Tag Archives: Homelessness

Sphere of Absence

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Sphere of Absence by Erin Frances Baker

I exited a posh downtown law firm revolving door to accompany several high-priced litigators to lunch.  As a municipal attorney, my city was their client, and I its representative.  Hundreds of people walked every which way, moving single-mindedly toward their various destinations.  Car horns honked.  Crosswalk lights chirped.  People talked animatedly.  Buses dieseled by.  Trolley car power cables sizzled.  On the corner, in the middle of the commotion, sat a homeless woman, dirty, dressed in rags, her hair ratty.  She sat and rocked and wailed inconsolably.  No one paid her any mind.  They merely arced around her from their many directions, creating a sphere of absence around her.  I approached her, but not too close, to see her better.  I ached for her, yet feared to enter that intimidating sphere.  I marveled that she remained invisible to the bustling world around her. Still, though I saw her and felt for her, I too arced clear and moved on to my worldly business.  Below is my poem describing the encounter, entitled “Sphere of Absence.”

My daughter, Erin Frances Baker, adapted my poem for her acrylic-on-board masterpiece, changing the character of my homeless woman to the lighter, but still isolated and nearly invisible, figure of a street performer.  I hope you enjoy the poem and the painting.

SPHERE OF ABSENCE

She sat on the corner
of a bustling city street:
a surreal reminder
of an unfriendly reality;
a sad black-and-white cutout,
pasted, out of place,
into the noisy, colorful hustle
of illusory pursuits.
Mute faces ate and laughed
behind thick glass panes;
wingtips and heels stepped past
in all directions,
carving a polygonal sphere,
untouched, unvisited,
seen but ignored, unknown.
Unknowable.
Above the train-wheel grind and clatter,
the honking horns,
the crosswalk chirps,
the biting wind,
and the chatter, rose
a soft, wailing cry,
a muffled desperation,
a distracted pouring-out
of a fractured soul
into the lonely sphere of absence.

 

My book Rabbit Lane: Memoir of a Country Road, has recently been published in print and for Kindle.  You can read about it here.

Stuff

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One of my favorite books is The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith.  I read with delight the entire series of 15 books (I can’t wait to read #16).  Wonderful, sweet-and-sour characters, with goodness abounding and mysteries to solve.  On a day off I wandered to the public library grounds and settled in on a park bench to read.  A homeless woman, living on the grounds, approached me, interrupted my reading, and made a request. This poem tells the story.  What would you have done?

STUFF

“Excuse me,
sir,” I heard,
but the slanting sun shone in my eyes,
and I could not see at first.
“Will you
be here for a few minutes?”
Here being my bench
on the public library grounds, a bench
made of steel slats curved
and painted green. “It’s so hot
and I’m very thirsty: would you
watch my stuff
while I get a refill?”
Stuff: two sleeping bags
neatly covering egg-carton foam
with plastic underneath, all tucked
into a corner room formed
by intersecting retaining
walls. “Sure,” I mumbled,
closing the book
I had been reading, fancifully,
about African ladies,
ladies who were detectives
and teachers of typing,
ladies who made an effort
to help, and who lied
only when necessary to prop up
their men, men who were good
and who worked hard but
who needed some propping up
now and again
by smart and guileless women.
“Thank you.
I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
She shuffled away, hugging
two gallon-size mugs smashed
against unencumbered breasts.
Brittle yellow hair, sagging skin,
and an absence of teeth told
some of her story.
Watch her stuff. Stuff:
box stamped “This End Up”
with cups of dried noodles
in it; tube of toothpaste,
toothbrush, deodorant stick,
neatly arranged on the bed;
metal folding chair;
extra blankets, folded; winter coat.
I wondered what I would do
if someone took an unwarranted
interest in her stuff—like
a bicycle policeman;
a wizened tramp pushing
his own things
in a borrowed shopping cart;
a dog off its leash—
and I couldn’t say: Umm,
excuse me . . . that’s . . . not your stuff?
I hoped she would
come back soon, and turned
my eyes again to the stories
of good women and men
who helped each other
with troubles large and small
the best they knew how.
The woman returned
with her mugs refilled,
and with a friend,
a friend who waved her arms
wildly, bending and turning
at the waist, swinging her arms
up and around and down,
over her head, between her legs,
and I stood up to find another bench
on which to read.
“Thank you, sir,”
the stuff’s owner called
after.

