Saturday, November 26, 2011

"Who wants to be alone in this shit hole world," he asked me.

Stopped to pump gas on Thanksgiving morning (after a lovely night celebrating my birthday) and I was greeted by a neat and tidy homeless man (leather jacket, shiny black backpack and gray braid running down his back) who was sitting on the curb, eating noodle soup from a tall paper cup.

He smiled at me in a warm, friendly, non-threatening way and said, “Have any men told you yet that you’re beautiful today, 'cause you are.”

I laughed, going along with his flirting, but also being honest, and said, “Well, yes another man did tell me that today, already. But thank you, anyway.”

He stopped smiling and cocked his head. “Good. That’s the way it should be. You should hear it all of the time. And you should hang on to this guy, OK?”

“Hang on to him? I will if I can, but how do you ‘hang on’ to anyone? What’s your advice?”

I'd intended this as a harmless question. Or, if not completely harmless, I thought that an older homeless man chatting up a friendly, happy woman on a warm, sunny morning could certainly take it. But.

“That’s a serious question, beautiful. One that I want to be able to help you with.” He laid his soup cup on the curb and rubbed his short beard.  “But I think you’re talking to the most broken man in the world when it comes to 'hanging on' to anything.”

I was simply being playful with a stranger about “hanging on” to a man I care about, but I recognized that I struck a vein.  I decided that, instead of regretting what I’d said, I’d sit next to him on the curb and hear his story.

The conversation didn’t get clearer after I plopped down and we’d introduced ourselves. The fractured nature of his thoughts quickly became obvious. What I did learn was that is name is Oscar, he thinks Eve was a small, dark-haired woman who looked just like me, that he greets people by locking pinkies with them, and that he spent 25 years in prison.

But the words that stuck with, what I’m stitching here on this scrap of silkscreened fabric by Rebecca Ringquist, are these:

“I can’t believe that I could do
what they say I did.

I’ve been going over it in my head for 25 years.

No way. I miss him so much.

You can’t imagine how much I miss him, O.  Now I’m alone.

Who would want to be alone in this shit hole world?”

Must confess to some guilt about not making this stitched piece prettier. But fast, rough split stitch suits my mood about it. It was a beautiful interaction. And it was profoundly ugly.


  1. “There are chance meetings with strangers that interest us from the first moment, before a word is spoken.”
    ― Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment
    Seems you had a meeting of this type. Oh yeah, that is a nice piece are stitching.
    The latest homelessness research indicates that
    Approximately 16% of the single adult homeless population suffers from some form of severe and persistent mental illness (U.S. Conference of Mayors, 2005). Despite the disproportionate number of severely mentally ill people among the homeless population, increases in homelessness are not attributable to the release of severely mentally ill people from institutions. Most patients were released from mental hospitals in the 1950s and 1960s, yet vast increases in homelessness did not occur until the 1980s, when incomes and housing options for those living on the margins began to diminish rapidly. According to the 2003 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Report, most homeless persons with mental illness do not need to be institutionalized, but can live in the community with the appropriate supportive housing options (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2003). However, many mentally ill homeless people are unable to obtain access to supportive housing and/or other treatment services. The mental health support services most needed include case management, housing, and treatment.

  2. Wow. What a beautiful and sad story. I'm glad you shared it here. Thank you.

  3. beautiful and heart breaking. you're so lovely o, so many would have smiled tightly and walked on.

  4. In what seems a world away now, I once owned a little business. It was near the park where a large population of our homeless sleep. One morning as I opened my doors I looked up to see a gentleman coming in. I don't know that the details of that encounter really have much meaning to anyone other than myself... but I am firmly convinced that I got so much more out of our hour and a half of conversation than he did out of the breakfast I bought him. It's truly a beautiful lesson that my heart will never forget.

    Interesting how those seem to pop up in the least expected ways, isn't it?

  5. God bless you for sitting down and talking to this man and for listening to his story. Not very many of us have enough courage and empathy to do that. Yet most of these people just want to be heard, just like the rest of us. We're not so different after all, are we? Thanks for sharing this gives me faith in humanity again.

  6. Olisa, Having you sit & listen eased his loneliness. But, really, he isn't alone, because God loves him. God can forgive all mistakes and restore joy & peace. Blessings!

  7. Wow. There was real grace in that encounter. I'll be thinking about this the rest of the day.

  8. Thank you all so much for your supportive comments and encouragement. I'm happy that it resonated with you as it did with me. Bascom, the Dostoevsky is beautiful. I've decided to try to make the piece more beautiful and I'm stitching it in red hues. Thank you, again, for sharing your thoughts with me, everyone! I'll keep you posted. Best, Olisa

  9. I have a heart for the mentally ill homeless. Sometimes I think cancer would be a better alternative than mental illness. Your kindness to take time in your "normal" world with someone who's "normal" is not, was awesome. Bless your heart and his.

    Quilting in Texas

  10. O, you are amazing. Your work gives me shivers.

  11. O, only you could take a seemingly throwaway interaction and make it deeper, then make it art. I am profoundly lucky to know you.