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December 3, 2010 / thomcaraway

Timothy and Mary

By Kyle Broeckel

Timothy and Mary live beneath the overpass five minutes from my house. A little-used bike path runs alongside Escondido’s drainage canal, then dips down under a busier highway, and there in the shade, with the concrete of the canal yawning to one side, the couple has set up camp.

“It cost the city millions of dollars to build this overpass,” Timothy told me, then laughed, “We were the first ones in.”

I laughed too. It was a quick moment of shared acknowledgment. We had been accidentally generous to the people on our streets, had acted out an unintended grace.

“It’s cool here all day,” Timothy explained, “Never gets above 80 degrees.”

I met Timothy and Mary one summer a couple years ago when I started biking downtown a lot, just to get out of the house. Biking took me through some of the places where the homeless lived, and I felt guilty seeing them. I had been part of a homeless ministry during the school year. Wouldn’t I be a hypocrite if I came home and ignored the homeless? The feeling grew as the summer deepened. Finally, I resolved to act.

Kyle Broeckel grew up in San Diego, CA, and now lives in Spokane, WA, where he is currently attending Whitworth University. He is in his senior year as a sociology major, but is also pursuing a variety of other interests, including writing. He enjoys thrift stores, hiking, and reading in class. Also penguins.

Timothy and Mary live beneath the overpass five minutes from my house. A little-used bike path that runs alongside Escondido’s drainage canal, then suddenly dips down under a somewhat-more-usedbusier highway, and there in the shade, with the concrete of the canal yawning to one side, the couple has set up camp.

“It cost the city millions of dollars to build this overpass,” Timothy told me, then laughed, “We were the first ones in.”

I laughed too. It was a quick moment of shared acknowledgment. We had been accidentally generous to the people on our streets, had acted out an unintended grace.

“It’s cool here all day,” Timothy explained, “Never gets above 80 degrees.”

I met Timothy and Mary one summer a couple years ago when I started biking downtown a lot, just to get out of the house. Biking took me through some of the places where the homeless lived, and I felt guilty seeing them. I had been part of a homeless ministry during the school year. Wouldn’t I be a hypocrite if I came home and ignored the homeless? The feeling grew as the summer deepened. Finally, I resolved to act.

That morning my friend Riley and I met up at my house. We made the best breakfast sandwiches we could, packed them into brown bags, and set out for the streets.

Mary was the first person we saw. I went up to where she was sitting, back against the concrete wall of the underpass, and asked her if she wanted a sandwich. It was an awkward moment. Here we were, with our desire to be generous and loving in some way to “those in need.” And this desire had become incarnate in the form of an egg sandwich.

Did we come across as naïve, patronizing?

The thing is: if you know someone well, you know what gifts to give them. The problem with charity is that it tends to work backwards: we give to people we don’t know, and hope the gift fits (and if not, hey, they’ll be grateful for anything, right?).

Mary thanked us for the sandwich and then woke up the man next to her, who we learned was her husband, Timothy. “It cost the city millions of dollars to build this overpass,” Timothy tells me, then laughs, “We were the first ones in.”

I laugh too. It’s a quick moment of shared acknowledgment. There’s some sad irony here[t1] : we have been accidentally generous to the people on our streets, have acted out an unintended grace.

We, the outwardly clean, respectable world of Escondido, like to forget the broken people [t2] are around, hiding the night away somewhere ‘out there’, somewhere beyond the automatic lights and locks that mutely proclaim ‘unwelcome’ at every door.
When sunlight returns, we would prefer, and would insist if we could, that they remain in those distantly close shadows and not follow the sun out to wait inconveniently at the corners with cardboard signs.

Perhaps we fear them like we fear the grit that spoils the delicate smoothness of the well-oiled machine. We respectable people have a cardinal rule that keeps everything running on. The rule is this: “Like well-raised Victorian children, all problems must be kept hidden and under control.”

Scandalously, these people cannot hide their problems. They have committed the unforgivable crime of blatantly being needy for grace– because the one thing we cannot bear is to be reminded of the human brokenness that in pride we usually refuse to admit in ourselves.

We are not broken. We do not need.

Nonetheless, in direct violation of the unspoken rules, Escondido has unwittingly provided a shelter for these people. Again, accidental generosity. Of course, the city is repentant for such a slip in judgment, and makes stern-faced atonement in the form of 4 AM evictions and laws banning bikes in the park.

“It’s cool here all day,” Timothy explains, “Never gets above 80 degrees.”

