Saturday, July 23, 2016

Under the Bridge

There’s a man under the bridge.  The railroad bridge at M and 2nd Streets in Northeast.  A calm man.  A stoic man who sits silently facing the road, saying nothing, unflinching, a refuge in himself, in the chaos of biking, walking, driving commuters.  Except when he’s sleeping--curled up under matted truck furniture pads or discarded carpet padding and a heavy green tarp.  In the summer, the top of his balding head pokes out, tufts of scruffy black hair visible against the deep green and matted grey of his bed.  And  except when he’s standing in the middle of the sidewalk passionately yelling from his Bible, screaming verses at the top of his lungs, still drowned out by the din of rushing cars echoing within the concrete walls and the clamor of trains above knocking the metal frame of the bridge into itself.  It’s been a year since I’ve seen him reading.  Perhaps it is the times of day I pass.

I try to make eye contact with people sitting on the street.  To silently say “I see you.  You are not invisible.  You exist.”  I rarely have food and even less often have cash.  But I have my humanity, and I try to offer that.

He never glances to meet my eye; I look away so as not to be mistaken for staring.  Some people do not want to be seen.  Some people wish for invisibility; it is the super power they’d choose.

Or maybe he’s just not “on.”  This is his home.  I do not know where he goes during the day.  I know he leaves.  Perhaps he works elsewhere, doing something others would regard as a job or asking for sympathy and help in another place.  I have many friends who prefer to live away from where they work.

I’ve come to think of that spot as his spot--that wide expanse of shaded uneven sidewalk where I must bike-slalom around support poles and city planters, the cement covered in pigeon droppings and ash from the man’s cigarettes, leaving a perfect outline of where he sleeps, that bridge—as his place, as his home.

But lately, others have moved in.  They do not sleep swaddled in plastic tarps.  They have set up tents.  Little pop tents like the kind my cousin’s friend uses camping.  First there was one.  Then two.  Then three.  Sometimes two again. 

I wonder how he feels, the stoic man under the bridge whose presence calms me.  Does he think of that space as his the way I do?  Is his space to him smaller?  The tents are on the street-side of the sidewalk and he is next to the stone wall that seeps water for days after a rain.  The world of DC people pass between the man and the tent row, a mini street on a sidewalk.  Are the people in the tents his friends?  Does he simply tolerate them?  Do they talk to each other when they’re all awake and the men in their suits and the women in their short skirts and slippers-masquerading-as-shoes have all bustled off to downtown and Capitol Hill?  And how long will they stay, the people in tents?

This is the question that follows me most.  Because when those tent people go, I doubt it will be on their own accord.  Tents are for the rich to hide in the woods and pretend they know how to be self-sufficient.  They are not for building a home on public land.  The city will tolerate it for awhile the way it tolerated the mini tent-city on the footpath extension of the bike path for several months.  Tolerated it until the Pope came.  Then it had to be disbanded.  Can’t let the Pope know there are poor people.  Who will come and unwittingly by their coming make the new tent row disperse?  Our next President for inauguration in January? And when the tent people are shooed away, will the man be forced to go, too?  Will the stoic man remain?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The Tonga man was here, read and enjoyed. Good day