Yesterday evening, in downtown San Francisco, I met Josh, a homeless young man in his early twenties, and his handsome dog, Roscoe. I’d noticed Josh and Roscoe sitting out by the Muni station every evening for the past couple of weeks now, but only yesterday did I work up the nerve to go talk with them. Josh has a sign written in black ink on brown cardboard: “What would you do if you were hungry and homeless?” Before I tell you more about Josh and Roscoe, let me go back a little:
Yesterday evening, I also finished a two week office sublet at The San Francisco Writers’ Grotto. The Grotto is a downtown office housing a community of writers and filmmakers and its membership, as my dear friend L. would say, reads like a “Who’s Dat” of the Bay Area literary glitterati. I return to the Grotto in July for a three week sublet and plan to sublet again in August. Eventually, I hope to rent or share an office there on a permanent basis, if they’ll have me.
I enjoyed my two week stint at the Grotto. I got some solid writing done and spent much less time surfing the internet and on social networking. It felt good to get up in the morning and have a destination to go to other than my writing dungeon here at home. I found I liked my ‘get ready to go out’ ministrations every morning versus my usual ‘sneakers, sweatpants, unbrushed hair, unwashed face, and who the hell is going to see me anyway’ look.
I noticed a shift in those around me too, in my husband, daughters, and friends. Despite the fact that I’ve worked solidly at writing every day at home for five years now, suddenly, in others’ eyes, because I was going out of the house each morning and returning home each evening, I was ‘at work.’ “How was work, Mom?” my daughters asked. My husband phoned, “Sorry to disturb you at work …” A friend, “Are you going to work today?” Amazing.
Strangely, I’m guilty of seeing my new routine more as ‘work’ too. This past week at my daughters’ school they needed volunteers for various graduation events. Normally, I’d sign up and devote hours, but this time around, because I was going downtown to the Grotto, I refused to volunteer and instead got some solid writing done. “Oh, you’re working now?” one of my fellow school parents said. Hello? I’ve also worked with my husband for the past thirteen years doing all the layout and interior design on the various properties he remodels. I’m no slacker. Yes, this shift to “Ethel’s working now” is going to be good for me and everyone around me.
The most rewarding and simultaneously challenging part of my stint at the Grotto was the sociability and daily communal lunch. I both loved and dreaded coming together with everyone. I often felt ridiculously shy and awkward and sometimes inadequate and inarticulate. I blushed, a lot! Who knew I still blushed? I stuttered and couldn’t think of words or remember names. Who knew I stuttered? Sheesh. Some days I felt tempted to remain inside my office at lunch time and hide. I didn’t. I attended the lunch every day and some lunches were great experiences and some less so. This is life. The important thing is I kept going back.
Thursday night, the night before my last day of this stint at the Grotto, I attended a Daughtry concert. I’ve been a fan of Chris Daughtry since, yes, American Idol. There were a crazy amount of bald men there, my own man included. Chris Daughtry’s passion and large heart really come across in his work and his performances. Several times the backdrop to his songs included sobering footage of the sad state of our world and the terrible atrocities that occur every single day. His performance of “What About Now” and its accompanying video was especially sobering and moving.
Which brings me back to Josh and Roscoe. Thursday night, after the Daughtry concert, I lay in bed thinking about Josh and Roscoe and the line in white letters that came up on the large screen while Daughtry sang “What About Now?” The line read: “I am belief in your humanity.” I had noticed Josh and Roscoe every evening for two weeks mostly because Josh, like my two daughters, is a voracious reader. He reads these thick, hardback library books and one evening I’ll pass him and he’s just started the book and the next evening I pass him and he’s almost finished the read. My 13 year old won’t be happy to hear this, but it seems Josh is an even faster reader than she. I decided in bed on Thursday night that the next evening I would offer Josh a copy of Cut Through the Bone and of Hard to Say.
I thought of Josh often throughout yesterday, hoping he’d be in his usual spot and that I could speak with him and give him my books. Yesterday evening, when I rounded the corner of Second Street onto Market, Josh wasn’t there. An old man occupied Josh’s usual spot. I felt that sinking feeling and also relief. I’d become anxious throughout the day thinking about my planned encounter: What if Josh was mentally ill and dangerous? What if the dog was also aggressive? What if Josh pleaded with me to help him, to save him? What if it all got messy and ugly?
I spotted Josh and his dog further down Market Street, sitting at the other end of the Muni exit/entrance. I walked past Josh, four times!, trying to work up the courage to approach him. I didn’t fully understand my fear? My awkwardness? I was shaking, inside and out.
I finally approached Josh and Roscoe. “Hi, I noticed you like to read?”
Josh reached for his dog and held onto the animal’s neck. His eyes, wary, slid over my face. “Yeah.”
“I write short stories,” I said. “I was wondering if you’d like a copy of my books?”
Josh looked up from the dog and into my face, searching, the wariness still there. “That would be great, thanks.”
I took the books and a pen out of my bag. “What’s your name?”
The dog moved next to my legs and barked and Josh tightened his hold on the dog’s leash. My adrenaline surged and my heart raced. I couldn’t stop shaking. I wrote, Dear Josh
“What’s your name?” Josh asked.
“Nice to meet you, Ethel. This is Roscoe. He’s about nine months, just a puppy. He’s a good boy. I’m still teaching him some, how to sit and lie down. He’s getting it. He’s good.”
I talked to Roscoe and he quieted and sat down.
I wrote inside both my books, mindful of Roscoe sniffing at my knees and hoping I’d find just the right words, something that would matter to Josh, that might help him. I was still shaking so hard my handwriting came out terrible.
I handed Josh the books. “I hope you can read my handwriting, Josh. I hope it all works out. I’m rooting for you.”
Josh looked up from my books and for the first time smiled, not a grin, not joyful, but still a smile. A smile that seemed part sad and shy and surprised and thankful and maybe, maybe, just a little moved. “Thanks, Ethel.”
Of all my books I’ve sold and gifted and given away thus far, none of it mattered next to giving Josh those books yesterday.