Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Last Sunday Morning in New Orleans

The morning of September 12 I woke up earlier than I had planned. Since our flight out of New Orleans wasn’t supposed to leave until one in the afternoon, I had envisioned sleeping in a little, and then taking my sweet time trying to find some extra space in the suitcase to fit all the little knick-knacks I bought the previous four days.

It wasn’t meant to be. I woke up bright and early at 6am, and no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t go back to sleep. Since my sister was still peacefully cuddled up in the arms of Morpheus, and I didn’t want to wake her up by turning on the TV, I decided to call it a night; I got dressed and went out.

The city was in a moment of transition. While some die-hard partiers were still lingering at the doors of bars, they were gradually being outnumbered by the growing crowd of daytime folks, busy getting their beloved city ready for another day.

I walked for miles. With coffee cup in hand, I walked down Esplanade Avenue, passed the flea market where a few vendors had already started setting out their goods, and spilled onto the boardwalk coasting the Mississippi river. I passed by a small group of homeless men just waking up to a new day, and smiled when I saw one of them shaving in front of a fountain, while he held a small mirror in front of his face. I walked a bit longer and then sat on a bench facing the river. As I got ready to take a sip of coffee from the Styrofoam cup, I heard a moan. Thinking I had maybe just imagined it, I took another sip of coffee, only to hear moaning again a few seconds later. This time I turned around. Behind the bench, maybe ten feet away, was a small elderly man, crunched near a bush. His face was pale and his eyes were shut tight, and he looked like he could be anywhere between 50 and 100 years old – his skin was leathery, and his face was contorted in agony. I called out to him and asked if he was alright, but he didn’t even respond. I called him again, but even this time I got no reply. So, I walked up to him and kneeled beside him. Only then did he show any kind of awareness. I asked him if he was ill, and he shook his head. I waited a moment, and asked him again. He only looked up at me and said: “I am not sick, I am hungry.”

His words sealed on my heart as if someone had pressed them there with a hot iron. “You’re hungry?” I asked again, almost unable to accept that in a world where luxury is often ostentatious, a man can still go hungry. “When did you eat last?”

He replied that he had only eaten a bit of a sandwich he had found discarded the morning before. My heart sank even lower – with temperatures in the 90s, and enough humidity to boil a fly in mid-air, it was possible that the sandwich he had eaten was spoiled. I asked him if he wanted me to call an ambulance, and he shook his head, so I told him to wait a moment, and I rushed to a restaurant nearby to fetch a cup of hot tea and a couple of Danish pastries. I figured that he could drink the tea now and nibble on one of the pastries until his stomach was ready to accept food again. If he was right, and he was only hungry, the hot tea and a few bites were going to work some magic. The young girl attending the counter at the coffee shop seemed a bit surprised when I asked for hot tea instead than coffee, but she produced a steaming cup of it nonetheless. I ran back to the old man and sat with him for a while as he took eager sips of the hot beverage. And, as he had said, his cramps slowly relaxed and he felt better. I sat with him a bit longer, while he told me his story – he lost everything he owned when Katrina hit, and it wasn’t long until he also lost his job in constructions. He was never able to find his daughter and grandson, and it wasn’t long before a profound depression left him mentally crippled and unwilling to pull himself together. I looked into his eyes, and saw no hope there. I asked him why he didn’t try to get some sort of help, but all he could say was that it didn’t matter. After a while, I had to leave to go back to the hotel, but I first stopped by a local grocery store and got him a few non-perishable items he could keep in his backpack. I hugged him and said goodbye, but I thought of him for days.

His story led me to think of how easily we judge things from the outside. This man is, in the eyes of the world, a beggar, a reject the rest of society probably wishes could disappear, but in reality he is simply a man in pain. When he lost everything, he lost himself, and he could no longer find the will to fight. Sad as it is, a large majority of homeless individuals are mentally ill, and while it is possible for some to find a sense of direction if they truly are seeking one, for some the cloud of despair makes the path to recovery too dark and treacherous to walk. So they give up, and survive humbly at the outskirts of a world often too busy to notice their neighbors’ painful alienation.

Today, I feel fortunate that I awoke so early on that last Sunday morning in New Orleans, and as I write this I hope that at least for a moment, my homeless friend realized he is worthy to be loved.