My name is Daniel. That won’t matter to you because you won’t see me. You’ll pass me by. But you won’t see me. So, my name won’t matter to you any more than I do. But I’m Daniel, nevertheless.
I can’t decide If it’s odd that you don’t see me. On one hand, it strikes me as odd because I am you. On the other hand, it’s not odd at all. If you can walk by me without seeing me, I suspect you don’t see yourself. You don’t see yourself in me. You don’t recognize the humanity we share. You don’t recognize or are afraid of the responsibility that comes with your humanity. But make no mistake: I am you.
I have the same desires as you do. I long for the opportunity to create a life of meaning and fulfillment. I long for a warm place to call home. I long for a family to care for and to comfort me. I long for hot coffee and home-cooked meals. I long for a clean bed to lie in, a soft pillow on which to rest my head, and a cozy blanket with which to cover me as I sleep. I long for hot showers and close shaves every morning. I long for hands to hold and lips to kiss. I long to be you, even as you are me.
Where am I from? What happened to me? What did I do? Why am I out here? Does any of that matter? If I’m not a criminal, and If I’m not mentally ill, the only thing that matters is what happens next. What does happen next? Am I able to help myself? Are you able to help me? Are those things different?
They say if you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. If you teach a man to fish, he feeds himself for a lifetime. Figuratively speaking, do you know if I’ve fished or if I’m capable of fishing? Do you have any idea how many fish I might have caught in my lifetime? Other than the fact that I live on the street and you don’t, do you know or understand the ways in which I’m you? Does it occur to you that our roles and places might very well have been reversed, might very well be reversed some day in the future? How does that make you feel? What does it make you think? What, if anything, might it compel you to do?
It might surprise you to know how little I want from you. Whenever anyone asked my father what he wanted, he’d say, “A few kind words.” You likely have no idea how valuable a few kind words would be to me. They’d surely comfort me. They’d assure me I’d been seen, that I hadn’t become invisible. They might even inspire me. They might motivate me to find the opportunity that’s eluded me up to now. They might motivate me to create it.
It might also surprise you to know how paralyzing hopelessness can be. Human beings can get used to almost anything. I never thought I’d be able to sleep under the overpass I call home. I thought the highway traffic above me would keep me up day and night. Now I don’t even hear the cars, the trucks, the horns blowing, or the sirens wailing. I can close my eyes and be asleep in moments. That’s the easy part. The hard part is waking up to realize I’m still living under the highway, and I have as little hope as I did before I fell asleep. If I weren’t so hungry, I’d probably stay under the highway all day. An empty stomach is about all the incentive I have to hit the street again.
You know what’s weird? I saw you walking by the corner where I was sitting the other day. You were dressed to the nines — new suit, clean shirt, snazzy tie, shiny shoes, clean skin, perfect haircut, trimmed beard. But you didn’t look any happier than I am. Why is that? In the relative social order in which we live, compared to me, you’re supposed to have it made. You’re supposed to be the model citizen and the embodiment of success. You’d never have known it from the look on your face and the emptiness in your eyes.
Judging from appearances, I’d guess you have something like an Ivy League pedigree, or you want people to think you do. Why is that so important to you? Do you have any idea about the degrees I’ve earned? Do you know where I earned them? Do you know what my personal and professional lives were like at one time? Do you wonder? Are you afraid to ask?
Ah … maybe that’s why you’re so reticent to recognize the fact that I’m you. Maybe it scares you to know how close you might be to losing it all, whatever that is — the blink of an eye, the tick of a clock, one snap of the fingers of the Hand of Fate. Maybe you fear failure without ever having defined it. Maybe looking too closely at me reminds you of the tenuousness and uncertainty of everything. Maybe it’s no easier being you than it is being me … if you still subscribe to the fallacy that we’re different. And maybe you think your present circumstances, whatever they may be, are forever.
Forever. I never use that word anymore. It used to be a regular part of my everyday speech — forever home, forever job, forever relationship, forever family, forever and ever. I think I actually believed it. At the very least, I derived some reassurance from it, however illusory, ephemeral, delusional, and ultimately temporary that reassurance may have been. But we’re all about the business of fooling ourselves to some extent, aren’t we? Despite the superficiality of that costume you’re wearing, you derive some sense of safety or security from it, don’t you? Do you believe that sense? What would happen if you didn’t?
What’s your greatest gift? Do you know? Do you ever think about it? What’s the one thing you’d never want to be without? Have you ever wondered? Do you know what you’d do if you lost it? Have you thought about that? What about your greatest fear? Do you know what that is?
Life is a precipice. Some of us get away with ignoring it. Some of us know it’s there but never fall. Some of us are acutely aware of it and fall anyway. Maybe the acute awareness causes us to fall. I don’t know. But I do know I lost everything that was important to me — my marriage, my job, my money, and my sobriety. The good news is none of those losses was as bad as I feared it might be. I’m still alive, and the sun still comes up every day, even if I can’t see it under the highway. The bad news is I live under the highway.
I’d like to ask you to do me a favor. No, I don’t want money or a meal. I don’t want you to buy me a beer or a bottle of liquor. It’s simpler than that, but it may be more difficult for you: The next time you pass by me, please see me. And please say hello. The time after that, it may be easier for you to ask me how I am. If you ask, I’ll tell you. I may surprise you. I won’t be maudlin. I won’t feel sorry for myself. I’ll tell you how I am right then and there, right in that moment. I’ll have to because I won’t have any idea how I’ll be in the moment after that or in all the moments to follow.
One more thing; although, this will require more effort: Believe in me. It’s been a long time since anyone believed in me. Like everyone else, probably like you, it’s easier for me to believe in myself when someone else believes in me. I have much to give. It’s also been quite a while since anyone believed that. Chances are fewer when you live under a highway, when you can’t bathe or shave, when you rely on others for the proverbial fish, rather than having the opportunity to do your own fishing.
Someday, someone may take a chance on me. Maybe you’ll take a chance on me. I don’t know. But I do know I have much left to give. The circumstances that put me on the street are behind me. Regardless of those circumstances and my appearance, my future is ahead of me like everyone else’s. Given the opportunity and having been down the sheer side of the precipice, I’ll make the most of it. I don’t have to promise that to you. I’ve already promised it to myself.
And please remember: My name might be Daniel. But make no mistake: I am you.
Editor’s Note: Help us help the unsheltered. Let’s listen and share their personal stories so we can change the narrative “for good”. LEARN MORE HERE