By: Raymond Greiner
Detroit, once a grand city is in steep decline with eroding tax revenue caused by urban flight as the city wallows in the residue of its past. Littered streets with blocks of abandoned homes occupied by vagrants and drug addicts. These vacant homes are windowless, hollow remnants of thriving neighborhoods.
My apartment is above a bar clinging to its few remaining customers, since most commute resisting over indulgence for their nightly drive. A few young professionals wander in for happy hour a beginning of their ritual, daily mind numbing to be continued nearer home in a more affluent place. I go in for a beer on occasion, it’s a fascination to observe the character of the patrons posturing as they mingle displaying vogue fashion and language in an effort to present themselves as centerpieces of attention.
A homeless man searches the dumpster in the ally each night prior to the trash truck’s arrival. I talk with him on occasion, he never asks for money, impresses me somewhat and his name is Joe. He’s an untypical homeless person, bright eyed, a quick mind and clean in appearance, although his dress defines his homeless status. Joe told me he was a Vietnam vet awarded the Bronze Star with a combat V for bravery. And that he worked for 10 years at an automobile factory. He was married, had two children and his life was classic mainstream until the factory closed leaving him jobless. His wife divorced him and his two grown children shun him. He divided his savings among his children as they each turned 18 then gradually his life unwound into despair. He became consumed with alcohol, then quit drinking after his best friend died of liver failure, and he told me his life is now much better than most could imagine. I enjoyed talking with Joe; he revealed warmth and an articulate tone with a surprising vocabulary. I was comfortable with Joe.
I teach engineering and math at Wayne State University and have yet to participate in “white flight”, always enjoyed metropolitan life with memories lingering of a vibrant city in the early 70s when I began teaching at Wayne. My classes are scheduled early and I habitually walk to my apartment since it is still daylight. Venturing on the streets of Detroit after dark is risky and should be avoided. One day I saw Joe walking toward me wearing a backpack, and was striding along at a good pace. I stopped and addressed him.
“Hey Joe, how are you doing?”
“Hello Allen I didn’t recognize you at first. I’m doing fine, just came from the YMCA. I go there almost every day, exercise and get a shower. I’m headed for the library; it’s usually my second stop after the Y. I am taking online college courses using the library’s computers.”
“Joe, how about me buying you lunch tomorrow, we can meet in at the campus cafeteria, I get a discount. I have a 3 o’clock class. We can meet at noon.”
“That would be really nice Allen, I can fill you in on details of my life. How things have played out over the past 5 years.”
“Good, see you then.”
As Joe departed I lost any sense that this is a homeless man detecting no somber, sad eyes or expression of aimlessness depicting loss of purpose. Joe emitted a vibrancy that I seldom see in people I meet day to day.
The next day at noon Joe was waiting for me at the entrance to the cafeteria building.
“I see you made it, glad you could come”
“I wouldn’t miss this, it’s not everyday that an old street dweller is invited to lunch by a college professor. I am grateful.”
We took trays and made our way through the long line. I noticed Joe did not heap his tray, selecting healthy food choices such as filet of cod. Joe was trim and fit looking with good skin color.
“So, Joe what’s your typical day like? It interests me how you function routinely each day.”
“During my early times on the street was much different than the present time. I had fallen into an unimaginable, deep and horrible state. My ambition to work or reconnect to mainstream life had been removed from my body, mind and soul. I would have certainly committed suicide if I could have, but did not have the nerve to perform the task becoming an empty, wandering person. I was forced to panhandle, and not very successful; it was demeaning, adding anxiety. I begged for food at various places, raided dumpsters at supermarkets and would show up for charitable food handouts. Alcohol fueled my life entirely, any money I could beg was used to buy cheap wine offering an escape from my misery.”
“How did you make the transition to the Joe that sits with me now sharing this meal?”
“Allen, I have no short answer to your question. I’m unsure if I even know myself. It’s a classic example of the metaphoric ‘baby steps’. After a time I adjusted to street life, made friends with other homeless people. One close friend was also a Vietnam vet suffering from alcoholism. As I told you earlier he died of liver failure in an ally alone. His death had great impact on me, and a desire grew within to seek higher self worth. By this time I had honed my skills as a street survivor. I became eligible to collect my social security at age 62 giving me a small but important financial base. I also knew that in order to pull my life in a better direction on 800 dollars a month would be a daunting challenge. I was accustomed to street life and decided to remain homeless but with alterations from the previous two years. Alcohol was the first to go, which immediately created a higher plane of stability. I bought a backpack, down sleeping bag and a quality small tent. Using acquired knowledge of the city I knew of places to sleep that were safe and invisible to criminals and police. My system worked well even during the harshest winter nights. I still use shelters on occasion, especially during extreme weather. I am conjecturing that the first question in your mind is: ‘why not leave the city?’ This answer is also complex.”
