Sunday, June 28, 2009

The street beggar

Ever since I started glacially moving forward in my personal life about a year ago from the total loss several years earlier of all of my children through PAS, thanks to the concept I started finally figuring out of forgiveness, I have been going to church once a month. Whenever I attend, I sit there stonily but I get all weepy inside thinking about all the departed ones in my life, the relationships I don't have, and the people I know who I wish could be better, for their own sakes.

Today's sermon was on pain and suffering. Pain is obligatory, the priest intoned, suffering is optional. He challenged us as Christians who supposedly look to ameliorate suffering in the world to go out and lay our hand upon someone we don't know who is in pain, and find out about their suffering. "But it starts with one simple action. Touch," he said.

After church I drove to the busy intersection where I always see an African-American beggar wearing a sign saying, "Combat Veteran. Always Faithful." Whenever I drive by, I always give him a dollar coin, but I don't know him. When the light is green and traffic is pressing behind me, I pitch the dollar coin so it rolls to the curb near him as I drive past. He always waves and shouts out, "Thank you!"

Today I stood on his street corner for half an hour and spoke with him. His name is Trevor and he's no beggar. Our conversation started easily enough, I told him my name, asked him what his was, and shook his hand. Touch. This is his story.

Younger than I imagined from my "drivebys," he is a combat veteran, having been deployed twice to Iraq with his parachute division. I didn't press on his story too much, but he was injured in a night jump, in combat, and has had three operations on his right leg since. The first was terribly botched by Army surgeons and left him permanently disabled.

His leg is stiff and unbending. He hobbles around on his little corner with the aid of a four-footed steel cane. He receives 20% disability currently (a little over $400 per month) from the Army, and his lawyer is "95%" sure he will win his appeal and within the next six months receive 70% disability. Retroactively. Trevor looked me in the eye and said, "That's going to be around $57,000 in arrears. You won't see me here come next winter."

Trevor says combat situations taught him to hold no rancor. "The most country redneck, and the most inner-city guy who hates whites, they all become fast friends in combat. They get past our addiction to racial prejudice in a hurry and learn the ways of the world, how to get along together. That's the way it is when you see combat together."

That's the way Trevor talked. He's 36 hour shy of his undergraduate degree in psychology, having taken classes in the Army from the University of Maryland while in Europe.

He was young and fit looking, except for his neglected (broken) teeth and bum leg. "I ran 10 miles every other day, no matter what. Rain, snow, high-up in Colorado, low-down in Massachusetts, didn't matter. I ran every two days. Ten miles. I did five marathons, Boston twice, Marine Corps twice, Baltimore. That's what I miss the most, being active every single day."

He held up his cane and said, "I'm going to get off of this. I am. I go to therapy every week at GW [George Washington University], and I'm off a walker now and down to this."

He is also on mood medication and pain pills, all prescribed in massive doses by the VA. "That's how they justify themselves," he said, "by the amount of pills they prescribe, and the number of canes they give out. I came in with a shattered leg, and they sent me to see a shrink before anything else. There's nothing wrong with my mind, but I couldn't receive treatment until I saw a psychologist first. That's the way the Army is now."

I asked him where he stayed each night. "At Courthouse Metro [in Arlington, sleeping outside]."

I asked him if the Arlington cops bothered him there. "At night? No. They bother me here, during the day," he said, tapping the little square of sidewalk with his cane. Apparently he's been given three loitering summonses, each of which has been tossed out by the same judge.

"My lawyer says I can stand here, wearing my sign. I'm not asking for money. I'm just here, on the public sidewalk. But people slow down and give me money, or stop at the red light and talk to me, and don't get away quick enough when the light turns green, and people behind them use their cells to call the cops on me. But nothing they say or do affects me. I'm poor and happy. I could steal at CVS, or rob folks, instead of standing here all day waiting for money, but that's not the way I am. I've been in combat and seen the way things are. None of this on this corner matters. I'm just doing this til my appeal comes through."

While I stood there, a man four lanes over shouted out, "Where's the expressway?" Upon being told the proper directions by Trevor, he dangerously drove across all four lanes of traffic in front of the other waiting cars so he wouldn't miss his turn. "See, they'll blame that on me. Maybe someone back there with a cell phone . . . ," he said, pointing with his cane at the traffic backup.

Another man drove by with an open window, his fist clutching a fiver. He seemed embarrassed and was staring straight ahead as he turned the corner while extending the money towards us, almost driving up on the sidewalk. The exchange was not made, and the bill fluttered away in the breeze. "I lose a lot of money that way," Trevor sighed. "I can't chase down dollar bills that are moving." I retrieved it for him. Around the corner there was a single lying on the sidewalk which I brought back too. "See?" Trevor said.

Another man drove up to the red light and hailed Trevor. "I brought this for you," he said, and handed over a box-set hand grooming kit. While the motorist waited for the light to turn, Trevor opened the gift with real or feigned delight and shouted, "Thanks! This is great!" He showed me his dirty fingernails. "I can't take care of my hands properly, living out here. This will come in handy. Nautica," he said, reading the brand, "they make clothes. Is this a good kit?" I looked at the fingernail clippers, the file, and other implements and allowed that it looked pretty good. It was brand new. Re-gifting from Father's Day? I wondered.

Another man stopped at the red light, handed over some singles, and asked Trevor how his appeal was faring. He seemed chagrined to hear that the "window" for the decision to come down was 180 days. He lingered as the light turned green, expressing his remorse, and this provoked a long and hearty blast of horn from behind him. After the benefactor drove away, Trevor said, "See, that's my fault, they say. I'm just standing here though."

Trevor on his corner, only temporarily, I hope. Now I know his name. There are many other "corner dwellers" on the streets in our nation's capital. I try to give them each a dollar coin whenever I pass by them. Undoubtedly they all have stories, which maybe involve suffering.


Just_because_today said...

This post gave me chills. You treated a human being like a human being. We often forget who they are when they are down on their luck.
Hopefully, one day he will be the one helping another begger on the street.
Now, I have to go to church!

DawnB said...

wonderful and inspirational Peter. You're a good man Peter.

Joe the Novelist said...

Thanks for sharing this.

jeanne said...

wow. i often see these folks on the median strip, and i'm afraid to talk to them.

story about his treatment from the army just infuriates me.

what a good guy you are.

Rainmaker said...

Thanks for sharing Trevor's story. I think this may be one of the best posts you've ever written. Well done.

Sunshine said...

Interesting to speculate on how often anyone actually acts on the message of the preacher.....

Don said...

You write really well