From beautiful women's shoulders,
And seen butterflies emerging
From the refuse heap that moulders.
She was waiting at the Galleria stop one morning, the east terminus for the 40. She shuffled with difficulty onto the bus and started mumbling quietly and incoherently. Her face was downcast and her eyes were nearly shut, perhaps from the rising sun - or weariness. If the soiled shirt and dirty sandaled feet weren't obvious indicators, the fingernails thick and yellowed from fungus unchecked and eye-watering pungency of stale urine were telltale signs this woman was not a typical Galleria shopper. I asked her to speak up so I could determine what she needed, and she responded with a low sweet feminine voice that she was looking for a certain bank on Bird Road. Yes, that Bird Road. In Miami. I'm not a doctor so I can't scientifically diagnose mental illness, but there are certainly symptoms and when they present that's when my patience level increases. She eventually saw a familiar landmark and requested to stop.
Our homeless community are some of our most frequent passengers. They're also some of the most colorful, individual, and sociable people I know. The causes that bring some of them to live on the street are myriad and the journey that led them there is not always a straight line. The more time I spend with this segment of the population, the more I see the true face of our society at large. We will always have the less fortunate, the strugglers, those overwhelmed by trying to keep up. But these are not unique characteristics, and actually affect us no matter where we are on the social ladder. How we treat the homeless is probably one of the best reflections of a society's overall health. It's easy to kick someone when they're down, but far more rewarding and enriching to help each other out.
Another woman, one who I see occasionally on different routes, approached me at Central Terminal and asked for a day pass, though she wasn't riding my bus. She's an older woman, could be someone's grandmother, always kind and inquisitive. Every time I've driven her before, she's had a pass. This time she didn't and she admitted it was embarrassing to ask for help. It is rare when a fare skipper admits to being embarrassed, but it only seems to be the homeless who are ashamed of it. There's a lesson there.
Too often I hear derogatory comments about the homeless, deriding them for being lazy, or drug addicts, or parasites on society. Of course those things may be true in many cases. But it is also true that if we want a glimpse of the true human condition - an extreme glimpse - we have only to look upon the mirror they provide us. Sometimes we fool ourselves and others that we are stronger and more capable than we really are.
Some years ago, an apartment I lived in had starlings nesting in the roof. Every spring, they would return and raise their brood. Each year one or two of the hatchlings would drop from the nest early, before they even had pinfeathers. Helpless and exposed, they cried for food and safety. I learned of a woman who cared for abandoned wildlife, put them in a box, and cycled to her home to deliver them to her. Along the way, it seemed people were interested in what I was doing. It was late afternoon, and I could see people half-hidden in doorway shadows, dejected people waiting on benches, workaday laborers heading home, the incessant stream of vehicles passing by, and children playing with each other. And at that moment, it dawned on me that we all are like the little birds.