“Yes, my first thought, as I visualize the danger of living on the streets of Detroit a crime ridden city on a downward spiral. From my viewpoint it would be my first reaction, relocate geographically, away from this squalid zone.”
“I was born and raised in Detroit, and during my formative years Detroit was a joyful and exciting city. I remain emotionally connected to this city, and because it is suffering from urban decay I can’t bring myself to abandon it entirely. I personally know most of the thugs and criminals that roam the streets. They leave me alone, knowing I don’t carry money or valuables. I counsel a few young black males trapped in hopelessness. I meet Tyrone Jackson twice a week and am helping him pass online high school courses using the library’s computers. This is a step for him to gain a certified high school diploma allowing him an opportunity to enter the military. Opportunity is the missing element among inner-city youth. This effort gratifies me and gives Tyrone a sense of purpose lessening his desire to continue as a street thug.”
“The condition Detroit finds itself is a cycle. All earthy composites experience cycles, some are short and some take millions of years to complete. This is evident to me, and I sincerely believe Detroit will heal and re-establish as a vital city again. Many thoughts and experiences have stimulated my direction during this later stage of life. I still function as a homeless person, raid dumpsters and eat some meals served by charitable groups. I also escaped the city a few days each month during warm seasons. Detroit has a unique and little known connection. Just south of the city is a 48-mile stretch along the river, the Detroit River National Wildlife Refuge. This is a magnificent place. I take the bus to the end of its route then hike a short distance to the refuge. Camping is not allowed but I have discovered a few places where I can camp undetected. Few people visit the refuge and it has no active enforcement. This place offers wonderful solitude and connection to nature. It’s refreshing to be in such a beautiful and remote place.”
“I am impressed Joe, we must meet again and talk more about your life, future and the direction Detroit must eventually take.”
Without his awareness Joe had become an ascetic, discovering that by embracing life simplistically reveals a deeper sense of purpose. All great, historical sages and spiritual leaders used asceticism as a vehicle toward inward spiritual growth and a higher sense of purpose. The logic is that moving away from affluence allows a more genuine dimension to the human spirit and personal, evolutionary development.
I kept track of Joe, tried to contact him once a week. Knowing his routine helped, the YMCA, library and wildlife refuge were habitual places for Joe. One day I dropped by the library. Joe was standing behind a bank of computers occupied by four black youths. He was moving from one to the next pointing to the computer’s screen and whispering his thoughts to each of his students. Joe told me later at one of our routine lunch meetings that he was making an effort to recruit more black youths to participate in his effort to further their education. He said he has never felt so good in his life; the interaction with these underprivileged kids had raised his consciousness to a new level. He became friends with Ms Ambrose the head librarian who had observed Joe develop his student count. One day she called him into her office, and then led him to a separate room. She opened the door and inside was 20 desks with a computer on each desk. Ms Ambrose was so impressed with Joe’s effort she contacted a few of the library’s benefactors and they purchased these computers to better accommodate Joe’s teaching goals. Joe was overwhelmed at this event, and this thoughtful gift stunned him, simultaneously motivating him. Within a short time Joe had a student count of 50 and had to schedule class time. A reporter from the Detroit News wrote an article on Joe and the mayor awarded him a commendation for his efforts. Joe worked tirelessly to recruit students as some passed their high school curriculum and moved on. Joe continued his teaching for two years and then became ill with pneumonia and was hospitalized. I volunteered to be Joe’s replacement while he was recovering. I was delighted to help and visited Joe each day at the hospital to keep him informed regarding his class.
One day while I was monitoring the class a young, sharply dressed army sergeant walked in, introducing himself.
“I am Tyrone Jackson a former student of Joe’s. I heard he was ailing and took leave to visit with him. How is he doing?”
“Tyrone, this is truly amazing to me, you were Joe’s first student. He’s doing fine, will be released from the hospital tomorrow and wants to visit with the class. He’s not quite ready to teach, needs a few more days to recover, but he told me all he thinks about is returning to teaching. Can you stop by and surprise him?”
“Sure, what time?”
“I will bring Joe at 10:00 AM.”
As I picked up Joe at the hospital, he seemed weak but enthusiastic. Kept rattling on and on about how much he missed teaching.
“I want to go to the class first, then I have a bed at the shelter to finish my recovery. Allen, I cannot express to you how appreciative a I am for taking over my class.”
As we entered the classroom, the entire class was in a small group and they cheered when Joe entered. Then hiding behind the group, out walked Tyrone, looking so sharp in his uniform. Joe fell into silence, looked at me, and then looked at Tyrone. Tears flowed from his eyes and he was speechless, as he hugged Tyrone.
