Recently I was walking downtown near Campus Martius. There was a warmth in the air and I was feeling great, having just left the hearty sisterhood of a Shetroit.com meeting.
Suddenly, a man approached me and asked me for money. He was wearing a hooded sweatshirt, grungy and his speech slurred, but I wasn’t really alarmed.
Part of being a Detroiter is learning how to co-exist with the homeless, the mentally ill and the drug-addicted who live on the streets.
You learn who frequents which corner. You have your tricks – like keeping change easily accessible in your hand or pocket.
Or sizing up who’s running a game and who’s really in need.
Or offering to buy someone a meal. If they say “yes” you go to the nearest restaurant and let them order. If they say “no,” you assume the money would have been used for drugs.
But that’s not to say that you ever actually get used to it.
In fact, it’s one of those things about living in Detroit that keeps it real: No matter how far you get in life, you will always be reminded by the devastating human need all around you that you could be in their place but for the grace of God.
I really wanted to give the man something, but I had been caught unprepared. I couldn’t get to any loose change without fumbling with my jacket and purse — and making myself a target. So I just gave him a guilty smile and kept walking.
That’s when the fangs came out. He called me a bitch. He called me a cunt. He suggested I take my money and put it in obscene places.
One moment, I was feeling compassion for him, the next, I was feeling abused. I ignored him and kept walking—but he followed me spewing ugliness, which gave me some comfort. I knew that as long as he was loud and people were stopping to stare, the situation wasn’t likely to escalate.
All of a sudden, I heard another voice. “Leave her alone!”
I turned to find a man coming to my rescue. He confronted the homeless man, telling him to stop harassing me. I was a few feet away when their conversation escalated to yelling.
I turned just in time to see the rescuer push the panhandler. The panhandler fell slowly to the ground (it was more like a crumple than a fall), managing to save the 40 oz. beer he had hidden in his coat.
“Help!” the panhandler yelled from the ground. “Somebody help me! This man is hurting me!”
This was taking a nasty turn. I worried that all hell was about to break loose and somehow, I was the cause. I couldn’t keep walking away, so I went back.
The defender was looming over the drunk man like Muhammad Ali brandishing his fist over George Frazier. Two more by-standers gathered, forming a half-circle around the man on the ground. Was this about to become vigilantism gone terribly wrong?
I had a brief thought: This could start a riot.
“Thanks for helping me, but this man is harmless,” I said. “He’s just drunk. Can’t you just leave him alone?”
“No,” said the rescuer. It was only then that I noticed he was carrying a walkie-talkie. “I work security for this building and this man is always around here harassing people. I’m calling for him to be taken away.”
The homeless man took this opportunity to renew his high opinion of me. He was like Rush Limbaugh on malt liquor, even while I was trying to save him.
“We can’t have these people around our building,” the rescuer said.
These people. I winced.
I yearn for this city to live up to its promise of a renaissance. I just hope that we remember that “those people” who are now unwelcome have been here for years, suffering from the effects of decades of economic abandonment, racism and Draconian public policies against the poor. As Detroit becomes home to those who see this as a place of opportunity, we have to remember that it’s home to many others that opportunity has left behind.
Image credit: Desiree Cooper