introduction
"so I can say hello when again we meet."

"With millions of people in the city," you said,
"the chances are small we'll meet again.
But it was a pleasure meeting you today."
Confident, I stepped off the train.
When I see you again, I'll ask your name.
Then I know I'll finally learn...

By: Gio Andollo
 
 
A beguiling bard set up shop in an underground train station
and played subversive songs to commuters disguised as entertainment.
Crooning of peace and hope with a deceiving smile 'cross his face,
he coerced many a listener to drop change in his case.

But there was that day a deputy, wise beyond his years,
who hearing the bard while on patrol saw through the smoke and mirrors.
With justice burning in his heart
he courageously approached the bard
and with these words he quelled all the commuters' fears:

"You can't play down here, you need to move on."
The musician feigned flummoxed, "What have I done wrong?"
"I'm just singing songs about love and peace!
None are disturbed, some are giving money!"
"But this is a business," the officer said,
"would you play guitar at Bloomingdales instead?"
With that he restored lawful order and peace
from vagrants and vagabonds, outlaws and thieves.

The peace was short-lived, for on the train there was a conniving cripple,
a beggar missing five fingers who solicited from the people.
He claimed to be a sports coach as he hobbled down the aisle,
asking the riders for pocket change and always to wear a smile.

The conductor saw him transfer cars and grimaced with dismay.
He knew the tricks the beggar used for sympathies to sway.
Indignation burning in his loins,
he wished they all would keep their coins;
so with these words he warned them all over the PA:

"Don't give this man money, it's against the law"
The beggar kept begging, moved to the next car.
"I'm taking donations for my basketball team.
None are disturbed, some are giving money!"
"Don't encourage disorder," the conductor said,
"Give all that you have to MTA instead."
With that he ensured none would be fooled by these
vagrants and vagabonds, outlaws and thieves.

Now the bard sitting homeward bound on the train heard the good conductor's caution
and watched as the beggar with only five fingers walked slowly in his direction.
With insolence burning in his soul
he cared not for the subway rule,
and with these wretched words Pandora's box was to be opened:

"I have something for you," and gave him a dollar,
"I know how it is, I was stopped earlier."
They grinned at each other, not caring at all
to keep civil order, to uphold the law.
"That's why you play good music," the coach said,
"Don't give up and always keep smiling instead."
With that he gave credence to all anarchy
for vagrants and vagabonds, outlaws and thieves.

By: Gio Andollo
 
 
"Good morning, Joe!"
      "Hey Gio."
"How you doing? Staying cool?"
          "Yea..."
he trails off, mumbling.
I've known Joe for about two months now. He is a homeless man who lives on the corner of 32nd and 5th. Musician, father, and - for the past two months - my friend.
I watch him in bewilderment.
             "...the sun... shadows..."
His hand gestures suggest that he is describing the way the sun's motion against the static city buildings projects shadows throughout the day, throughout the weeks and seasons.
Yesterday was the summer solstice.
       "It's hot,"
he acknowledges. More mumbling.
Every Tuesday morning, at the butt-crack of dawn I drag myself out of bed, out of Harlem, and make my way down to 330 5th Ave, where the Trinity Grace Church office is located. By 7:15 the facility is shaking by the power of at least a dozen voices gathered to worship. Having recently joined the TGC worship team myself, I join in chorus.
                 "Do you play the drums?"
This was our first time meeting. I had seen him there before, sitting quietly in the early morning chill, ambivalent to the hustle and bustle of midtown Manhattan. I would walk past, as so many others do: avoiding. Til one day he reached out to me as I headed home from the meeting.
Having vaguely heard him over the din of the city and my iPod, I removed my head phones; thus our conversation - and, subsequently, our friendship - was initiated. He told me he was a musician and drummer himself, but he was betrayed when I handed him the djembe. We talked for some time about music until, fifteen or twenty minutes later, I bade him farewell and continued with my day.
I can tell he's still talking about the sun and shadows because he's making the same hand gestures as before. He pauses for a moment and I take advantage of the lull.
"Well, listen, I really have to be on my way... but it was great seeing you again!"
There are a few things I can always count on when I see Joe: that he'll be fully present, sober, engaged; that he'll talk a whole lot (his lips move, at least!); that I'll barely hear or make out any of his words; and that I'll undoubtedly see him next week.
"See you next week!"

By: Gio Andollo