Sleeping on a Sewer Manhole

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Wandering the streets of Philadelphia one rainy night, I asked a couple exiting their historic brick home where I could find a good place to eat.  They recommended a few restaurants, warning me which were BYOB.  Being both naive and a non-drinker, I hesitated, “Um . . . BYOB?” “Bring your own beer,” they chuckled.  I found City Tavern where the Founding Fathers debated the principles of liberty while smoking and sipping madeira, and ordered Martha Washington’s chicken pot pie.  My tummy warm and full (and my wallet drained), I set off through the cold drizzle to my hotel.  Steam snaked eerily up from the holes in the sewer manhole lids.  The wet air was growing more frigid.  I stepped round a cobbled corner into a narrow alley and came upon a man lying in a fetal ball on a sewer manhole lid, soaking up what little heat he could from the sewer vapors, sheltered from the rain by wilted cardboard.  This short poem remembers him.

SLEEPING ON A SEWER MANHOLE

A cold rain in April.
Glistening cobblestones.
Steam rising from the sewer through a cratered manhole lid.
A brother curled up, rolling restlessly, capturing wet warmth under his blankets
under an evening rain.

Woman at a Broad Street Bus Stop

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What difference will $1 make to the poor, the homeless?  None.  I’m not talking about the professional panhandler, who can make a good enough living.  I’m talking about the humble poor, who really need help, but who often don’t ask.  I gave such a woman $1 once, knowing guiltily that my contribution did nothing to help her solve her problems.  I only hope that my attempt at kindness made a difference in her heart.  She sat rocking, nursing her pains, at a bus stop on Broad Street in Philadelphia.  Back in my warm hotel room, this is what I wrote.

WOMAN AT A BROAD STREET BUS STOP

She rocked on a Broad Street bench
rubbing a leg through blue and green blankets.
Tears quietly cut her brown face.
Liquid eyes shone
upon each oblivious observer, pleaded
unheard for spontaneous compassion.
No cup or turned over hat called for
a casually cast coin.
“Could you use a dollar?” I ventured.
“Oh, yes,” she whispered.  “I need to buy medicine.
I have such pain.”
She rubbed and she wept.
She asked for nothing.
What use is a lousy dollar!  What use
are a hundred lousy dollars!
And she asked for nothing.
“God bless you, sir,” she cried
as she rocked and rubbed her aches through her blankets.
She asked for nothing.

Wachovia Man

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I spent hours in the evenings walking the streets of Philadelphia while there on business.  Around City Hall and the Masonic Temple, both architectural masterpieces.  Along Benjamin Franklin Boulevard toward the Museum of Art, with its steps made famous by Rocky Balboa.  On the banks of the dirty Schuykill River.  By the famous LOVE sculpture.  Down Walnut, Chestnut, and Market Streets in the historic quarter.  In many places I saw homeless people, in desperate condition, sleeping mid-day in parks wrapped in dirty sleeping bags and blankets, crouched in cardboard shelters under the South Street bridge.  One wizened man with wild beard and hair squatted with his back against a Wachovia bank wall, holding out his empty coffee cup for coins, staring blankly at the multitudinous passing feet, but seeing nothing.  In my hotel, haunted by these images, I wrote this poem.

WACHOVIA MAN

Only the cup and knee-knobs
of crossed legs showed themselves
to the thousands of preoccupied pedestrians.
He sat tucked tidily
into a Wachovia wall,
out of the way.
The cardboard cup held 3 pennies
and a ring of dried coffee stain.
It’s cold today,” I said and stopped,
68 smug cents now
in the cup of the blue-capped man.
His gap-tooth smile jumped from a thick grey beard,
and two clear eyes saw into mine:
Thank you. Yes,
it is a cold day.

Woman on a Park Bench

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Many years ago whilst ambling happily through Central Park in New York City, my gambol’s attention was diverted by an old woman sitting silent and still on a weathered park bench.  A woman without a home.  A woman without a family.  A woman without belonging.  Homeless.  I felt overwhelming emotions: sadness, pity, regret, helplessness, compassion.  I wished for her happiness.  I had no idea what to do or say.  I did and said nothing.  Even today, I don’t know what questions to ask about homelessness, let alone what the answers are.  This poem is about that encounter, about the woman on the park bench, but also about me, about you, about the human identity and experience.  My next several poems will feature my few experiences with the homeless, our brothers and sisters, humans that have been written off.

WOMAN ON A PARK BENCH

She sits
on a park bench—
rusting iron, splintered wood—
tattered hat askew on unkempt gray-streaked hair;
cotton and wool dripping threads;
too-big shoes cold against bare feet.
She sits,
hunched and silent and still;
a tiny, unnoticed atoll spotting a vast, smeary world;
a universe within.
Once there were dreams and smiles at dreaming the dreams.
But they wilted and died,
the struggle ending long ago,
yielding to forces that depleted, that destroyed,
that said:
You are nothing;
You don’t matter;
No one cares.
And so it is.
And so she sits:
finished looking for life;
not waiting for death.
She lives because she does not die.