Mercury retrograde is a quarterly astrological event in which Mercury, the planet governing communication, goes retrograde. What this means for us humans is that all forms of communication go wonky. Emails get missed, phone calls drop, interpersonal conversations fire on mixed signals. We also end up dropping things, tripping over cracks in sidewalks, coming down with simple colds, etc. It’s the Universe’s crafty way of slowing us down.
Euphemistically speaking, this can be ‘off-putting’. Yet, when we’re in tune with it and take the the time to slow down it can be magical. Slowing down helps us have more bandwidth, helps us to do the nourishing things for ourselves and ultimately helps us to feel more embodied. We’re not so rushed. We broaden our periphery from our internal dialogue to connecting with the world around us.
For the past two months, I’ve noticed a new homeless guy taking up residence in the doorway of a neighboring storefront beside my Union Street studio. If I get into the studio early he’s typically sleeping in the alcove of the doorway. His camp is that of a blue tarp, styrofoam containers of half-eaten food, an orange safety cone which has been makeshifted into a receptacle for donations. His hand-crafted cardboard sign which is taped to the top of the cone reads in green and red letters, “This life is HARD. Donations are very much appreciated.” At the bottom of the cardboard sign is a hand-drawn red, white and blue Grateful Dead lightening bolt. Accompanying him in the camp is his sweet black and tan German Shepherd whose ears flop to either side. She sleeps on the side closest to the doorway, away from the street, snuggled up beside him.
Most days when I arrive at the studio he is already awake and packing up his camp. Meticulously rolling up various pieces of clothing, his tarp, a blanket, umbrella and anything else that can be compressed into the larger duffle bag which he carries on his back. His dog plays with her chew toy and scouts out a place to pee after their night of sleep. Some days I pause to pet her, but she can often be skittish to new people. Understandable when living life on the streets, whether you’re a human or a dog.
In the time I’ve seen him, my curiosity grew. What was his story? Does he have enough food for him and his dog? Where does he go when he’s not here on Union Street? How did he end up on the streets? There are some people who you can look at their face and know that they’ve come from a better place, that street life isn’t their destiny, they have better plans for themselves, but somehow they ended up there. This is in his face. His blue eyes piercing the world from beneath his baseball cap. His strawberry blond beard framing his jawline. The lines on his face masking his age which I would bet is much younger than he looks.
On Sunday morning I saw him sleeping in the doorway again. My heart went out to him. A new level of empathy arose. Perhaps taking the place of need-tos, should-dos and various to-do list items on a typical daily agenda. Monday morning I found my thoughts drift off to him and his dog while I was on my morning hike. I asked the Universe, “How can I help?”
Later that morning, a prior appointment got canceled and found myself getting to the studio an hour early. There he was, packing up his things. And because I resolved to connect, to understand more, to help, I approached him and his dog. I knelt down on the sidewalk while he was packing to pet his dog. She came over slowly with her eyes bright and ears down.
I said “Good Morning”
“Morning. How are you today?” he called back.
“I’m good, how about you guys?” I replied.
“We’re doin’ okay. Just packing things up to get outta here before this store opens.”
“Yeah, I’ve noticed you both around here lately.” I said.
“Well, we’ve been around here for a while, just sleeping in different doorways.” he replied.
And then, just like that, he began to tell me his story. Came to San Francisco from Butte County. He was legally running medical cannabis, but ran into trouble with the federal government and the IRS. His property was seized, so he drove down to San Francisco to live with a friend. The friend moved away, so he started living out of his car. His car got towed and he didn’t have enough money to get it out, so now he was on the streets.
“I’m not an addict, I’m not an alcoholic. I never thought I would be here living on the streets.” he said, “but I just can’t seem to get it together to get off the streets.”
His shepherd’s name is Raya. He was going to get food for her that morning. He gets a good deal at the ASPCA and only feeds her high quality, grain-free food. She is well taken care of. He will only sleep in shelters that allow dogs, they are hard to come by. He is on a waitlist. When the shelter calls, you have 90minutes to get down there. They called him three days ago, but by the time he packed up his gear and ran to the bus, the bus had already pulled away and wouldn’t wait for he and Raya to board. He missed the spot at the shelter until next time.
I asked what they needed. Expecting the response to include a cash request, I was surprised. He asked for gift cards to a sporting goods store to buy a large backpacker’s pack. Large enough to pack all his stuff into one bag. At the moment he has about 6 bags he carries, strapped to his back or in his hands. I noticed his hands have band-aids on the first knuckle of every finger so he doesn’t get calloused and cut while carrying these bags around town. He also said, “it’s nice to get off the street some nights.” He saved up $60 to rent a room one night last week. This was his story. His name is Steve. I listened. I empathized. I hugged his dog as she did the dog-lean up against me. I shook his bandaged hand, by this gesture he seem surprised, perhaps that I reached out to him, person to a person. He thanked me for listening and strode off towards the bus stop.
Just that morning I asked the Universe, “How can I help?”. It was as if a portal had opened. A veil of dimension peeled back so Steve, Raya and I had time enough to connect. Time to listen, to witness, time to hear the answer. And rather than the Universe damning us into slowing down, it provided this bittersweet, magical gift.
Postscript: This is not a political post about homelessness, more a statement on how we get too busy to connect with life around us.
After putting out a request on Facebook for a backpack, I received many offers for many other items including tents, boots, sleeping bags, etc. I have the backpack at my studio and waiting to see Steve & Raya again so I may give it to them. I hope it helps him feel supported.