I was looking for cheap houses for sale near Pittsburgh, as I often do, daydreaming. On a whim, I searched for houses for sale in the neighborhood I grew up in.
The next thing I knew, I was looking at the Street View in a Google Map Search, and Rosie was looking over my shoulder.
“Want to see where I grew up?” I asked, and she said yes.
I showed her.
“Now this is Breevort Park.”
“Revoort Pork?” Rose repeated, half joking. “What can you do in Revoort Pork?”
“Some people pronounced it brah-VOORT and some people pronounced it BREE-voort. I don’t know who was right. It was a small park; Whetstone Park was better. But it had the tamest squirrels in the whole city. They’d climb right up on your picnic table. And this… wow, that’s a tacky apartment building. It used to be a pool. I can’t believe they got rid of the pool. Here’s Weiland’s Market. Really good stuff there. Imported German desserts. And this used to be an ice cream store, but it’s a car dealership now… where’s the Marzetti factory? It looks like a construction site. They must have gotten rid of it. It used to be a salad dressing factory, and the Teamsters picketed it.”
Rose is familiar with picketing, from her Boxcar Children books. “I guess the picket worked.”
“I lived down this street,” I said, and then we were skimming down my old street as one does on Google Maps, half a block at a time as if I wore Seven-League Boots. “These people had a zebra skin hanging over their mantel, but I think it was a fake one. These had the best Christmas lights on the block. Every year we tried to beat them and be better than they were, but we never could. This was Mrs. Winner’s house, but we called her Mrs. Winter. She had breast cancer. This is where a little boy named Corey used to stand and tease us. He told us there were cobras living in Mrs. Winter’s bushes, and I believed him. And here’s the house I grew up in.”
Rose looked appreciatively at the old house.
There’s no privacy fence around the backyard anymore, and they destroyed my beloved lilac bushes. The sapling my teacher gave me to plant in the weeks of mourning after the Oklahoma City Bombing is now almost as tall as my bedroom window. Other than that, though, it looks the same as it did.
Later, as we were getting ready for bed, Rosie had questions. “Were your parents rich?”
“They were middle class. They had debt.”
“If you owe someone money and haven’t paid them back yet, that is your debt.”
“What’s middle class?”
“It doesn’t exist,” I said jokingly, and then I realized I was right. “Middle Class” doesn’t exist as some trait a human person is born with, like their genetics. It’s more arbitrary than that. I clarified. “It’s just something that happens. Some people are rich. Some people are poor. If you can manage to look rich but you actually have a lot of debt, you’re middle class.”
That satisfied her.
“Middle Class” doesn’t exist. It’s just something that happens.
A lot of what I remember from my childhood is like that.
This is the house I grew up in: a picture of middle class American comfort.
This is the road to the library, where I practically lived. I didn’t know how fortunate I was to live mere blocks from a library– and one with a playground outside at that. A library and a playground are all one needs. This is the road we drove on when we went to church– and to school, before we homeschooled. This is the house that was under construction the year I was in Kindergarten. I saw them putting in a balcony, and thought it would be romantic to live there. This was the chiropractor’s office where one of my classmates’ father worked. My mother said chiropractors were rich. We weren’t rich, just middle class, which doesn’t exist.
Out in front of the chiropractor was the bench where the homeless man sat all day.
He was the only homeless person I’d ever seen in that neighborhood, was a middle-aged man with a long beard like Jesus or Santa Claus. He carried his belongings in a grocery bag, and always wore a gray sweater. Sometimes he combed his hair and beard, looking in a little handheld mirror, as he sat there. My mother said he had been a teacher, but then he got sick and took some pills, and the pills had made him homeless. I didn’t know how she knew that, or how pills could make a person homeless.
I saw him sitting there day after day, rain or shine, far more often than not. Once, when I didn’t see him, I asked if he was eating his meals out of a trash can somewhere. My father said he hoped not.
We never did stop and talk to him, or give him anything.
One day he had a cardboard sign asking for spare change, which my mother didn’t like. “Well, now he REALLY looks like a homeless person,” she said.
We did not give him our spare change. We continued driving, to church and to school, looking for Christ in a Chalice when we hadn’t seen Him on the bench.
Homeless people don’t exist in the same way that Middle Class people don’t exist. No one is born with the marks of a homeless person written into their soul. It’s just something that happens, when society has no place for somebody. They can’t stop existing in a literal sense, so they stop existing in other ways– as a person who command respect, as a person who merits a second look, as a person with a mailing address and a place to store their belongings or comb their hair indoors. They might even stop existing as a person with a name and just become That Homeless Man, for whom you don’t stop your car; the one you hope gets rid of that embarrassing cardboard sign.
I haven’t thought of him for so long.
I got back on Google Maps just now, to Google Street View, to look for him, but of course he isn’t there. That was over twenty years ago. There’s a good chance he doesn’t exist on this earth anymore, but Christ remembers him.
Maybe he was Christ all along.
Of course he was. That’s the mystery of our faith. Christ is among us, right now, in people who need our help. But we might drive right past Him on our way to church because we don’t believe. Instead of Christ, we believe in things that don’t exist, divisions between the children of God like “Rich,” “Middle Class” and “Homeless.” But He exists, and he exists, and I exist. Christ is real, and we are real.
Everything else is just something that happens.
(image via Pixabay)
(if you’d like to help a homeless person this Christmas, please take a look at the charitable project I’m inviting my readers to do for Advent. )