Right away,

Timothy asked if he could pray for us. We said yes, but were unsure if we should close our eyes or not. After the amen, he asked “So this is your good deed for the day, huh.”

All summer it had been my plan to step out from my outwardly clean and comfortable world, to see what Christ might teach me if I did. My self-confidence was more than it should have been, though, because it took me until the last week of the summer to actually do something.[t3]

That morning, my friend Riley and I wake [t4] early, resolved to make the best breakfast sandwiches we can and then head out into the streets.

Half an hour later, sandwiches now made and wrapped, we’re under the overpass asking Mary if she wants one. It’s an awkward moment. Here we were, with our desire to be generous and loving in some way to “those in need.” And this desire has become incarnate in the form of an egg sandwich. Do we come across as naïve, patronizing? If you know someone well, you know what gifts to give them. The problem with charity is that it tends to work backwards: we give to people we don’t know, and hope the gift fits (and if not, hey, they’ll be grateful for anything, right?).

Mary takes the sandwich and then wakes up the man next to her, who we learn is her husband, Timothy. Timothy’s immediate reaction is to springsprings up, put his hands on our shoulders, and pray for us[t5] . After the amen, he asks[t6] , “So this is your good deed for the day, huh.”

“I hope it’s not the only one,” Riley saidys.

Timothy laughed and then wentgoes off somewhere, but Marywe stayed and talked with Mary for a long time.us for a long time.

We learn that Mary and Timothy arShe told us that she wase 58 years old, and had . They’ve been married to Timothy for 18 years (“We’ve been homeless for most of our marriage.”,” Mary tells me). She’s fromShe grew up in Sacramento, which is where they met. But Timothy grew up here in Escondido- he ran away from home at age 13 and has been on the streets ever since.

We learned the names Mary had given has given the two crows that also lived under the overpass: Heckle and Jeckle. There wereare also young ducks in the water: Mary told us she’d’s been watching them grow up.

And weWe learned that Timothy hass been permanently banned from Interfaith, the non-profit in town that helps homeless people get jobs and homes again. He was enrolled there seven years ago, but got kicked out after getting in a fight.he knocked out a guy who was messing with him. “In a single punch,” Mary said.

But Mary also askeds us about our lives. What wereare we doing thatis week? I teloldl her I’m I was getting a haircut in the afternoon, that we’dve been working thathis summer as interns at our church. She remarks saidys that it’ds been a long time since she’d had a haircut, but toldells us she likeds to keep her hair clean, pulling a bottle of shampoo out of her backpack as evidence. She toldells us a story about almost drowning. Toldells us how she got the crucifixes hanging around her neck.

Riley hads sat down by thennow but I stayed squatting I was’m wearing new pants and doidnn’t want to sit on the dirty concrete. I hoped that Mary doesn’t notice. She gives gave no sign of it and remaineds friendly, but I feltel bad about it nonetheless.

Finally, Timothy returneds, holding up a plastic bag.

“The two B’s” he announceds, as if he was’s teaching us a lesson about the basics of life on the streets, “Bananas and beer.” These, apparently, are staThe staplesples.. Potassium and buzz.

Of course, this raisess a nice moral dilemma, the kind that messes up out our clear-cut categories. If you saw Timothy or Mary begging on the corner, you would of course face the universal question of people in carsof any driver stopped at an intersections and trying to ignore the person with the sign several feet awaythe homeless person with the sign several feet away: “If I give this person money, am I supporting an alcohol habit or enabling them to feed themselves?” In the case of Timothy, the answer would be, “Both.”

And in the case of Mary, it would simply be the latter: “I don’t drink,” she says.

Eventually we stoodand up to leave: it’ds been about an hour. Timothy and Mary toldell us to come again sometime.

Later in the day, driving home, I stopped at an intersection and there was’s Mary, standing on the curb with her cardboard sign. It feltels strange to know her name. I rolled down the window , greet her, and offered a water bottle. She takes took it and smileds.

“Nice haircut,” she saidys.

 


[t1]I think we get it without you having to say it so explicitly.

[t2]They don’t seem particularly broken, so this feels a little like the assumed judgment, and may ring a bit false. Maybe just “people like Timothy and Mary”?

[t3]This is still fairly awkward.

[t4]There’s something weird going on with the verb tenses. It starts and stays in present tense, but there is a sort of past tense reflection going on. I wonder what would happen if it was all in past. Maybe it works like this.

[t5]I’m trying to imagine this, and it seems odd.

[t6]The essay begins after this, so the consistent present tense is troublesome.

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