Election Section

First Person: The Street Belongs to Me, Too

By Maya Elmer
Tuesday August 21, 2007

In Calcutta I heard a 6-year-old ragamuffin call out, “Baksheesh. Baksheesh. No Mommie. No Daddee, Baksheesh. Baksheesh.” Here the Berkeley street person mumbles, “ Any spare change? Spare change?” whether on North Berkeley Shattuck Avenue or South Berkeley Shattuck, or not surprisingly, on Telegraph Avenue.  

I’m a white-skinned, older retiree and fugitive from the Michigan winter and summers, and these days I live close enough to walk to the Gourmet Ghetto. For almost 25 years now I have been aware of the Shattuck Avenue street life ever since I have made myself a part of it, the walking forth , and then back, erranding along this main street.  

They are there, sitting in the sun, aimlessly talking with buddies, then again, to the passerby, “Got any spare change?” In fact, that litany of “any change today?” seems to be their reason for being out where the action is rather than stuck in a small room all day. Early on I decide that the streets and sidewalks belong to me, too. 

On my Shattuck Ave by Long’s Drugs, two regulars squat along the wall holding paper cups, or hawking the street paper. Their dreadlocks look dirty, long screws of hair fall around the faces. The clothes are nondescript. I always turn my head to glance their way, to give them a nod of recognition. So maybe I smile tightly. I keep on going, but not making eye contact. Nor giving them my change.  

The sociologists are right: We uprights—uptights—do not look at them. If we don’t look at them, we don’t see them. Perhaps they will go away. And, of course, some one of them always says, “God Bless, Ma’am”  

Did the panhandled bottle of wine, the shot of street stuff, was that what kept the one raggedy man wrapped up under the bank bay window long after sunrise, long into the afternoon? I noticed the old, frail, wizened white man, neat, with tie, collar, and worn, almost shapeless coat jacket. Nothing scruffy. Just the aura of “Poor.” 

First when the cashier at the Safeway took a dollar bill from the till in exchange for three quarters, two dimes and a nickel which the old man wordlessly poured into the cashier’s hand. Later I saw the gent lingering outside the doorway. He is new here. Maybe just on this side of town after a ruckus on the south side? This little old man would certainly have been bowled over, trampled upon in any rush. But he probably cowered inside himself, somewhere, shivering at the noise. I turn quickly as I don’t want to hear his mutter. I’m ashamed to say that I want to wipe him out of my atmosphere. And who wears a shirt and tie in public these days?  

One day a young black woman appeared on the street. Two shops past the hardware store and in front of the Cheese Board with benches in front—where the traffic for fresh bread and cheese is maintained all day. She has a good spot: A small hand lettered sign said, “Help the Homeless.” Neat. She stood for all the first weeks I saw her. Then a chair appeared. Where was she from? Where does she stay? In my mind, I ask all the questions which out loud would be nosey and impolite. How much does she rake in? Is she on drugs? What are her hopes? Her dreams?  

At my end of Berkeley, there are the regulars who know enough in 2007 to either stand or bring their own chairs. And they never sit on the benches.  

Then to top it off: There’s this white, elderly man who schlupps around Berkeley; that is, he passed underneath my balcony apartment one Sunday. I know he’s not homeless. But he’s part of the Street Scene. His shoes are newish, clean Nike-like sports. Floppy,unlaced. A dirty plaid shirt, grey hair, springing out like a rumpled washcloth. And grimy overalls.  

I picked him up once on The Arlington in Kensington as he was hitching a ride—his thumb out, but not aggressively so. I remembered him. “What are you doing up this far from home?”  

“Oh, I go to the library here. It’s different. More interesting,” he mumbled. As we whipped down and around the curves, it was mostly chat about where to let him out without directly asking him where he lived. But did he smell!!! GREATLY VERY unwashed. In moments this man so filled the car with the stench of his body, I was breathing thru my mouth.  

I know why the librarians have asked him to sit outside on the back steps.  

I do feel uncomfortable. There’s great uncomfortableness at feeling pressured. Is it my guilt that I have life easy? and they have it hard? How can I show compassion for one and not the hundreds of others?  

“Regular people don’t spend their days that way,” says my innards. “No?”  

What should we be doing for the irregulars of our town?  

Would it make a difference if the street-people had benches to sit on?