Posted on | May 25, 2012 | No Comments
I seem to write about Street Sense, D.C.’s newspaper for the homeless, only when someone dies.
My family recently returned to the Washington, D.C., area after six months in Vietnam. Coming back to D.C. felt like walking back through that old wardrobe in The Chronicles of Narnia: we retained memories of an intense, action-packed, vivid life abroad, but our world in D.C. felt unchanged and even indifferent to our experience. We’ve pretty much picked up our lives where we left them: moved back into our Maryland home, reactivated phones and reconnected with old friends. In just three weeks, the motorbike-packed streets of Hanoi and the serene view of West Lake from our apartment seem like a far-off memory.
The one thing that has changed in our D.C. life is that we are seriously looking to buy a larger house. The process has been long, winding and ever-evolving. With the D.C. real estate market on the rebound, we’ve already lost out on a couple of bids to competing buyers. Yesterday, in a funk over our latest setback, I picked up the May 9 issue of Street Sense, a newspaper covering news about homelessness and poverty in the D.C. area. In some ways, it looked very different from the year I served as its editor. Since my departure in 2008, the paper has redesigned itself into a tabloid format, changed board members, executive staff and its logo, and added many new homeless vendors. The content, however, remains depressingly familiar: new statistics on homeless families in D.C. suburbs, multiple stories by the same volunteer or intern followed by a goodbye note by the same volunteer or intern on the back page.
I idly flipped through the first few pages. I’d read those stories already. Then I saw something I hadn’t seen before, near the back of the issue: Jesse Smith Jr. was dead. Jesse had been the vendor manager when I joined Street Sense in 2007. His calm, friendly manner, inspirational speaking skills and warm, gap-toothed grin made him a great mentor for people struggling to overcome their experience of homelessness. He’d gone through a rough patch the year I knew him, I remembered. But he’d rallied, taken some time off to overpower the ghosts of his past addictions, and returned as a volunteer and writer for the paper.
Jesse was dead.
The news story referenced his friendship with Mary Ann Luby, a Catholic nun who worked tirelessly for the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless until her death in 2010. She had passionately described the issues facing the homeless population in D.C., filling me in during my first couple of weeks as editor, I remembered. She’d lost a battle with cancer.
Mary Ann Luby was dead.
Cliff Carle, a talented photographer with a wicked, ornery streak, had died a year and a half ago. I’d loved featuring his work in the centerfold of the paper and had written about his death on this blog. When I thought of talented people at the paper, I thought of Cliff.
And Cliff was dead.
I’m haunted now by thoughts of Street Sense, of people who have lived hard lives, suffered indignities and fought demons, and who have died too young. I feel guilty for being wrapped up in a hunt for a larger house when there are thousands of people who are sleeping on the streets or in borrowed beds in shelters. The house we want to buy is only on the market because the owner died suddenly last fall, leaving no heirs. I found a news story on him and he is now real to me. I am haunted by thoughts of his parents who died before him and who owned that house before him, wondering at their history and wanting their house to be in safe, appreciative hands — mine.
In Vietnam, people believe that when a family member dies, they must be helped with offerings by their family to reach their final destination with the Taoist deity, the Jade Emperor, in the sky. So the surviving family burns paper horses to help their ancestors on this journey, along with paper money to help them buy anything else they might need along the way. Once the ancestors have reached their destination, they can intercede on the surviving family’s behalf with the Jade Emperor, bringing them riches and good fortune. I briefly debate making offerings to the family of the dead owner, asking them to help me take care of their house in this world.
But then I am haunted by the thought that all this is so futile — that whether we struggle to afford mortgages and buy better homes in better school districts, whether we struggle to stay sober and keep a job, or whether we burn paper horses in the hope of a better life, ultimately, we all are going to wind up in the same place.
And that big house is not going to go with us.