Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Stopping and seeing

He sees it in the juvenile street gangs, who live in fear of death and who propagate fear by inflicting death to banish fear. And he sees it at its worst, as the result of violent emotions bursting into the mind and erupting from the hands. Ed McBain

 I don't notice him when I walk past. Lost in thought, thinking about a meeting I've just had with a Superintendent at the city police, I am not focused on what is happening in the world around me. But, as I turn and walk up the stairs leading to the back door of the shelter where I work, I see him sitting against a corner along the brick wall at the back of the stairway. Completely clad in a red track suit, red bandanna tied around his head, his body tilts sideways, his head slowly moving downwards towards the gravel on which he sits.

I am concerned. From my vantage point above him I can see the bulging below one eye where he sports a large bruise and several cuts.

I know I cannot approach him alone. His red clothing indicates a gang affiliation. His bruising suggests he is hurt. 

I quickly enter, find one of our security staff and ask if he could come and check out the situation with me.

At first, the man does not respond to our security staff's entreaties. His body topples completely to the gravel. There is little discernible voluntary movement.

We continue to bend over the man, asking him to open his eyes, to give us some indication he is conscious of where he is, who he is, why he is lying here on our property.

"Hey buddy, we're just trying to help you," the staff member says when the man finally stirs and moans and tells us to go away.

"Why bother?" the man mutters, adding an expletive at the end. "Nobody else gives a shit about me. Why should you?"

"Because you're lying out here on the gravel and we're concerned," I reply.

That causes him to open one eye. "I just want to be left alone," he mutters as he rolls over. His words are slurred. Hard to tell if from alcohol, drugs or the beating he's obviously taken.

Another security team member arrives on scene. "Hey Joel," he says. "You know you can't lie here. Let us get you some food though man and check out your bruises. Can you sit up so we can take a look at you?"

Joel sighs. "I just want a sandwich. Tuna. I like tuna."  He sounds like a little boy. A hungry child begging for food.

"We can get you a sandwich," the security team member says. He smiles. "Just don't know if it will be tuna, but you need to sit up first so we can see you're okay."

And Joel sits up. One side of his face is badly beaten. His dark skin purple and blue and yellow. There are small lacerations in the bruise. Nothing too serious. Just tiny slits like the skin has been spread too thin and come apart at the seams.

He has tattoos everywhere. Knuckles. Arms. Neck. His black hair is pulled back into a ponytail. A red bandanna is tied around his head covering the top part of his forehead.

He is conscious. Mobile. No other visible wounds. He stands up. Leans against the wall.

"I'm just hungry man," he says, shaking off the outstretched hand of one of the security staff who had reached out to steady him as he stood up. "I just want something to eat and then I'll get out of here."

"No problem," says the staff member who knew Joel's name. "I'll run and grab one for you."

Joel looks at him. Looks at me. Smiles with what few teeth are remaining in his mouth. "Remember. I like tuna."

And again, I see the little boy. The lost. Frightened. Lonely little boy who doesn't understand why life has to be so hard, so scary, so uncertain.

"He can't come in," the security staff tells me as we walk back into the building. He to grab the sandwich, me to go to my office on the sixth floor. I know there's nothing more I can do for Joel. He is in good hands. "He's barred life for excessive violence and drug dealing."

"Thank you for getting him something to eat," I say.

"No problem," the staff member says before heading to the kitchen. "It's the right thing to do."

It is something I hear a lot around the shelter. "The right thing to do." No matter how bad or outrageous the behaviour of others, staff are always doing the right thing for the human being.

In this case, doing the right thing has meant checking up on and providing food to a young native man who cannot come into the shelter because his behaviour makes his presence a risk to staff and clients. His red clothing indicates the gang he's part of. There are a lot of them making their colours visible right now. Dressed all in blue, or black, red, yellow, they strut their colours and swagger around, challenging all to come and try to deny their right to be here.

Awhile ago, a native woman had yelled at me and a co-worker that we had no right to be on this land. "This is Blackfoot land," she screamed. "Get off!"

And the words to an old folk song run through my mind. "This land is my land. This land is your land..."

No one owns the earth. It is all our world. One planet. One people.

And these are our children. They are leaning up against a wall in the corner, falling over. And they are killing each other in every shade of black and blue all across the land.

I didn't see him when I first walked by. And now I do. I cannot stop him from walking forward into a life that is killing him. I can stop when I see him and let him know -- I see you.

Sometimes, all we can do is stop and offer a helping hand. And maybe, in that stopping, he will see himself, even if just for a moment, as someone who matters to this world.

And maybe, he will make it out of the gang alive.


Maureen said...

One eyes are opened and we truly see, it's almost impossible to not look again. The problems are so huge and the solutions but trial and error. But we have to keep believing that if even one can make it out, then others can, too.

Ruth said...

I really appreciate the measured response to Joel. You treated him with decency, with respect. This is a simple response, and loving. I hope your spirit makes a difference in his life.

Fi said...

Luckily we don't have the gang colours in Australia to the extent that America and Canada does.

I remember my parents taking my 17 year old brother to America years ago and being told by local police that if they wished to take their son home alive that they should put his LA Raiders jacket in his bag until he was back in Australia.

Scary stuff and stories like yours are truly sad. Reality is it doesn't matter what the colour of our skin is or the colour of our clothes, we're all the same on the inside - human.

We all have the capacity to love, to hurt and to dream