Red Van: Was this the headquarters of Homeless Inc.?

Most of us have experienced this sight: you’re in traffic at a busy intersection and a down-on-his-luck-person in torn clothing sometimes limping or using a walker is zig zagging up and down and through the lines of cars and asking for money. Most of us ignore the person because we feel uncomfortable or annoyed. It’s easy to become inured to their plight. Occasionally, someone will give by reaching out a window dangling a dollar bill or loose change. Some people even hand them food. 

It was a searingly hot, humid St. Louis August morning when I recently was driving into the city. Traffic was backed up and a major thoroughfare looked like a parking lot. For a little less than a week, I was on cat-care duty—my “grandcat”--as a favor to my elder son who lives in the city’s urban area known as the Central West End. He was out of town. This was day one.  

Every day around Noon I passed a corner near Washington University and the same woman was standing there sporting a home-made cardboard placard that said: “Homeless.” She had long bleached blonde hair pulled into a pony tail and dry crinkled skin like chicken that’s been cooked too long. In the 90-plus degree heat, she was pacing back and forth, sweating, and looking pleadingly at people in cars passing by, hoping someone would give her money.   

The last day of cat duty, I was driving back from my son’s home. The line of traffic was backed up about a mile near Washington University. When I finally moved up, I realized a red van was blocking the right lane. The back of the van opened and a group of homeless people were just sitting there. Out popped the woman as if she were arriving at her job for the day. She had her tools: sign, hat in which she would collect the money and a water bottle. Was this Homeless Inc.? My judgmental genes kicked in. But how could I be so cynical? There but for the grace of God go I. 

My eldest son is the person who made me sensitive to the homeless through an experience he had when serving as Director of Communications of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. That experience became a book and movie called, “The Soloist.” 

Nathaniel Ayes, a paranoid schizophrenic and musical prodigy, had a breakdown during his third year at Juilliard. Subsequently, after a series of events, he moved to L.A and was living on Skid Row. One day playing a violin under a bridge in the city, Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez heard him and was mesmerized. He dug into Nathaniel’s life story and wrote about it in a series of columns that became the book and movie. My son was the person Steve Lopez contacted when he wanted to bring Nathaniel to Disney Hall for a concert. It was a big risk. Nathaniel was not medicated and could be disruptive. My son arranged for Nathaniel and Steve to attend a rehearsal that first time. Soon after, Nathaniel and Steve became part of the L.A. Phil family and landscape. Musicians freely gave Nathaniel music lessons and befriended him. An offshoot of “The Soloist” has been Street Symphony, a non-profit co-founded by my son and L.A. Phil violinist Vijay Gupta, which brings live free music of all genres into prisons and homeless communities in the L.A. area. 

I first met Nathaniel more than eight years ago when I was visiting L.A. He sat behind me at an all-Beethoven concert--Nathaniel’s favorite composer. When he heard music, he would sink into a safe place. I found him to be both charming and smart. He did babble unintelligibly at times and dressed in a bizarre fashion that became recognizable. It was: “Oh, that’s Nathaniel.” 

Since then, I have not been able to look at a homeless person in the same way. Everyone has a story. Knowing Nathaniel taught me that. So on the last day of cat duty, I decided to hand the homeless woman on the street corner some money. While reaching into my purse, the light turned green. People are lemmings—I gave and then the man behind me gave and on and on. Soon people started honking and one man yelled out his window, “Get moving.”   

Later, when I told someone I know that I gave money to a homeless street person, she said, “How could you be so gullible? You know she’ll probably go buy drugs or alcohol. Isn’t there a better way for her to earn a living?” I turned to my friend and said: “I’m not here to judge. This was about paying attention and responding to another person I felt was in need. I am not responsible for how she spends the money….that’s not in the spirit of giving.” 

When I drive that route now, I continue to look for her. There’s a new person on that corner now. I drop $1 into his hat. I worry and wonder if the woman is okay. Is she healthy? Is she posted on a different street corner? I’ll continue to give, to look and to hope that all is well.  

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