Park Street Angels: A Chronicle of Hope An Excerpt
Chris Nordstrom, Bob Wright and Sue Straley
After a very successful career in health education spanning some 20-odd years, in the spring of 2003 at the age of 52, I ended up as what I refer to as collateral damage in the raging war of healthcare economics. I was [then] directing a health education outreach program for a community hospital and had just completed a graduate program in instructional design. Early in the new millennium, funding for “prevention” activities succumbed to economic pressures and had to take a back seat to essential [and reimbursable] direct patient care. From a purely pragmatic standpoint, reality dictated that, while health education and prevention programs were necessary, they also needed to be provided in a more cost-effective manner – through outsourcing. So my position was discontinued.
A friend referred to this time in my life as “patchwork time.” I had pieced together several part-time employment situations, including serving as executive director for a small human service agency and picking up private consulting work writing grant proposals, to fill 40 or so working hours a week. However, my “ends” never quite met – they always seemed to fray, sometimes right along with my nerves. While seeking full-time employment I kept bumping up against what my sister refers to as the “glass window” – an invisible barrier that prevents middle-agers like us from finding employment. It adds yet another challenge to the crisis [or “opportunity,” depending on “the lenses through which you view the world”] of mid-life.
As some of my part-time activities concluded, by the fall of 2005 I was working only 10 hours a week. Having lived paycheck to paycheck all my life, I didn’t have one of those financial cushions for life’s rainy days. But, it was starting to rain, and I was getting wet.
I took an inventory and considered my options, particularly for another, more affordable living arrangement. Those who know me know that I cherish my living space, and that to decide to move would be an act of desperation. I tried to reduce expenses and take advantage of services for which I was now eligible. The years during which I worked within the “human service” industry served me well in that I knew where to look for fuel assistance and other support services in my town. My situation also allowed me to receive partial unemployment compensation.
Applying for unemployment was relatively easy. I could be somewhat anonymous over the phone – I didn’t actually have to face anyone. I just had to provide information to verify past employment and so forth. But when it came to applying for fuel and utility assistance, it was a much more sobering [and, frankly, embarrassing] task. I had to do this in person. When I finally worked up my courage to go to the local agency that took care of people like me, which was housed at my town’s Council on Aging facility, it was hard to be anonymous. But, by the grace of God, a friend from my church was volunteering there that day. Many of us refer to her as an “angel”; she always knows what to do or say. Sometime it’s just enough that she’s there. So, while I wasn’t anonymous, I felt supported; I wasn’t alone.
Sitting figuratively and literally on “the other side of the desk,” I talked about my situation with the case manager and was given “reams” of forms to document my expenses and how much, or – adding insult to injury – how little I was making. While I had done it before in my imagination (in “experience-walking-in-the-other-guy’s-shoes” assignments in human service classes, and in my song writing), it was humbling to think about actually putting on “the shoes.” Mortifying and humiliating might be better words. Continuing the metaphor, I now found myself shopping in the same store.
Having graduated from the College of Public and Community Service at UMASS Boston with a degree in Human Services Management, I have supported “many things just” in my adult life. Also, growing up in the 60’s, I’d learned how to be an advocate – on someone else’s behalf or for some important cause. But, when it comes to standing up and advocating for my own needs, that’s a whole other thing. It’s just plain hard, embarrassing and demeaning to ask. I felt ashamed. Maybe it’s because I was still in so much denial that this was happening in the first place. Maybe it’s because I felt like such a failure. “If only ...”
The case manager asked me to prove that I was eligible to apply for assistance. She showed me the financial eligibility chart. It was like receiving a reality-awakening punch in the gut when I saw the numbers. I was, unfortunately, indeed eligible. “Across the table, in my humility,” I wrote in a song about this episode in my life, “there begged my ego that I may worthy be. What are the measures of poverty? Well, there, with the grace of God, am I.”
So, applying for unemployment compensation was OK, but applying for this other assistance was not. I was too ashamed to get the verification information that was required in order to process my application. It involved the agency having to check with other people, e.g., my landlord, about how much I paid for rent and utilities. He was already giving me a huge break in my rent, and I didn’t want to go through the embarrassment of what, to me, was like asking him for more. So I rationalized that there must be someone else who needed the assistance more than I did. I didn’t pursue it further. I let it drop.
But, while “ends” still weren’t meeting, God’s awesome grace worked through several friends and family members who helped me financially with loans and outright gifts – some given without my having to ask. It was just enough to help me get through the patchwork time. And, for me, there’s a happy ending. In the spring of 2006 I found full-time employment in Boston directing the overweight prevention [or healthy weight promotion] program for the state. I finally broke through the “glass window.” However, I won’t forget the patchwork time in my life or about all the people who are still piecing their lives together.
During the first weeks commuting to my new job in town, after emerging from the Park Street subway station in the heart of Boston, I would cross Tremont Street and walk down Winter to Downtown Crossing; then I’d take a left on Washington Street and walk a few more blocks. I didn’t really know the area very well and hadn’t ventured out much during my lunch [half-]hour to explore. Downtown Crossing at 7:30 a.m. is a messy brick-paved slalom course of over-stuffed blue plastic trash bins. But, after meeting my sister for supper in town after work one evening at the Parker House Hotel on the corner of Tremont and School Streets (which connected with Washington), I found a new route. The walk up School Street, passing by the site of the first public school and King’s Chapel on the right, and left down Tremont Street, past the old Granary Burial ground, wherein Mother Goose and Paul Revere lie, and the Park Street Church along Boston’s historical Freedom Trail, was a lot more pleasant. I used this more inspiring trail to and from work each day.
