The Best Job I Ever Had
A few years back, I became the editor of Street News, a newspaper that was sold by homeless people, largely to captive audiences on the subway. When it first started, Street News was the darling of both the right and left, a private enterprise solution to a social problem that both empowered a group of people previously seen as pathetic, and made yuppies feel better about parting with a dollar of their hard-earned cash. By the time I got there, some of the lustre was gone. Giuliani was in power, and the streets were being "cleaned up," aggressively swept of squeegee men, panhandlers, and anyone peddling anything on the subways. The ranks of Street News sellers had thinned. It was a much-harder sell. Editorial was in disarray.
My arrival on the scene was somewhat controversial. I wasn't homeless after all, which meant I was devoid of street cred. Some of the remaining staff made no secret of their resentment. The one who hated me the most eventually became one of my best friends and is to this day.
He was about a dozen years on the street by then, and he was addicted to crack. I came to recognize the signs that he had just smoked by the peculiarly fuzzy aspect of his irises, and the abrupt spiraling up in his mood. I saw the downside too since he usually slept in the office, and was there when I arrived in the morning, and not always tremendously glad to see me. Some days, he wore the visible scars of a rough night, injuries that I did not question or mention, reading the vibe that he was not inclined to talk about it just then and there.
I don't know if he would say he was at his lowest point yet, that might have come about a year later, just before he went into recovery for good, kicked crack, wrote a book about his life on the streets (where I finally learned what happened some of those nights when he emerged roughed up), and reunited with his mother. But when I met him, he wasn't exactly in a good place. What he was, though, was brilliant. I loved talking to him, and did so non-stop. We talked about everything, the news, Giuliani's policies, girls, guys, what kind of writing we liked, what kind of writing made us lose our will to live (okay, that was usually me.) I fell a little bit in love with him, his sonorous voice and his brilliant insights. He was a great performer and salesman. He knew how to do things I could never do. The message was that a person is not reducible to their problems. You can be as down and out as they come and still have so much to offer. You can't put a condition on when you start listening to people. Not until they are sober, not until they have a job, not until they are contributing members of society, not until they get clean. You can start listening to them right now. You better. You might miss something.
Whenever I walked around with him, he always made a point of greeting other street people (the phrase he preferred to homeless people—sometimes you can't really be sure that someone is homeless, but you can pretty much tell when they spend most of their time on the street). He greeted people before sussing them out, without regard for whether they seemed "crazy" or a little off. He greeted people the rest of us tend to avoid. And startled, they answered him back, usually seeming awfully glad that someone had seen them, and acknowledged their humanity with such an open heart.
I'm not as good at it, or as fearless as he was, but he gave me something to aspire to. And he still does.