Write of Way: The Process by Mary Lou Sanelli

Monday, March 15, 2010 7:34 PM | Anonymous

Calvin Calls Me Sunshine

Hey, Sunshine, how ya doin’ this morning?” asks Calvin, his smile radiating like a child’s, a stack of Real Change newspapers in the crook of his arm, “Do ya want to help me out today?”

I say yes I do.

I like Calvin. I get his need to smile even when the weather scowls. He gets mine. Today we smile together, a duet. We nod. We joke. For a man living on the street, Calvin has a remarkable ability to give us a positive sense of our neighborhood, of us living in it. Of our belonging here.

And, sure, he likely calls every woman on the block the same sunny nickname. Still, I blush, a sucker for compliments.

I’ve bought Calvin’s Real Change newspaper for months now, ever since the first time he called me Sunshine. Even as a hard wind blew grit into his eyes and a Whole Foods bag blew past his feet, he smiled. A smile that split his face in two. From that point on, we began to cross a familiarity line, shifting from an awkward exchange of a dollar to matters of the heart.

That’s the thing about the homeless: they are there. On any given day, if you walk from the Space Needle to Pioneer Square (or the same distance in the core of your city, large or small), you will see how homelessness has spread alarmingly in all directions. It is a living thing, begging and competing, involving not only joblessness, but mental illness and all matters of despair in between.

These days, I’ve come to view these folks as less of an “other” than as acquaintances. There really is no other choice, other than completely ignoring them, which, I admit I do sometimes, not because I’m a cruel, cold person, but there are days when I’m just trying to hold it together myself, unraveling like a ball of yarn, and I can’t cross the distance, emotionally. So I go about my day, letting in only my life, the one in front of me, the one I need to keep afloat. I admit, on these more-fragile days, I fall back on passivity. I insulate, seal off, so I can move about without caving. Because it’s not only likely that I am going to get hit up for spare change, for receptivity that will break my conscience wide open, it can be depended upon. Until, by the time I reach my destination I’m thinking I need this like a hole in the head.

To me, though, the Real Change vendors offer a fair exchange — a buck for a well-written paper and the seller’s time to pitch it. Still, as I’m discovering a little more clearly every day, I can’t give money to all the needy vendors I pass in a Seattle downtown day, surely. So I picked Calvin.

Calvin stands out: his genuine smile, certainly, but it’s more than that. It’s his careful attention paid to his neighbors, his quality of good nature, his intelligent eyes and narrow — but not hauntingly-thin — body. The word that comes to mind about his personality is an old-fashioned one: winning. Even when he asks “How ya doin’?” the question isn’t momentary and without care, disconnected from any real interest. He looks you straight in the eyes and listens to your reply. Ladies! How many men do you know who do the same? Once his kindness caused me to forget my troubles completely and utter what I knew to be a stinking lie: “I’m great!” A better man in need — where is he?

I assume some of you already know the history of the Real Change News. If not, I’ll give you a short summary: www.realchangenews.org says: Real Change is a hand up, not a handout.

And it can work wonders.

One day back in October, Calvin was on Fourth & Virginia dressed in what appeared to be a brand new suit jacket. “Calvin, you look dashing,” I said. “You’ve found your style.”

About a month later Calvin told me he had a full-time job at the Goodwill Store in Ballard, “but I gotta keep selling my papers, comin’ back to my roots in Belltown.”

Now? Calvin works in sales at Macy’s. “They seem to like me just fine,” he said recently. “I just hope I can keep at it, keep myself up.”

I hope you can too Calvin. I can’t write any more just now. You inspire me beyond words.

Mary Lou Sanelli

Mary Lou Sanelli’s latest book is Among Friends. Does your organization need a wonderful new fundraiser? Check out The Immigrant’s Table at www.marylousanelli.com

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