AM I VISIBLE? Black marker words scribbled on a brown piece of cardboard. He sat with his legs crossed, eyes closed, gently rocking back and forth on the skateboard between him and concrete. Knees escaping, pale and dirty like prisoners ought to be, from the holes in his jeans.
AM I VISIBLE? A busy Hollywood street corner. Rush hour traffic going nowhere fast. I catch glimpses of him through passers-by. Students hurrying home. Women in high heels and pencil skirts. Fathers with daughters on their shoulders. Children helping mothers carry bags filled with pumpkin pies, cranberries, and Thanksgiving turkeys.
No one stops. No one notices.
AM I VISIBLE?
“Yes,” I say, holding out a few extra dollars toward him. “You are.”
His eyes open. He smiles. “You read my sign.”
“For me?” He asks, nodding at the cash in my hand.
He takes the money. “I wrote visible instead of invisible. Did you realize that?”
“People see right through you out here. They make eye contact, and look away. Like they just saw something they weren’t supposed to see. They go to their phones. They look at the sky. They run across the street. Anything to forget they saw me. I’ll tell you, that’s worse than being invisible.”
I’m looking at everything but him, trying not to think of the ten other homeless men I passed before I finally stopped here. The much too small white puppy sleeping next to him, she can’t be more than twelve weeks old. Her precious white and curly fur is going gray and dirty. She sleeps on her side in a bed he’s created from torn clothes and a pillow from his socks, tucked in so perfect and delicate, I resist the urge to poke and see if she’s real.
“My sign used to say that.”
“Say what?” I fear I’ve missed something he’s said, my thoughts frantic about the dog.
“Invisible. My sign used to say invisible because I was mad. Now it just says visible.”
“Does your dog need any food?”
He laughs. He’s missing the left front tooth and the three that are supposed to be there next to it. “When people stop, if they stop, the only thing they ask: ‘Is the dog okay?’” He pats the black gym bag on his right. “I’ve got more dog food than I know what to do with. I really appreciate you asking, but sometimes I’ve got to say no.
He laughs again at what you might guess is the idea of a homeless man saying no to anything.
AM I VISIBLE?
“People care more about this damn puppy than they do me. Got to make sure the puppy has food.” He pats her tiny head, holds up the cash I just gave him for me to see. Like I’d forgotten about it. “God bless you.”
“I’m headed into the store. Is there anything else you need?” I’m clumsy with my words, trying to recover from being just another nameless face asking after the dog and forgetting the owner is homeless too.
“Yeah? Anything else?” There’s no way he wants just muffins.
“Just muffins. Those multi-berry kind.”
“You got it.”
AM I VISIBLE? I’m thankful that I am. I’m thankful that I don’t have to sit on a street corner, hungry and ignored. I am thankful my words don’t fall on deaf ears when I speak. I am thankful for the ability to see. To truly see what’s around me. Sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I pretend I don’t see them. The homeless. They look right at me, and I look the other way. I look down at my phone. It’s too inconvenient to stop. Maybe I don’t have any extra cash on me. Just plastic. That’s always my excuse. I pretend they are invisible.
“Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction…” James 1:27
I like when this verse refers to the fatherless as orphans. I used to think of orphans as something that only existed in Africa. But there are orphans all around us. The fatherless are everywhere. Visible. Right before our eyes.
I emerge from the store, four fresh-baked, multi-berry muffins in tow. I cross the street. His eyes are closed again. I hold the muffins out. “Here you are, my friend.”
“Wow. Thank you.” He takes the package, cracks it open, and bites into a muffin the way you’d imagine Eve bit into that apple. But I doubt the consequences will be as dire.
I’m halfway home when I realize I never got his name. I try to forgive myself for not engaging further. I take comfort in picturing him laying down to rest, for he can go to sleep tonight knowing full well that he is, indeed, visible.
Copyright © November 2012, Make It MAD