DJ is a young, bearded, scruffy, dirty-clothed homeless guy who comes by the front of Battery Park Apartments several times a day and – when he is not talking to us – is usually walking the streets talking to himself, or to somebody that the rest of us can’t see. I don’t think any of us knows where he stays at night.
DJ’s primary contact at Battery Park Apartments is naturally Diana, who is out in front of the building smoking most of the day. But she is also his natural point of contact because she knows DJ’s world: she herself has been homeless – almost certainly more than anyone else in the building and probably more than all 105 of us put together. Years after getting housed, she had a full-time job managing a women’s homeless shelter for the Salvation Army. She both understands where DJ is coming from and is much less caught in the stereotypes, generalizations and negative judgments that poison the rest of us.
Diana – whose natural/instinctive/ values-based generosity is really central to who she is – is trying to balance that huge open heart with her new practice of solid boundaries. I’ve told her of Brene Brown’s research where the social science researcher found that the personal quality that most relates to happiness is open heartedness – and the personal quality that most relates to open heartedness is solid boundaries. As Diana and I share stories from our day, “boundaries” is one of the lenses we apply to those stories. She might say to me: “That’s a place where you needed a solid boundary” or “You were holding your boundary”.
The rest of us, who do not know DJ’s world – and may not even have had much real interchange with homeless people over the course of our lives (hosting Room In the Inn at Jubilee has been a real game-changer for some Jubilants, but I have volunteered just twice for this project where homeless women spend the night in the first floor at Jubilee – Patton Ave. side). We may only have ever “talked” to a homeless person to help ourselves feel less guilty over the fact that we have so many judgments about them.
DJ is kinda sweet and very polite – and probably mentally ill, another world that Diana knows well. I think that he and Diana genuinely like each other, though his frequent intrusions get irritating even to her and she knows that he would clean her out like a vacuum cleaner if she let him.
DJ can be so intrusive and softly pushy.
“Miss Diana, can I get a cigarette?
“No, honey, you’ve come by four times already today – no more.”
“Uh, ma’am, maybe just one cigarette?”
“No, I’m very low myself – I’m almost out.”
“If I give you 50 cents, would you give me a cigarette?”
Diana will acknowledge openly to us, when DJ is not there, that he does eventually piss her off. She doesn’t like to be angry at people – it’s way outside of her comfort zone, but she really kind of embraces the opportunities to practice holding a boundary. Already in the last few months she has started to get better at this, will save up stories to tell us about how she held a boundary (sometimes with DJ) – and really believes she is already a slightly healthier person because of it.
In my maybe four encounters with DJ, I have been consistently slightly mean and unwavering in my resistance to his (polite) requests for cigarettes (and money? I can’t quite remember if he ever asks us for money. Certainly cigarettes is the main thing.) I’m not usually this nasty to street people. I think that in certain areas my newfound commitment to solid boundaries has not yet translated into more open heartedness. I don’t like it that he invades our turf with his panhandling. I have not quite said to DJ, but certainly have thought: “It’s one thing to keep it over there, on some other street corner. But don’t start bringing your begging over into our peaceful, happy, playful – and private – place.” And, finally and probably the most central, I do get very protective of Diana’s space and mad at DJ for being so pushy with her.
Yesterday afternoon at five, we had mostly run through an encounter with DJ that already had showed most of the qualities I describe above. He was politely pushing Diana for a cigarette and almost sweetly refusing to take no for an answer – even though Diana had just done a pretty good job of protecting her boundary.
My voice is naturally louder than Diana’s. And it is more readily capable of carrying assertiveness, meanness and even a hint of menace – as a couple of weeks ago when I said to the old bat who, from half-way down the street, was continuing to yell at me that my Pancho was the real problem between Pancho and her wonderful little dog – and, actually, that I was the real problem. I don’t know what threatening movie character I channeled when I yelled, “Don’t make me come over there!” And I think I was probably breaking some building policy that you are not allowed to threaten another resident – but it was such a new behavior for me and popped out so effortlessly that it was totally thrilling, and got the job done. She did shut up and go away. She probably was thinking, “Fuck, he has totally snapped. He’s going to come over here and beat the shit out of me.”
In this case with DJ, I don’t think my voice was really carrying menace when I said to him, “She already said ‘No‘.” But it was so curt and sharp that DJ was apparently deciding he had worn out his welcome and was getting ready to go.
