September 23, 2013

Attitudes & Values: A Story of Two Men on Tampa's Streets

I wanna tell you a story and I also want to respect our friends who come to the Well on a regular basis. When we tell stories about our interactions we change the names of the characters so as not to betray their trust.

Frank and Peter are two men who have been on the streets for quite some time. They would both probably fit the description of being 'chronically homeless'. Frank is tall and slender, Peter is shorter and much more stout. Frank tends to smile and tell jokes while Peter has a bit of a 'mean mug' and tends to scowl and say 'everything sucks.' I love them both. Neither of these two men are delusional as far as I can tell and I have known them both for over a year.

They are both intelligent and they both have some weaknesses too. They are very different from one another and they also have a lot in common, as most who are experiencing life on the streets do. They both get harassed by the Tampa Police and sometimes find themselves in jail. They both find themselves begging to get the things they need and/or want. They both know how hard it is to find a place to 'shit, shower & shave' as my father is so fond of saying. They both sleep on concrete most of the time. They are both baby boomers. They are both people who know what rejection feels like.

They are also very different as individuals. I think this story illustrates a major difference between the two men.

Frank walked into the Well the other morning and with a big smile on his face said "I just got back from vacation!" Having a hunch what he meant I asked, "Really? where did you go?" "Falkenburg!" he exclaimed. For those of you who are unaware, Falkenburg is one of the main jails in Tampa where so many of our neighbors are taken when caught committing a crime or living while homeless. "Was it nice?" I asked. "Well, no, not really but it's better than being on the streets. I was able to get showered up, eat and look..." He holds out his hands, "I even got my nails trimmed!" He said he was "kicked out before they served breakfast" the same morning I saw him. He was looking for a coffee and a bagel and was so happy we had plenty to offer that morning. Frank is a cool guy and he always sees the best in any situation. He is one who would never throw too big of a fit about...well anything, really. The thing is that for as long as I have known Frank he has done this from time to time. I remember one week that the weather was gonna be particularly bad and Frank went and bought a big ol' beer, threw the brown paper bag away, walked right over to the police and started chugging. He later told me about that incident, "It's the only way to get in out of the storm and plus I could use a few nights of good rest and a shower."

Now Peter also knows how important it is to get "in out of the rain" from time to time and get a good night's sleep. His approach is quite a bit different. He will panhandle and sell palm roses and anything else he can think to do as he saves every last penny until he can afford a weekend in a motel. Talking about being in a hotel might be the only thing that really makes him light up when we talk. He just so hates his situation and experiences that he will spend every minute of every day dreaming of that one or two nights in an air conditioned room watching TV after taking a long long hot shower. Peter knows Frank and just cannot understand why Frank would possibly want to go to jail. Peter does get arrested from time to time, because, well being homeless is a crime in Tampa, but he finds no joy in it at all. He hates getting arrested and going to jail, as most people do.

What struck me about Frank's happy attitude about his vacation in county jail is that Frank is always happy. The man loves Jesus, (he also loves beer) tells jokes, makes others smile and is generally a really really good man. Frank is happy everywhere....even jail. It's as though the peace of God transcends his circumstances. So, when it rains, "Ah, I think I'll just go to jail today." No worries at all. Peter, on the other hand hates being in jail, but if I'm honest he hates it just about everywhere else as well. Now I gotta say his life is really hard and I don't blame him at all for having a chip on his shoulder. None of us can really say that we wouldn't if we were in his shoes...or lack thereof. Other than the way he talks about the motels, that he very rarely can afford, "everything sucks." When I see him and say "Hey Peter, hows it going," he scowls and grunts. If he gives any reply at all in words I will bet anything the statement includes the word "SUCKS".

There are two points of reflection I want to make about this story and I think the first is obvious, attitude really makes a difference. These two men have really hard lives. I have watched them struggle and face difficulty after difficulty. They have reasons to be bitter and grumpy in my opinion. Frank seems quite content though. Contentment, it seems, has very little to do with the conditions in which you live. I know some really unhappy people who own a lot of things and live in comfort all the time, they neither appreciate what they have nor do they have any real joy to speak of. Then there is someone like Frank, who has almost nothing and sleeps most nights on the concrete, he makes wealth seem to have less to do with what you have than it does with an absence of want.

The other point of reflection I will leave for you to chew on. It costs roughly $50.00 per day to keep Frank or Peter or anyone else in the jail. That's $1,500.00 per person, per month. Maybe I'll post about that another day.

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