“bums” the word

One group I am willing to bet has very little in the way of federal lobby, or media spin-doctoring to enhance their image is the homeless. Bums, Street-people, Homeless; or if you prefer the more derogatory (and often misleading…) Wine-o, Hustler, “Undesirable.” All of these are terms applied to a segment of population that is “off the grid.” They may not have addresses or mortgages; but they have the right to dignity and compassion.

Larry is one “bum” I have gotten to know over the last couple of years. He is a veteran, that goes to the VA hospital now and then when he’s sick. I see him probably twice a week – whenever my smoke breaks coincide with his bottle collecting regimen (in Michigan we have 10 cent deposits on pop bottles).

Wayne State University is home to a lot of residents that never make it into the national census report. Larry is one of them. He has a job of sorts, a commision job you might say. He carries two bags, one filled with bottles and cans, the other with trash. Often I see him in the distance, picking up trash, when from his point of view, “no one is looking.” He takes more pride in our college campus than most of the students that go here, and will list “Wayne State” next to their name on applications and resumes for the rest of their lives. Whenever I flick the exhausted remains of a cigarette into one of those ubiquitous stone-pebble ashtrays and miss – I now bend down and pick up the butt and put it in the sand; knowing that I am honoring the profession he undertook and not undoing his work.

When I see Larry, I try to snap out of the roles prescribed by the “us versus them” conditioning of school and media; and instead see him as a man, as an industrious worker, and yes, as a friend. When I place a couple smokes and a couple bucks into Larry’s calloused hands – I like to think I am handing him some dignity as well – he worked hard for his keep.

Detroit has a large population of homeless, or more accurately “houseless” persons. The politics, and the “what to do’s” are difficult to navigate, to be sure; but for me and Larry there are those moments of trancendence when we are just two men standing under a stoop downtown smoking reds – complaining about the weather, as two Detroiter’s should.

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