Street Talk

SAM SMITH, 2007 – In the 1990s, my morning walk would take me past Starbucks, where customers at sidewalk tables enjoyed the final product of the postmodern food chain. As I approached, I would pass a woman in front of the pharmacy just down the street. All her possessions were wrapped in plastic, and she spoke determinedly of things that shouldn’t have been or shouldn’t be. I tried saying good morning to her a few times, but she didn’t see or hear me.

Beyond Starbucks was Sidwell Friends School. Long ago, members of the Society of Friends got into trouble for refusing to doff their hats to the king. But when Richard Nixon died, Sidwell Friends flew its flag at half mast.

Across the street from Sidwell was the Federal National Mortgage Association. Its low-rise colonial style offices and discreet tower were fronted by an expansive lawn. One morning I watched an 18-wheeler flatbed trailer truck pull alongside. It had brought scores of bushes from North Carolina to make the lawn even grander. Security guards with pressed tan uniforms and state trooper hats stood watchfully in the driveway as latino workers dug holes for the bushes.

Everything in Washington seemed to need security. The Vice President’s house began taking on the character of a nuclear weapons plant with its double fencing, guard houses and a massive checkpoint. Soon, I thought, it might be a federal offense to tell jokes about the vice president in Washington, just like you couldn’t tell jokes about bombs at an airport.

One morning, a homeless man passed me, apparently on his way from a shelter to his favorite corner, walking past the newly shrubbed lawn of an agency established to help people get mortgages so they wouldn’t be homeless. As I reached the corner, another homeless man, who looked a bit like Ray Charles except that he saw everything that passed, called out a greeting. “How you doing?” I reply, “I’m hangin’ in there.” He shouts back, “Don’t worry. You’ll make your move.”

I’m not surprised by the encouragement. A regular near my office to whom I had never given more than a quarter and a passing greeting approached me once in the magazine shop at the corner. “Come here,” he said, “I’ve got something for you.” He reached in his pocket and handed me the thirty cents that came out, adding, “You may need a cup of coffee.” For several days thereafter, he refused any change from me, indicating that I had done my share.

I seemed to hit it off with street folk, perhaps because they sensed in me a homeless mind. Once a regular gave me a Christmas card. Another stopped to complain that Jesse Jackson had passed him without a donation.

The urban weekly, Washington City Paper, once did a cover story on me. I had been the subject of profiles before, but never one that left my mug piled on the floor of numerous stores near my Dupont Circle office for a week, leading the woman behind the counter at the Chesapeake Bagel Factory to ask belligerently, “So how do you like your fifteen minutes of fame?”

The shoeshine man yelled at me, “Hey Sam, that’s great. I’m gonna read it tonight.”

And the homeless guy said, “Hey man, how come they wrote that paper about you?”

“Uh, I don’t know. I guess just for hanging around here a long time.”

“Well it’s about time they did that.”


“I didn’t know you was a printer.”

“Well, I’m really not. I’m more like a writer.”

“That’s even better.”

Some years later I read what Joe “Professor Seagull” Gould had said to Joseph Mitchell, his New Yorker biographer and felt as if it were me speaking: “Down among the cranks and misfits and the one-lungers and might-have-beens and the would-bes and the never-wills and the God-knows-whats…I have always felt at home.”

For awhile, there were Wednesday night meetings of a group trying to organize around local issues. It gathered at a 1300-bed shelter, the largest in the country. As I walked up to the third floor, one of the residents was sweeping the steps and another was on the loudspeaker saying that too many people had congregated in the lobby and would they take their business elsewhere. There was a grimness to this place, but also a sense of order being recreated and — even more important — a sense of shelter, not just from the heat and the cold and the rain, but from a city and a nation that doesn’t care.

The shelter had been started by Mitch Snyder, another good person in Washington who had grown tired of trying and had taken his own life. I wrote a radio commentary about it:

|||| This spring, when homeless activist Mitch Snyder announced he was going to retreat to a monastery for awhile for reflection and renewal, I felt pulled to drop him a note thanking him for his witness, for the good it had done, for the wisdom and encouragement it had given others. In the note I quoted Emerson.

“The voyage of the best ship” said Emerson, “is a zigzag line of a hundred tacks. See the line from a sufficient distance, and it straightens itself to the average tendency.”

I can not comprehend Mitch’s last tack that ended in suicide. But the average tendency of his life has been as inspiring as any I have known. At times humbling, at times guilt-provoking, at times incredibly catalytic and at times — yes — aggravating, this one scruffy amalgam of love and anger, intensity and gentleness led us to care far more about what it was easier to ignore — the homeless refugees of the puerile, avaricious American dream of the 80s.

Lately we’ve been falling back to easier ways. The DC city council has just ordered a cruel retreat from the decency towards the homeless we overwhelmingly supported in Initiative 17. In San Francisco, on the very day Mitch died, Mayor Agnos ordered the arrest of homeless people sleeping in public places.

What effect this had on Mitch I don’t know. I do know that in his last days he was organizing a massive drive for a referendum on the council action. As he met in the shelter to discuss the referendum last week, he patiently explained to a man reciting some of the new cynicism towards the homeless that no one in that 1400-bed shelter wanted to be there. Not even Mitch Snyder.

And I do know that we talked on the phone on Monday. He told me enthusiastically of the law suit being filed against the council and of the lawyers who were working on the case and would I be one of the plaintiffs. I said, sure, and he said — as he did so often to so many people he had pulled to the cause in that soft gentle voice — he said: “Thank you, my friend.”

But I also know that Mitch lived a life in painful proximity to modern society’s cruelest results and carried a terrible trusteeship for its victims. In recent months, there were voices — most sadly among those in power and in the media — indicating that we no longer needed to care.

For me, Mitch — controversial, blunt and irascible as he was on occasion — fit the best definition of a saint, which is to say that Mitch Snyder was a sinner who kept trying harder. ||||

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