6:00am, amid winter making its final stand, is a frigid, dark and lonely time to be walking the streets of downtown Memphis. I had this idea, albeit nothing new under the sun, to spend a weekend downtown with nothing in my pockets other than my ID. What do you do when you have absolutely nothing? Where do you sleep? How do you eat? What does that experience feel like? Fortunately, I had friends advise me this was not safe and there were other ways to understand what it means to be homeless. I didn’t want to be “homeless” for the sake of some witty and brave social experiment, but because my heart hurt for people who lived on the street and I needed to feel what they felt. This was almost a year ago but the idea never really left my thoughts. Then an opportunity for a test run presented itself just before I was to start my Volunteer Odyssey. Everything was in place for my 7 day week except that Saturday’s NPO location had not yet been finalized. I mention the idea to Sarah Petschonek, the creative brain and driving force behind Volunteer Odyssey, and she loved it. Instead of a full weekend we decided that I could just be dropped off downtown in the wee hours of the morning and try to find two meals before I went home. That felt like a reasonable idea. So that was the plan and that’s what I did.
At 5:45am I find myself on my own at the corner of Union and Monroe with no clear plan or direction. All that was in my pocket was a cell phone and an ID. Most of the homeless folks have cell phones, so I have mine in case of emergency. I hadn’t eaten, showered, or combed my hair and I did not sleep much the night before, so I wore the “tired, exhausted, and disheveled” look well. I looked rough. The walk down Monroe toward the Mighty MS is invigorating and the fact that there is almost no sound brings a peace I haven’t felt in a while. There was freedom in knowing that I could essentially walk anywhere and do whatever I pleased. There was freedom in having my phone on silent and having a block of time where there wasn’t much to plan or organize mentally. I make my way through Court Square and plop down on a wet bench. There is a guy slumped over on a bench near me in what looks like an attempt to sleep. It has to be uncomfortable but it seems to be working for him. He never stirs as the waking sounds of morning slowly hum. I was hoping to meet some people here for conversation and take my mind off of the cold but I press on. Next stop is Confederate Park. It’s a scenic and tranquil spot to sit down and watch barges, or the occasional kayakers, roll on down the river; but, still there is minor activity. I see the Memphis Visitors Center down to the right and start trekking that way. I know that VCs often have free hot coffee and my plan is to score a cup. Of course, they don’t open until 7:00am and it’s now 6:45am, so I walk the path further north along what will soon be a Greenway. There’s a poster with renderings of what the Greenway will be and I think this will be a nice spot to hang out when you’re walking around with nothing to do. Free coffee is not an option at the VC so I decide to head south along Riverside Drive. Walking past Beale Street Landing and circling back by the University of Memphis Law School I gain some insight as to what I came down to discover… loneliness and boredom.
The sun is well up, although completely snuggled behind a gray blanket, and I make my way back to Confederate Park. The residents of downtown (those who obviously have an established address) are milling about. Some are running, walking, drinking coffee, and just enjoying the morning. Here I get another sense of what is means to live on the street… isolation. Because I did a fair job of looking like I was a nomad, people would not make eye contact or acknowledge my existence. Some people would even cross the street as to avoid walking directly past me. Occasionally, someone would offer the courtesy of a ‘good morning,’ but for the most part people did not engage me. I don’t say this to speak ill of our citizens, I say this to address the reality that we all have been a part of. Everyone has their philosophy on this type situation and we all struggle to make peace with ourselves even though we feel disappointed when we avoid people. It’s ok. Most of us can’t identify with that level of poverty and we don’t know what to say or how to help. None of us care for socially awkward situations.
This awareness just makes me love people even more, which brings me to someone who will now forever have a special place in my heart: David. At this point I was really in need of some interaction and advice on where I could find hot meal, although I already knew of one place for sure. As I head in the general direction of said meal, David asks me for some change. Even though I may look homeless to everyone else, David senses I’m an outsider and engages me in conversation. Thankfully I am able to honestly say that I don’t have any change, or at least not the kind that jingles. I tell him I’m just looking for something to eat and he immediately takes me under his wing. David walks me toward St. Mary’s, the direction I was headed in the first place, and advises that’s the place to be. People would be hanging out there, drinking coffee, until 9:00am when lunch is served. At St. Mary’s I shamelessly grab the last cup of coffee. In hindsight, I should have given it to someone else, but I didn’t. The mood at St. Mary’s is calm and soulful. There is gospel music playing over the speakers and people seem to be in good spirits. We wait around for soup and I listen to people talk about the Tigers (aka Cardiac Cats) and Grizzlies. There is more pride in the way they talk about Memphis than I hear from other Memphians. My soul rejoices! After soup I ask David if I can tag along while he makes the mornings’ rounds. He is more than happy to have a friend by his side and we head back to Confederate Park. David tells me his only plan for the morning is to sit on a bench at the park and just enjoy the morning. What a concept! He says the secret to lasting peace and fulfillment is just “letting go;” a concept that has taken him almost 65 years to understand. The remainder of the morning is filled with talk about David’s trials and tribulations. He was once a successful entrepreneur and had more money than he knew how to spend. But, after his father’s house burned down and his mother passed away life just took one unfair turn after another; some of it his doing, admittedly. David is quite a fisherman and his expertise is confirmed to me by the details I remember from fishing with my grandfather. We laugh until we almost cry as he tells me about this turtle he caught one time and how he was trying to make sure it didn’t bite his finger off. There is quite a bit of wisdom in the way he discusses a range of topics including local business, politics, and humanity. I feel overwhelming love for David. Not in the compassionate sense, but the kind you feel when you meet someone you instantly connect with and hope you remain friends with forever.
A friend of David’s walks over and they laugh and make plans for the day. I sense our time is coming to a close, so we hug and exchange ‘I love yous’ and part ways. I promised I’d catch up with him another time and intend to make good on that. It’s close to 11:00am, and though I wanted to hang out all day, I feel I’d had enough to shift my perspective. For now.
The “walkabouts” downtown have pride and are respectful of privacy; therefore, I opted to take only pictures of what you see below.