I wander for a while, lost and free, until my feet guide me to a new square in the city. I find a line of bricks between the walkway and the grass, and I sit cross-legged on this curb. I open my bag, breathe a sigh of content, and dig into some leftovers. How did I get here?
I began the day alone in a small bedroom. Then I joined a close friend. Then I climbed a mountain and became aware of the entire city. Then I joined the city. Then I joined a gathering of people. Then together, we became aware of the entire world.
And now, as I sit on this brick wall deep within the night city, I feel like I have joined the entire world. I share life with all these people, whether they are open to me, or whether they are afraid of me because I am a stranger. Whether they acknowledge me, or whether they are wrapped up in their own lives like within a story that only they can narrate.
And it is here and now, as I feel connected to the world, that someone does acknowledge me. I could be afraid of him because he is a stranger. I could choose not to acknowledge him because he is a homeless man. But why would I close everything that I have opened during the day? He is welcome.
The homeless man approaches with a hopeful greeting. He asks for change. I cannot help but think how important the other meaning to that word truly is in this situation. Why is this man on the street? I quickly check him over. He wears decent shoes, ragged blue jeans, and a faded leather jacket. He looks cold and sore.
I ask him, “What do you want money for?”
“I want some food,” he says. He comes closer and opens up further, realizing that I may treat him differently. “You can even buy the food for me,” he adds.
I notice how intelligent this man is by the way he says this last sentence. He knows the conditions of being homeless, and the discrimination forced upon him for simply being a part of that class. He knows why people often refuse to give change to the homeless. And I can see that he is genuinely hungry.
I smile and reply, “Good, I can help you then. If you want food, then come sit and eat with me.” I lift the food I am holding in a gesture of welcome.
He pauses momentarily, and then says, “So are you just sitting here? Eating?” He sits down beside me, wanting to know my business. “Do you work downtown?”
“No,” I say. “I was down here with friends, I felt hungry, so I sat down to eat.” I dig out some homemade muffins and hand him one. “Pecan and raisin. I just made the recipe up as I went so you can judge for yourself whether you like them.”
He takes the muffin with dirty fingers and nods his head in thanks. “You just sitting here then?”
I nod. “Yeah.”
A few men stride swiftly by, heading home from work, their long black jackets sweeping through the air and their cell phones glowing like beacons of safety. Others walk briskly by, their steps clumsy beneath bags of stuff, their expressions stressed and their energy levels beaten.
We sit in silence for a good while; he eats the muffin one small bite at a time. I breathe peacefully, sensing his companionship and watching the city move around us. He asks if I have anything to drink. “I mean, even if you just have water,” he adds.
I give him my water bottle but tell him to not touch his lips to it. He agrees, and to lend him the comfort of trust, I do not watch to make sure. My eyes are admiring the crisp details of this night scene. I feel free in knowing that I allowed myself to come to this moment, to be here with this man on this street. But I also feel grateful to have a home to return to, a hot shower, a warm bed.
He sits in silence for a long while, and I wonder if the food was enough for him. But he hasn’t asked for more. And homeless people are normally very forward in asking for things. It is how they survive. Perhaps he is too grateful to ask for more. I am close to offering more out of generosity, but first I look closer in curiosity, wondering how he came to be on the street. His shoes are nice. His clothes are not very dirty. His face could do with a shave, but it is rather clean-cut. His eyes are intelligent, and his stature is gentle yet confident. He cannot have been on the street for very long.
And then he finally asks. But it is not for charity. He does not give me guilt, he does not play a salesman trick, and he does not beg. Instead, he asks in a careful manner, “Would you give me some change if I drew you a picture?”
I smile and immediately say yes. Here is a man who knows that everyone has something to contribute. I have felt similar feelings inspired from my unsuccessful job hunt. I had been searching for months for a position to fill, before realizing that I had to start not with a resume, but with a question to myself. What do I have to contribute? What skills do I have to offer? What knowledge can I teach others?
