On the eve of the inauguration of Obama, about 80-100 radicals formed a black bloc in Washington DC’s Chinatown. The rowdy bunch smashed the windows of a TD Bank and a Hooter’s. The police eventually caught up in cruisers, dispersing the crowd. Occupy Eye streamed the bloc, lagging behind to avoid filming their faces. You can watch the video here.
This is a story submitted by Jim, a member of the mARK team. We’ll be posting stories about the acts of kindness we make, witness or experience. We strongly encourage our followers to submit their own stories!
The streets of Washington, DC are lined with the invisible. People who exist and take up space, yet are not seen. Those of us who live and work in the city find ways to not see these stewards of our sidewalks. When strolling past a huddled form wrapped in a blanket or lying across a park bench, we find a way to see around them. We avert our gaze, staring off into space, looking past the person in our path, or looking up at the trees to avoid acknowledging their presence, lest they ask us for money. We find this more palatable than making eye contact with these fellow human beings and being forced to address the uncomfortable reality that these people are right here in front of us, living on the streets, and they have no material possessions to which we aspire.
This week, I have challenged myself to acknowledge every homeless person I pass on the streets of our nation’s capital. I may not have the means to bring these people into my home, but the least I can do is treat them as human beings. When passing another human being on the street, it is common to make eye contact, perhaps exchange a greeting, or at least in some nonverbal way acknowledge their presence.
Monday, while walking past the neighborhood CVS, I saw a middle aged man with leathery skin and a dark knit cap pulled down over his ears sitting opposite the open doors holding a cup begging for loose change. When I saw him, I chose to look straight at him. He looked up when he noticed my approach. I made direct eye contact while voicing a slightly forced, “How you doing?”
The man returned my gaze and responded, “Good.”
I nodded in return and continued on my way.
In the next 24 hours, my acknowledging of the homeless people around me has made me see every single one lining the streets of our city. I greeted each one that returned my eye contact and did my best to sound positive. And then, outside of a Starbucks on M street, fate sent me a little gift.
I met Derrick, the man pictured in the photo. His sign made me think and it stopped me in my tracks. I decided I had to say hello. We struck up a conversation and I learned a little bit about his life. He “lives” in front of some shops near Dupont Circle where the owners know him and let him stay there in exchange for “watching their shops” for them. He stays warm thanks to blankets provided by the city. The city has a hotline that will deliver blankets if you call them and report a homeless person or that you declare yourself to be a homeless person who is cold. But though the city will let him sleep wrapped in a blanket, tents are strictly forbidden. Seriously. I asked Derrick about them and he shared that he was only allowed to have a tent during the Occupy Movement because there were so many people camping out the police couldn’t do anything to stop them.
So if you see Derrick on the street, say hello. I’m sure he’s got a smile ready, and I know he put one on my face. Oh, and he also loves bossa nova music, in case you were curious.
The National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition is part of the Portraiture Now series and features the work of six artists — Mequitta Ahuja, Mary Borgman, Adam Chapman, Ben Durham, Till Freiwald, and Rob Matthews — each with a different approach to drawing their subjects. If you are near Washington DC this summer don’t miss a chance to visit it!