One day en [new] route to work, I noticed a man sitting in front of the Park Street Church. I passed him there every day for a few days, noticing him out of the corner of my eye to avoid becoming “engaged.” He had white-grey hair, a beard and glasses which made him look kind of like a Dickensian St. Nicholas. But he was dressed in a T-shirt, jeans and a baseball cap like any contemporary of mine [OK, an old “hippie”]. From a short distance, I could read one of the hand-written signs that sat next to him on the sidewalk. It demanded: “SMILE: It’s the Law.” I obeyed the law, but kept walking.
After a few days of this, he caught me peeking and our eyes connected. I was afraid – I don’t know why, because he was smiling – but, it’s probably because I got caught. I glanced away quickly and kept on walking. Then I looked back over my shoulder and saw him still watching me through the wrought iron railing of the church steps. Ice blue and smiling, his eyes connected with mine again. But I kept walking.
There was something about his eyes that stayed with me all that day. Then I wondered if they were trying to tell me something, and then I felt somewhat foolish. I imagined he might be some kind of angel – the kind that only some people could see, or one who is dressed like “any man” who crosses your path and has some kind of message or challenge for you. Anyway, I didn’t stop as I didn’t have any change handy, and I didn’t want to take the time to take off my backpack, which had now become part of my daily wardrobe, to search for my purse and rummage around for spare change. I kept walking; tomorrow I would be better prepared.
Next morning at 7 a.m., as I sat on the black vinyl-upholstered bench on the train, I fished around in my purse inside my backpack and found a few quarters. I put my premeditated donation in my pocket and hoped that I would make good my intention; I hoped that I wouldn’t get cold feet and walk on by if I saw the fellow at Park Street again. It’s not as if you could just walk by and flip a few coins into a paper cup and keep walking; he was situated so that you had to intentionally walk over a few yards out of your way to get to him.
He didn’t jingle coins “aggressively” in a paper cup like other folks on the street did. He had an old cigar box that sat in front of him on the sidewalk; a cane leaned on the church wall behind him. He never asked outright, “Can you spare any change?” He always just smiled and waved at folks, especially the children on their way to day care a few buildings away.
I made good my intention. After crossing Park Street, I walked over to him and handed him the quarters. He took them while gently, briefly holding on to the tips of my fingers; then he let them go. Maybe it was a way of requiring a connection. With a warm smile he said, “Thank you, Ma’am.” I was a little nervous and muttered something like, “You’re welcome ... take care.” But what kind of care could be purchased for 75 cents? I was rather embarrassed. And during that transaction, I saw another sign next to him that said, “Homeless by Fire.” That, too, stayed with me the whole day.
Well, this was the beginning of an unintended, unconventional friendship. I would look forward to emerging from the subway each day on my way to work and speak with him about the events that shaped his life. I found myself investing in him as “a neighbor.”
As I thought about this fellow, I remembered an assignment in a class that I had taken some years ago, entitled, “Race and Class in Human Services” at the College of Public and Community Service at UMASS Boston. We had to assume the identity of someone who was completely unlike ourselves and keep a diary for two weeks living [in our imagination] as that person. I chose to be a homeless woman living on the streets of Boston in November – dreary, damp, bone-chilling-cold November in Boston. In my/her diary, I/she was half-dazed with cold, trying to figure out how to take care of my/her personal needs, let alone find food to eat or some place for shelter. It did, indeed, make me think about things differently – an important lesson, not only for folks working in human services, but for anyone living in “Life 101.”
Walking in Boston each day, I encounter so many of these seemingly invisible souls. But, they’re everywhere – people like this fellow who are disabled and out of work or just down on their luck. Others are suffering from addictions and still others are mentally or emotionally disabled, but left to fend for themselves on the streets and in shelters. They’re not only on the streets, but they’re overpopulating the state’s correctional facilities as I learned in the world of AIDS and corrections. These most vulnerable souls remain unseen. We all walk by and don’t see them sleeping on the steps of the church or on the sidewalk below. No matter what the season, there are souls lying there on or under thick grey wool blankets, the kind that we purchase for needy folks on “Blanket Sunday” in our church in suburban Boston in honor or in memory of our mothers on Mother’s Day. These fragile blanketed souls are strewn across Boston Common near the Park Street “T” each morning.
I am, at the same time, grateful but not just a little frustrated and angry that I am beginning to see them. I’m angry because we as a society haven’t figured out how to care “for the least of these.” I remember one older, disabled woman who was parked at the top of the stairs of the Park Street “T” exit in her wheelchair. Her legs were covered with a blanket. She didn’t have a paper cup and wasn’t asking for money. She just sat there with her eyes cast downward and a vacant look on her face. When I finished climbing the stairs, I saw her and thought to myself that she must be one of the Park Street Angels. She didn’t look up at me, but, then she smiled as I passed by as if to acknowledge that I had learned, and that she would trust me with her secret.
I wondered if this was her “work.” Just to be, to be there in the midst of life’s routines and daily chaos to make people like me consider the question, “Who is my neighbor?” Then I thought how cruel that would be and how dare I “romanticize” such a life. I recalled my pastor’s words from a recent sermon that challenged: “In order to get into heaven, you need a note from the poor.”
How can I be her neighbor?
Copyright © 2008 Christina Nordstrom
Library of Congress Control Number 2008909263
ISBN: Softcover 978-1-4363-7869-7
Published by Xlibris Corporation (www.xlibris.com)