Tyrone then addressed the class: “Well, my brothers, what about this? We are the lost tribe of Detroit, trapped in squalor and dysfunction. We are viewed as hopeless, uneducated, bound for a life of crime. Society shunned us, casts us aside as if we were waste products. Then here comes this homeless, white guy who knows the degradation and pain of an outcast. Joe rescued us, opened a door that nobody else opened. I was deep into a pit of despair when Joe counseled me and delivered me to a better place. I am forever grateful.”
It was all Joe could do to keep his emotions in check. And I invited Tyrone to have lunch with Joe and I. It was one of the most memorable events of my life. Tyrone also told Joe of a young woman he knew who had dropped out of high school because of her pregnancy and wondered if Joe could consider her for his classes. Joe was totally delighted; he had tried earlier to find female students but was unable to find any. This had been a long time ambition for Joe.
I retired from Wayne State and moved to Florida. I kept in touch with Joe and he continued his teaching. One day I received a phone call from Ms. Ambrose. Joe had not showed up for his classes for 5 days. She was worried. She filed a missing person report with the police, and they searched for Joe but were unable to locate him. I told her to check the wildlife refuge and that Joe often camped at the refuge.
The state police found Joe in his tent. He had died from an unknown cause. It was such a sad day for me. I called Ms. Ambrose and told her I would pay for Joe’s funeral and asked her to help me with a memorial service to be held at his classroom. Over 200 of Joe’s former students attended, including Tyrone and his wife Cicely. Who would have ever thought an old homeless man could have positively impacted so many young men mired in a pit of hopelessness. My memory drifted back to my last long conversation with Joe. I was preparing to move and had just retired.
“Joe, how long do you intend to follow this theme you have created? I am impressed at what you have accomplished.”
“I’ve thought about this Allen, and it seems impossible for me to go back or change my life. I have no place to go, no family, and this effort I have made and the results represent the highpoint in my life. When I find my way to the library each day, and interact with those kids, I feel as if a miracle has descended upon me. Each day offers me personal significance and enlightenment. I read about the lady they called Peace Pilgrim. Her name was Mildred Norman and she walked the highways for nearly 30 years promoting peace, often going without food and sleeping in abandoned buildings and culverts. Mildred taught various sagacious principles during speeches and her contacts with people in her travels. One of her quotes struck me. ‘Unnecessary possessions are unnecessary burdens. There is great freedom in simplistic living. It is those that have enough, but not too much that are the happiest.’ I think of her message often. Our present day society is inundated with a drive to amass possessions, viewing money and wealth with a God like presence. Contemporary social design has manifested into glut orientation, placing values amidst status, fused with consumption and accumulation. There is vivid social separation as we gauge and classify our fellow beings according to race, income, size and location of homes, cars we drive, and clothes we wear. This overpowering desire for material wealth breed’s insecurity, falsely believing higher consciousness is found among these trappings. The kids I teach are byproducts of this social condition. They serve no purpose to the masses that seek a shallow life engulfed by a quest for self-serving agendas. My teaching offers these young people hope, purpose and direction. It gives them personal identity and a realization that life is what you make it to be, applying energy and thought, seeking inward growth and meaning. I feel I have enough, but not too much and I am very happy with my life.”
After Joe’s memorial service Tyrone and his wife Cecily approached me and Tyrone handed me an envelope. The envelope contained a photo of Joe standing behind one of his students at the computer, pointing to the screen. He then said: “Ms Ambrose asked you and I to meet in her office for a few minutes.”
We entered Ms. Ambrose’s office and sat in front of her desk. She spoke:
“Allen, I have no idea what to do at this point regarding Joe’s students and their future. We now have in excess of 100 students and have increased our computer bank to 30 computers. Joe had the students on precise schedules using advanced students as interns. This is perplexing and worrisome. Do you have any suggestions?”
As I pondered Ms. Ambrose’s conundrum, I thought of my condo in Florida, the daily beach walks, the pristine sidewalks with little signs along the way reminding the old folks “don’t walk on the grass” and the multiple neighborhood crime watch warning signs. Life as a retiree in Florida is a mundane affair; most are early risers, go out for coffee and conversation. Little boxes mounted along walkways filled with plastic bags to pick up your dog’s poop. Everything nicely structured, with the main event each day to hit the local restaurants for the “early bird specials.” It’s a shallow life, much walking, talking and watching TV. As these thoughts passed through my mind I thought of Joe and his belief that life’s values exist more profoundly within our hearts and our contributions. I thought of the day I first met Joe pillaging that dumpster, an odd place to discover a saint.
I was awakened by the hydraulic whine of a trash truck. Nearby a large waste incinerator emits a polluting stench mixing with an incessant rumble of traffic. This morning I am grateful to be awakened; I have a morning class at the library, and two new students to interview.