By: Beverly Graham
There was an old guy around 82ish that we called the “Rev”. He had a long beard, gnarled hands, walked with a bit of a hunch, and always carried a bible. Sometimes he preached fire and brimstone. Everyone in the line was very tolerant of his outbursts. For several years, every day, he walked up the hill and a couple of blocks from the Morrison and stood in line for a lunch. He always asked for 7 lunches and told us he was taking them to the “old guys” down at the shelter because they couldn’t make it up the hill. So every day I gave him seven lunches…
One day of the guys in line said to me, “Queen B (by this time my nickname had changed) do you know what that old man does with those lunches?” I told him I did know. That he took the lunches to the “older than 80 men” that could not make it to the meal site. He started hooting and laughing and everyone that could hear were shaking their heads and grinning at me…I stood there waiting for his laughter to subside so he could fill me in on the joke. When he finally contained himself he said, “That old man doesn’t give the lunches to them… he sells the lunches to them; for $3 each!!!
Hmmm… 7 x 3…$21 dollars a day. The “Rev” was an entrepreneur!
One day I was parked on the corner of Occidental across from the park. It was a much different park in the early 90’s. At that time the benches were removed so that those who were homeless couldn’t sit or sleep. If they did they were sited and taken into custody for loitering. The City wanted to keep the park safe for “legitimate” residents. I guess you have to dress or smell a certain way to be “legitimate”.
I stepped out of my van and was surrounded by several hundred people who I asked to stand in a line so I didn’t get confused. They always humored me. As I began handing out the meals a very large woman pushed her way through the lines screaming at people to “get out of her way”. People did get out of her way because her oncoming energy was disruptive and because they were fearful of her. Her name was Margaret. She weighed about 400 lbs. She wore no shoes, even in winter, because her feet were so wide, shoes did not fit on her feet. She had oozing sores on her legs and she was angry. When she shoved her way to the front of the line I thought “holy crap, she’s going to kill me”. She screamed at me that I was a “stupid white bitch”…even though she was as lily white as me… She told me she needed more food than the “rest of them” so I gave her a lot of food, filled a black garbage bag, and sent her on her way with a promise that I would be back with things I thought she might need. She scared the be-jeezus out of me. She was 8 inches taller than me and outweighed me by 300 lbs. My heart was pounding after she left. Even the big guys were wary. One said to me, “Lunch Lady, that’s trouble with a capital T!”
I started bringing Margaret vitamins, salve for her legs, and food that was safe for diabetics. I was sure Margaret had diabetes as well as being bi-polar and manic. Some days she was lucid and some days she was rabid, but she never was late to a meal. At the beginning of the month she could afford her meds so she was relatively calm and amiable, but, by the end of the month she was angry and rude and mean; Jekyll and Hyde…
On the day that Ken Schram drove onto Occidental to thwart the authorities and lend his considerable public influence in my favor, Margaret was enamored. She approached me, shyly for her, after he left and asked if I could get her a picture of him because she was such a fan. I called Ken up and asked him to sign a picture for Margaret. He signed it, “to Margaret…Much Love, Ken Schram…” Margaret was over the moon. She had tears in her eyes that she roughly brushed away when I handed her the picture. I know that it became her most prized possession and she told people that she and Ken were “good friends”.
I do not think that anyone ever loved Margaret for all of her life. No one ever made her feel special or cared for. She was utterly alone. She was full of pain and self hatred. She took it out on the world. Sometimes, when she let me, I would stand and talk with her. She was like a wary animal, always waiting for the net to fall. She told me things that had happened to her as a young girl that made me want to tear my hair and crucify the people that had abused her. I wanted to take away her pain, but I didn’t know how to reach her, or what she needed, so I just kept bringing her special foods, treats, big slippers for her feet, queen size clothing, vitamins and water. I wanted her to feel, that by my actions, I loved her. One day Margaret didn’t show up and I never saw her again…
When we are children we are taught to hold hands when crossing the street, not to eat paste, to share our toys, and to play nice. As we grow we are often taught to stop sharing, to eat anything we want, even it is bad for us, and play any way we want as long as we win at any cost. It is no wonder that we grow up confused how to be true humans…
My friend Jym Greene was a veteran of the first Gulf Coast war in 1990. He was a Navy Seal and had Gulf War and post traumatic syndrome when he was discharged. He had been chemically injured and when he came home he received no help and became homeless. He was often depressed. He began volunteering with OSL when he was 34.
Every day Jym waited for me to arrive. He always brought a group of his friends and they would take over; setting the food up, getting out cups and plastic cutlery. The people on the street respected him. He was kind and gentle. He was also a genius. He could do anything on a computer and was a proficient hacker. He gave classes at the Library to other homeless people and showed them how to set up email accounts and access information on line. He wrote articles for the “Real Change” newspaper; a paper that supports and advocates for the homeless in Seattle; www.realchangenews.org. He looked like a big Teddy Bear and he walked the streets of Seattle carrying his back pack full of 100 pounds of books.
Jym slept on the bus. He took the bus to the end of the route, woke up, got on another bus and took it to the end of the route. He never got a full night’s sleep. He wouldn’t stay at a shelter because of the pesticides they use. He told me that the pesticides made people very ill. His older brother Don was also homeless. Jym took care of Don. Jym never had an unkind word to say about anybody and everyone loved him. He spent most of his time doing research in the library but he never missed volunteering for a meal. He was always there to help. He had a hard time finding shoes because he wore a size 15. Once I bought him a pair of size 15 Nike Sneakers. The joy on his face made them seem like a $1000 pair of Italian Leather shoes. The gift of his smile is still carried in my heart.
One night, about one in the morning, I was working on a grant and an email came in. It was from Jym’s brother Don. It said simply, “Jym’s Dead”.
The next morning I called the Seattle coroner and found out that Jym had died at the age of 36 of a heart attack carrying his heavy satchel of books up a steep Seattle hill. I asked if they would release his body to me as Jym was homeless and that we would see to his burial. They told me that his family had already had him cremated. I was shocked! I had no idea that Jym and Don had family in the area. The coroner gave me a phone number. I called and spoke to one of Jym’s family members. I asked when Jym’s funeral was. They seemed surprised and said to me “Funeral? There is no funeral. Jym was a bum”. They were ashamed of him. I could not believe my ears. I was stunned for a moment. I was speechless. But then a burning began in me.
“Jym was not a bum” I told them. “He was homeless, but he was not a bum. Jym was a giver to life. He gave to people who needed him. He didn’t care about money or belongings. He only wanted to give to those who were unhappy, unhealthy, and despondent. If you won’t give him a service, we will”.
And so we planned a memorial service for Jym. We held it at the Veteran’s Memorial Wall. I did the music, OSL put on a meal, and hundreds of people, some homeless, some not, came in memory, honor, and celebration of Jym’s life. We invited his family members and had an open mic where people could talk about Jym and what he meant to them. Person after person spoke about Jym’s kindness and consideration, about his selflessness, and how he encouraged positive life changes. Jym’s family learned that Jym was not “just a bum”, but a valued human being; worthy of love, respect, and admiration. They sat and listened while all those Jym had helped spoke about him with love and honored his life. Jym did not value money, or clothes, or belongings; he valued people, and even in his pain and damage, he was a giver to life. Jym was my beloved friend. He owned nothing, but he had everything. Jym taught me humility. He was a true human. I miss him…