(The real problem with my intervention was that no intervention was really needed. Sure, Diana’s “No” had not gotten DJ to back off – but she had said it and had not given up a cigarette, so this was already a success for her. Could she take the next step and raise her own voice – maybe put more of a non-sweet edge in it, to drive away the intruder? Maybe she would have risen to the occasion yesterday. But, if she had not quite gotten there, we could have debriefed the event together and gotten her more ready for the next battle. I’ve got to stop pushing into the middle of the altercation to protect her. I mean well, but I am not being genuinely helpful – it’s her fight. And I will get my turn, because as soon as DJ gives up on Diana he is going to turn to one of the others of us and start with them.
So DJ was getting ready to leave when white 60ish Joe (one of our neighbors who has not been directly involved in any of these encounters, but has apparently been building up a charge against DJ) strides kind of aggressively down the street (too close really to DJ) sticks his finger out almost in DJ’s face and, with a low note of masculine menace says “I’m psychic, because I know why you are here – you want money from us.” Really pretty stupid and uninteresting as a mano-a-mano challenge. I at least am thinking, “Really? Is that the best you got?”
I was immediately more pissed off at Joe than DJ and – just to jerk him around – said “He actually doesn’t want money, he wants cigarettes”.
Now that my interruption has stopped the mighty Joe in his tracks and that there is a moment of quiet, I launch us into a little debrief of what had just happened between Joe and DJ – with the two of them still standing there. I started by saying,
“You never should have stuck your finger in DJ’s face – that’s rude and aggressive.”
Lisa – “Yeah, and your tone of voice was too angry.”
Suddenly, even though Joe was in many demographic and personal style ways more like us than is DJ – and he lives in our building – we had been down this road with DJ and kind of knew how to negotiate the curves. As far as this conversation now was concerned, DJ was more a member of our pack than was Joe and we kind of closed ranks around him. Nobody actually said, “Who the fuck are you, Joe? This isn’t your business – go away”. I would be the most likely to say it, but – having spoken my little piece to Joe, I had immediately shifted my focus to DJ, who I was already starting to kind of like. Joe left.
Then DJ was getting ready to leave. As he turns west to face Page Avenue and the AT&T building, he says “Bye everybody – I’ll pray for you all.”
Me: “You’ll pray for us all?” (“Not just for Miss Diana, who is the closest thing to a friend you have here – and maybe anywhere.”)
DJ: “Yeah, I’ll pray for all of you.”
Me: “You’ll pray for me?” (“after I have been so mean to you?”)
DJ: “Yeah, I’ll pray for you.”
Me, fumbling in my Earth Fare grocery bag: “Well then I’ll give you a cigarette, if you’re going to pray for me.”
Before I even get my cigarette pack out of my grocery bag, DJ starts to pray:
He throws his head back and looks skyward. His prayer is at moments kind of halting, but mostly really pretty self-assured. His voice is almost too loud, but the loudness is really mostly effective. None of us is thinking that he is a professional preacher or leads the prayers at some little Christian church, but he clearly has done this before, if maybe never for other people before or never before at this volume. It probably is “some of the crazy things he mutters to himself as he wanders the streets of downtown Asheville.”
DJ’s prayer was all about forgiveness, trust and love. He was asking some higher power to bless us all – all of us, no exceptions. I don’t think he said one thing that any of us had any theological problem with. And it all was very beautiful – strong, self-assured, calm, trusting in this God that DJ never attempted to describe. He needed a little help from the ever-more-assertive Diana to wrap it up: was clearly warming to the task, might have prayed well longer if allowed to – but he responded well to Diana’s guidance, and then promptly took off.
This leaves us Battery Park residents who can (maybe just barely) afford to go the Up In Smoke shop on Tunnel Road next to the Ingles and buy cigarettes (not $6 American Spirits, but $3.50 Natives – American Spirits knock-offs that claim to be similarly additive free, and so basically healthy.)
We look at each other and, almost in unison, say “Wow!” DJ had given us something that we did not expect. Lisa says, “That was beautiful!” and we all agree. It would be a great understatement to say I will never see DJ the same way again. I may even be nice to him. I may even give him a cigarette – at least until I quit, which will probably be next week.