Bert Stern has taught in the Dorchester Program for nine years. He is a writer, editor, and poet, a retired English professor and retired chief editor of Hilton Publishing. He and his wife, Tam Neville, co-edit Off the Grid Press, which publishes poetry books by writers over 60.
This is part 2 of 3 in “Down there for a Visit.” Read part 1
The first night we slept at the top of a staircase on the portico of Boston’s Trinity Church. The young men slept below, under lights, and they were also more exposed than we were – our early warning system. The gray stone where we slept was stained here and there with time or old human secretions, and at our left was a weathered wooden door that belonged to a Gothic castle. The traffic on Clarendon Street just below us stayed loud until long into the night.
I slept well enough that night to wake up rested, yet the night had its dramas. A young man and woman at one point settled into the lower floor at the opposite end from my friends, he to smoke crack, she to skin pop. An old man came up and, with great difficulty, took a shit. Once, a man with a woman started to climb the stair to the place where we elders slept, then saw us, said something about “the fucking bums,” and retreated. I asked Jim the next morning what he’d have done if the man kept coming. “There’s be a point where the toe of my boot would have met the front of his face,” Jim said, suggesting that even for Buddhists self-defense was sometimes necessary.
But the most dangerous thing that happened came early that morning when Jim Ryudo Bastien, our leader, went out to panhandle money for our morning coffee. As he was about to walk the church, a man slumped down in a park bench with a nearly empty fifth of something in one hand looked up and asked Jim to go across the street and get him some cigarettes. He was holding in his other hand a big roll of bills, presumably disability money, and Jim answered, “Sure, but how about giving me five bucks.”
The man was enraged. He’d already told Jim that he’d been at war for most of the past twenty years, and Jim took his anger seriously. He also took seriously the fact that he’d done the wrong thing, driven not by any concern for the man but by his own fixation on buying coffee. Jim walked for a while, but it was still too early to panhandle so he circled back to the church, where he passed the man again. This time he apologized for his selfishness. “Just give me the money for the cigarettes and I’ll be glad to buy the cigarettes.” “How do I know you’ll come back?” the other man said. Jim said he’d take the guy across the street, where he could stand outside the door and wait for Jim to come out. The man seemed to fear buying the cigarettes himself in his bad state.
Jim’s proposal eased things, and the two men talked for a while, the man elaborating on how the army had trained him to be a master killer. In the course of the conversation he asked Jim what had sent him to the streets, and Jim answered honestly that he wasn’t homeless but wanted to experience some of what the homeless experienced. At this, the man half rose and spat out, “Get out of here or I’ll kill you.” Jim had made mistakes during their conversation, but the point I take away is that anyone who tried to talk with the vet would make mistakes. He was hair-triggered to go off.
So yes, there’s danger in the streets, but I didn’t experience it. I can’t say even that I experienced much discomfort. We walked over five miles each day, but I could handle that. The weather was good, except for a sudden storm that happened the first night, from which our little nest at Trinity protected us. We spent hours each day hanging out in parks, watching passersby and children at play, watching trees in the bright sun. We bore witness to that, and though in some way those scenes were more genial than the ones at night or in the soup kitchens, my apprehension of them, more or less uniformly, was to bear witness – that is, to be in the scene, suspending tastes and aversions, just apprehending with Buddha mind in the same way that I took in less attractive scenes.
In soup kitchens the five people in my own group, down there on a visit, sat separately, sometimes engaging the people around for a moment. Over dinner I chatted for a minute or two with a Russian, who turned out to be from a town in Moldavia not far from where my mother was born, and our brief talk left me with sudden sadness, sadness for the man who had come so far for so little, homesickness for the lost town I’d never seen, and for a mother and father I hardly knew. But for all the heaviness of the moment, it wasn’t like being homeless, because I had a world of love to return to, and work to return to.