The Disappeared

submitted by Brandon P.

She had disappeared.

We pulled up last Wednesday night to find the park empty.  No Vietnam vets on the benches. No one sitting on the stone wall overlooking the West Bottoms. No one coming up to the truck looking for a bottle of water or a box of lozenges. And no “Kelly”.

Kelly was everyone’s favorite at this stop. A down and out street poet who never refused to read us her newest composition. She was always hopeful. Always making plans. Always confident that despite the beatings and the poverty and the heat and the rain and the cold that she was right where she needed to be.

There were two police officers questioning a guy on a bench, telling him he had to move along. We went up to the men and asked them what had happened. They said there had been complaints, that people didn’t feel safe with so many homeless folks around, that there was trash and drug paraphernalia, and that it was city property. The more pleasant of the two, the good cop, admitted that he was sorry when he learned that camps had been bulldozed earlier in the year. By destroying homes in urban wooded areas people had been forced to relocate to the parks.

But he didn’t know where Kelly had gone. Neither did the Uplift driver. Neither did the Salvation Army driver.

Ilus Davis Park was the same way. All of the people and their belongings had vanished.

Homeless people are inconvenient. It’s inconvenient to have mentally ill, addicted, depressed, destitute people around with nowhere to go. With no family that can handle them. With no low cost long-term treatment for their addictions and their depression. It’s an inconvenient problem and one that isn’t going away. But we can still try to ignore it.

“Sorry, no change,” to the Plaza panhandlers.

Averted eyes and a prayer that our car doesn’t stop first or second at the stoplight with the woman flying a sign in the median, the pretty one with the mysterious grin that sits there, her left leg always out in the road.

Avoid downtown. And Westport. And the city parks. And don’t drive under bridges.

It’s really not that hard.

On a recent Sunday night I drove two hours to Columbia to see Ryan Adams play. He’s a complicated guy. He makes his living singing sensitive songs with a country flair, and yet he has a heavy metal heart. He listens to the Smiths when he writes lyrics, is obsessed with cats and pinball machines, and is recovering from all kinds of things. And he gets really depressed.

Sunday night he may have had a migraine or a hangover or a difficult phone call from his ex-wife or just didn’t feel like singing any sad songs. He played only ten, each too long, too heavy, and with entirely too much organ. There was a smoke machine pouring out a dense fog that made the drummer and bassist invisible.

Ryan spoke only once. It was after the third song, when he berated a fan for what seemed like five minutes for taking a picture using a flash. It was extremely uncomfortable and perhaps the man hadn’t heard the warning immediately before the show about Ryan’s Meniere’s disease and his sensitivity to bright lights, but still, it was excessive.

“Yes, I’m talking to you. Right there. You’re holding a camera behind your back. Stop acting like it wasn’t you. You! You gave me an ocular seizure,” he said, pointing into the crowd. “This is a rock show. How hard is it to be present? Just unplug for an hour. Can’t you do that? Stop recording and just listen.”

Finally he said something to the drummer who counted off with his sticks and they launched into a country rock version of Cold Roses. Ryan leaned into the mic for the chorus and then arched his back, guitar held high, striking a shadowy pose under the red lights before stepping back into the fog and creating a solo that went on forever.

He had disappeared.

She said she wished she could wave a wand or shake something on him and make him invisible. Erase everything. And with those words she almost had. And with the words that followed. And with the silence that followed that.

Staying strong and energetic and outwardly joyful can be difficult and exhausting and then sometimes everything collapses in an instant.

He had nearly disappeared.

Homeless, depressed, anxious, sick, imprisoned, or addicted, so many people are on the shadowy margins of society. Physically or emotionally outside the normal flow of life. Some cycle in and out. At times productive and engaged, at others reclusive and dysfunctional.

I have resources that many people don’t. Resources that have saved my life more times than I can count. A rewarding job, teenaged children with their own crises, money for coffee and pastries, and friends that can somehow make a cloudy morning turn into a warm and sunny afternoon. A sympathetic ear, an iced coffee, a ladybug that was content just crawling around on my hand, and a warm hug and suddenly the world becomes beautiful again.

We can all do things to bring people back into the circle. Making eye contact and speaking with that homeless panhandler or the co-worker you take for granted or the friend you haven’t seen in far too long is a start.  And most of all- be kind- we’re all in this together.