The first thing she told me was that she loved Tom Selleck’s mustache. “I love Tom Selleck! Magnum P.I. is my favorite show!” She was a small Asian woman who kept drinking coffee from a paper cup. I was in Denver for the National Collegiate Honors Conference and had decided to break away from the crowd and get breakfast on my own. It was an unseasonably warm day as I walked down the 16th Street Mall searching for something to eat and wishing for nothing more than to be left alone.
Since arriving a few days before, I noticed two things about Denver that I hadn’t expected. One, that the Rocky Mountains were much farther in the distance, and two, the number of homeless on the streets. The Rocky Mountains can be spotted on the horizon, most of which had the picturesque snow capped peaks one sees in postcards and on travel brochures. However, from street-level the walker can only catch an occasional glimpse of them from between the buildings and if traffic is light. The homeless, on the other hand, are ubiquitous in Denver. They congregate on nearly every corner and while the pan handling was at a minimum, their presence is very keen. I was surprised by the number of younger homeless I encountered. Most of them seemed to be in their early twenties, or even younger. Denver seemed to me to be a kind of way station rather than a final destination for those living on the streets. Although most of them seemed disturbingly young, there were a lot of older men and women, as well as wheel chair bound men and women at various spots throughout the city. According to Denver’s Road Home, a commission to end homelessness in Denver, 64% of the homeless on Denver’s streets are those with families and children, 42% are women, and one-third have jobs (www.denversroadhome.org). Quoting Denver’s Road Home spokesperson, Bennie Milliner, The Denver Post reports that around 350 unsheltered homeless find themselves along the 16th Street Mall nightly. The numbers are staggering, and the legalization of pot has caused a bump in the number of homeless in Denver.
Walking through their cigarette smoke and stale air I couldn’t help but think it would not take much to find myself in their position. I fantasized how I would survive on the streets and where I would sleep when it became too cold to stay outside. I was informed not to give them any money because Denver provides a lot of services for the homeless, but despite this they continually seek to take advantage of the tourists who come through the city. I was a bit bothered by this and gave a dollar here and there anyway. But I now wonder if it was out of guilt or a genuine desire to give something to help them. As I was walking away I caught a chill that also carried some words belonging to Nicanor Parra:
No lot could be sadder than mine
I was defeated by my own shadow:
The words take vengeance against me. (Tr. Miller Williams)
All of which brings me to the Asian woman I met in a café one morning. I walked in, ordered breakfast, and took my seat. She was sitting at the next table and I could tell she wanted to talk. I hate small talk, and really just wanted to be left alone. However, I forgot my ear buds in my hotel room (ear buds are something I am almost never without because I have found that just having them on protects me from small talk) and was forced to enter into a conversation with her. She began, as I have recounted above, by telling me about her love for Tom Selleck. It was only a matter of time before she moved herself and sat at my table. “It’s getting cold out. I hate the cold, even though I love to wrap myself up in my baby blanket.” “Your baby blanket,” I asked. She smiled, “Yes, I love it. I really love wrapping myself up with it at night.” She went quiet for a moment. “There’s a Mark Wahlberg movie on tonight. Do you like Mark Wahlberg?” I replied that I did and that I lived near Boston where he was originally from. She ignored this and continued. However, she was mumbling now and speaking very fast, too fast for me to catch what she was saying except the occasional “Mark,” or “movie.” Then she began again with Tom Selleck. “I love Tom Selleck, I love his mustache.” I did not mention that she already told me this and let her go on with her story, which, from what I could gather had something to do with the warm weather and Hawaii.
I finished my breakfast and got up to leave. “Have a nice day,” she said as I walked out the door, and I wished her the same. For the entire time I sat with her, twenty minutes or so, she never stopped smiling. There was something beautiful about her and I couldn’t help but feel that I had experienced a sort of gift by having spent some time with her that morning. Other than an occasional question, I never said a word and she never seemed to mind.
I think it’s often easy to see the homeless as outcasts from society and to think that they mostly have become a burden on society. What we forget, what is too easy to forget, is their humanity, the light that still exists somewhere beneath the dirt and the grime of living on the streets. I was in Denver for an honors conference attended by academics and very bright students, but the conversation with that woman in that café is the one that I will remember for some time. It cost me nothing to sit with her and she never once asked for anything. Her conversation was rambling and hard to hear, but quite coherent. I spoke with a lot of interesting and bright people at the National Collegiate Honors Conference, but none of them were as interesting as the woman I shared a table with for twenty minutes one morning in early November 2014.