And this homeless man can draw. He digs out his sketchpad, and I ask him what medium he uses as a quick test. I am curious about what he is about to draw, and I wonder if he approaches such a task as true and meaningful art or as an attempt to get money. He is very determined to prove that he is the first of the two: a true artist.
He pulls out a half-finished piece, and says, “I am a native artist. Truly, I have work displayed in hotels and lodges all over Victoria. I even have a piece in the BC museum, a few in some art galleries selling for hundreds of dollars—Do you know the Brentwood Bay Lodge? Every room in that hotel has three of my paintings. And they’re in the lobby too.” He slows down as I try to digest all of this.
My first question is, “Why are you on the street?” but I do not ask this. Instead, I take a look at the smudged piece of paper in his hands. He fishes a stub of pencil of out his pocket while I admire the work.
The lines and curves of pencil are vivid and the shapes they form are powerful and striking, evoking a deep and natural sense of wisdom and peace. It is a sketch of a native man as the sacred raven. The homeless man continues to murmur about his successes and wide spread work as he begins to add to the sketch with sharp and quick strikes of the pencil, using his thumbs to rub the pencil into shades, and digging out a nub of eraser as just another tool.
I watch in silence, my eyes eager, and my mind in awe of this simple yet profound moment. After a few minutes he asks, “I’m not boring you, am I?”
I say no in a breathless voice, and then add, “I am in awe.”
He asks, “Do you care at all for native art?”
I am amazed at such a question. “I do. It is a form of art that holds such a timeless importance behind the shapes and symbols.”
He nods. “This is the raven.” He describes the importance of the raven, and then talks about the history and meaning that is stored in native art. The artwork tells stories, gives guidance, and holds the hearts of memories. As he gazes at the shapes that mean so much to him and I gaze at the world that means so much to me, he turns to me and says, “Anyone who does not believe in a creator or a god…I say to them, create a lake for me with fish and an ecosystem and reeds and birds. They cannot do it. So who did? They should be humbled by that idea and give respect to the creator or god or whoever they believe in.”
I nod in understanding, though I do not believe in any personified creators or gods. “Yes,” I say, “I certainly believe in and respect the energy or being that connects us all, whether you call it a god or a creator or just love or life. I am always humbled and in awe of the world around me.”
He is strengthened by my response and furthers the discussion. “Yes. We are all…we are all one. Like, we are connected as one…it’s like we…all tie together to create the environment, there’s something that flows between us, and anyone who cannot see that…” He fishes for some words, wishing he could share the deep feelings he has for the world and for his art.
I am thoughtful. “We are each individuals, we are each different, yet we are all made from the same stuff and together we make a whole. What one person does effects the whole.”
He smiles. “Yes,” he says. He adds a few quick pencil lines and then says, “I have really been learning to take peace with that notion. You know, I’ve lived a lot of lives. I’ve been really poor. I’ve been really well off. And every place in between. I’ve walked many lives. And I’ve really come to see that you don’t need any of that stuff. All you need is to live a life of peace.”
“Yes,” I say. “There is no need for the complexities of a consumerist lifestyle.”
“No, no, like you don’t need any of that. And I have done some really stupid things. But now I know. Now I am letting go of all of that. I see myself now as a servant. I serve the creator. But I don’t have to do this with timely labor or complicated steps. It is more about the way I live my life. How I live is my service.”
I smile, starting to understand what he means. “Yes, the only true and honest way to serve is to be yourself. That is what the world needs. That is always what the world needs. And that is what the creator would surely want from you. After all, if he created you, he would want you to be…you.”
The artist likes this idea, and his eyes glint as he rapidly sketches a beautiful feather coming from the raven. I watch as he adds more and more life to the artwork. He is a creator. He grows uncomfortable and wants to make sure I am genuine. “Don’t you have to go somewhere? Are you fine to sit here?”
“This is where I want to be,” I say simply.
But he feels that he has to convince me of his work. He talks about more of his artwork, the large amounts of money it is selling for, and the places it has been featured. And this finally leads him to say, “But right now, I am just having some setbacks. Going through a tough separation.”
