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Clean Hands Still Dirty

It’s not a selfie. It’s a reminder. A reminder that sometimes you have an opinion, and sometimes you are the opinion. Like this moment. When someone else’s opinion reminded me of how hard the hustle can be. Even if you just want to wash your hands for lunch.

I’ve been helping the homeless since college. And yes, I know what it’s like to spend chunks of time on the street. But I did it on purpose, with the good fortune of knowing I could leave at any moment. That’s the blessing. And that’s why working with the homeless is still such a strong focus area for me and for The Pongo Fund. Because the need is great. Because no one should suffer.

This is a big and heated conversation and there’s more opinions than answers. But when they have animals, when they need help, when they ask for so little, it’s time to put our opinions aside and do what we can. That’s my opinion.

The Pongo Fund is working on a new project to help the homeless and their animals. I was walking the streets and stopped into a small place for a quick lunch. I was adorned in a Pongo cap, a second-hand black jacket, a well-worn yellow fleece, blue jeans, basic shoes. I’d shaved a couple days earlier.

My hands needed some scrubbing; I asked about using the restroom. The woman was busy, maybe she didn’t hear me. I asked again. She said it was for customers only. I said I wanted to wash my hands then I’d be back to order. She shrugged, like she’d heard it too many times before. She said I’m really not supposed to let you, but she pointed, I quickly followed before her kindness went away. I felt dirty as I walked to the back corner, and that’s when I got a glimpse of myself in the mirror.

To me I looked normal, like someone wanting to wash their hands before they ate lunch. I spend a lot of time on the street, this is how I look. A moment later I was back and thanked the woman for letting me wash up. She didn’t reply. I thanked her again. Without looking up, she said “sure, whatever.”

There was no other acknowledgment, other than me feeling like it was time for me to leave. I had money in my pocket, I really did want to get some lunch. But I left. Not because of her. Just because.

I passed lots of people bundled on the sidewalk and I wondered where they wash their hands when they eat lunch? But I knew.

The woman, she was young with kind eyes. I felt bad for her, what a difficult burden to bear. Working in a neighborhood surrounded by the harshness of winter homelessness can’t be easy. She wasn’t mean. She was just doing her job. Protecting the restroom because before you know it, you’ll find a line of people bathing there. And that’s not right either.

But how will she bounce back from these moments, of being asked to quickly judge someone’s ability to pay for lunch, and then based on that, allowing them the secret instructions to where to restroom is? She is too young to carry that weight.

I had clean hands but felt dirty.

An older woman sat on the wet sidewalk. She held two cigarette butts, one in each hand. These were not the kind of cigarettes you buy, these were the kind that had already been someone else’s cigarettes before. She talked to herself. She looked sad.

A few feet away a woman stood with her lifetime of possessions overflowing from a small cart. She had a backpack next to her cart, a small dog inside, head sticking out. She wore a front pack with another small dog snuggled tight. It was below freezing, the wind was no one’s friend. The street was their home. How did she stay warm?

An elderly man in a wheelchair, he was missing a leg. He had no coat, just a sweater that looked like it knew many winters. He pushed himself along; his arms the motor. The remaining leg grabbed the pavement in unison, pull, push; pull, push. He saw me watch him. A dog on his lap.

A woman with a walker struggled with a small bag draped over the handles. A small dog walked alongside, connected to a small leash in her hand. I hope the bag held lunch for both of them. She had no coat, the dog did.

Sometimes I feel lost in my own city.

My solace was knowing we’d be back again soon.

“Remember to be gentle with yourself and others. We are all children of chance and none can say why some fields will blossom while others lay brown beneath the August sun.” –Kent Nerburn

Sit. Stay. Eat. Live.