How to help the homeless? Change them? Or change ourselves? One dog shows the way.
Millie and I detect Maurice about a hundred feet down the block. Millie’s nose rises in the hot air. Sniffing. I wish I could cover mine. Pretty soon she is pulling at her leash, tail-slapping me and dragging me over to her friend’s doorway where he is liquidly slouched.
“Millie!” he cries, arms out, speech garbled, eyes just red slits even at this time of the morning.
Maurice is a wino. Not homeless. He is very particular about that, though he certainly has no home, and I’m not sure he’d want one if you offered. Maurice could never manage a home even if you gave him a mansion with a butler and a staff.
He says the high point of his day is when he sees “Queen Millie.” Then in a wheezy aside he says,” I tell that to all the girls.”
How old? Hard to say. Life on the streets ages you badly. Forty, maybe?
By now Millie is trying to bull her way onto his lap. She might weigh more than he does. With the toe of my shoe I inch his paper bag with a fresh pint of Mad Dog 20-20, Maurice’s lifeblood, out of harm’s way.
We see the homeless, for lack of a better term, in all our cities, and it’s always painful to imagine how they fit into our society and even more difficult to figure out how to help them, how to change them…or change ourselves, perhaps.
We give up because we think they’ve given up. They become part of the urban scenery. Maurice says he was born a wino, as if he has no say in the matter, no tragic story, no fall from grace, no trajectory. No story where he miraculously changes his life and becomes the hero.
Maurice and I are clear on one thing: I don’t give him money. We both know what he’ll do with it. I know what I did with it back when I was Maurice and I was begging change on the streets of New York.
Once, I bought him a pack of cigarettes–probably not very Christian of me–but he said he was dying for a smoke and I thought, “He’s dying anyway.”
I gave him a Subway sandwich when he looked particularly gaunt. He put it by his bag and said, “Maybe I’ll get to it later.” (Millie almost got to it first.) I gave him a Manhattan AA meeting book, and he tossed it back. “Got a collection of ‘em.”
Julee reminded me, “Make sure to get him a bottle of water. The heat is horrible.” While he scratched Millie’s belly I put the water down next to the paper bag, not wanting to touch anything.
I watched him dig his grimy, encrusted fingers deep into the creamy fur of Millie neck knowing I would wipe that area down immediately when we got home. Not that Millie minded being mauled on the streets of New York by a dirty old wino. She was in ecstasy. She had her dog grin going big time.
It was Millie who struck up the friendship with Maurice, and we do not deny her anything that she loves. She looks for him during his periodic absences and is overjoyed when he returns sporting one of those plastic hospital i.d. bands. Maurice has had lots of those, all different colors, his stripes.
I'd been half-tempted to give him a copy of my book, The Promise of Hope, about how I found grace and sobriety at the most hopeless moment of my life. But it didn’t feel right. My book wouldn’t get him sober. My book was my story. I look at him now and can’t help but think, “There but for the Grace of God go I.”
Eventually Millie and I headed toward the dog park, her glancing back at her friend. Friend. To her that’s what he is. She fully recognizes and embraces his humanity and treats him like anyone else, as good a human as any. Had I lost sight of Maurice’s humanity? Have we all? Just another part of the urban scenery?
Back home I knelt down to wipe the grime from Millie’s golden-white coat. I wondered if she felt I was taking something away from her. I didn’t know how to pray for Maurice but I tried: Dear God, please help Maurice. Please help him find a new story.