I nod. He continues.
“One week ago, I had a family. A baby. A car. I was fairly well off. And now I am on the street. But that is how life goes sometimes. I’ll be up on my feet soon, I am sure. This is just one of those times.”
This eases some of my doubts, but I am left wondering about the details. When I think about it, most people would not believe his claims of being a world acclaimed artist. Truly, many would not have even talked to him. I wonder how he got here, and I wonder how honest he has been. His words about life are deeply honest, that I know. And his passion for his art is also genuine. So what else matters?
He rubs his thumb across a part of the sketch and then leans back and takes a look. “I think this is my favorite sketch this week. There have been others, but this one…” He admires it for a moment and then says, “It’s different somehow. More meaningful. I must have been in the right moment…At peace.”
He hands the sketch to me, and I gaze at it for some time, my eyes flickering over the shapes and sensing the wisdom of the raven.
He takes the sketch back and elegantly scribbles the title. Raven Spirit Warrior. Then he signs it and flips it over.
“I am going to put my name on this, my contact information, and when you get home today, you can go online and look me up. Then you will see that I have been truthful. You can see pictures of me and pictures of my artwork. Now, do you like this sketch?”
I tell him I really appreciate the sketch, but I am feeling it hard to find words at the moment. I am swept up in this moment, and I realize that it is coming to a point of transition. He mentions how beautiful it would be if it was painted. It would be breath-taking. I agree with him, but I can see where he is heading with this. I reach into my pocket, hoping I have some money. Hoping I have something to give him so that maybe he can nourish himself for a day or two. My fingers luckily find themselves slipping between bills, and I pull out what I have.
I have been unemployed for three months, and I haven’t bought a thing for myself in over two weeks. I packed my own food for the entire day when I left the house in the morning. That was why I had food to share with him, muffins that I had baked with cheap ingredients from the market.
And so I am amazed and excited to discover that I have money when it is most important. I am happy not to have wasted it on expensive mochas or unnecessary accessories. I am happy to have a way to get rid of this money. This money has been weighing on me for the past three months. And now I can give it away and feel richer than before.
I give him my fifteen dollars with an apology for being poor. It seems strange from another point of view, but in this moment it all makes sense.
He smiles and says that he is grateful to have simply met me. I shake his hand, and he says something more. “Get in touch with me in a few weeks. Then you can ask me if I’m off the street yet. Put a little pressure on me. Challenge me to be off of the streets within a month. Do it.”
I nod, but I am still rather wordless. I shake his hand again, and we part, both with shining eyes. And in a moment, though it felt like a few hours spent and five goodbyes, I am alone again. It’s dark. I’m hungry. It’s late. And I must be getting home. Yes. Home. That place of refuge that I am more grateful for than ever before. But what about my new friend?
I turn around, wishing to ask him where he will be staying the night, wondering why I would want to know, and wondering if he would even answer such a question. But though I have turned, I am still alone. The artist has vanished, back into the dark city streets with his sketch pad and his peaceful soul.
I am disappointed at first. But then I look down at the sketch in my hands. The raven’s eye fixes on mine and I feel a sturdy hope. He will get off the street. And he will serve the world by living for his passion and creating his works of art by doing what he truly believes in.
I turn and head for home.
I will be getting in touch with the artist in the New Year, and I will see if he is off the street yet. When I find out, I will let you all know. Depending on how he is, I may embark on a quest to find him again. I still do not have any money, but remember, everyone has something to contribute. Perhaps he would have a better chance selling his artwork on the street if he wasn’t limited by the conditions of a homeless image. I know that I could round up some people to buy his work.
If you would like his name or to see some of his artwork online, let me know. I do not think he has any work that belongs to him being sold online at the moment, but he is always creating more.
When I get home in the New Year, I will scan the artwork he gave me and attach a small photo of it to this story.
Thanks for reading, and I hope you have gained something valuable from the thoughts this story has inspired. I certainly have been touched and changed by this experience.