Monday, November 15, 2010

Forgetting the Past

Getting over the past is a goal that many strive for. Serving at Care-A-Van has allowed me to see many different kinds of people. Some just released from prison and others suffering from mental disabilities. Some people fight with addiction on a daily basis or are reminded of family problems constantly. While all of these people have faced adversity, shown by the situations they are currently in, most of them want to forget about the past, not be judged for it, and move on towards a promising future.

Tonight at Care-A-Van, a few encounters with the people there reminded me of how hard it is to get beyond a trying moment in one’s life. Talked about a lot in my service reflections, stereotypes are something that fuels this need to forget a history, because the history is the part of life judged. One thing about a person suddenly becomes all that they are; an infinite label. These labels then affect others’ views and opinions unintentionally.

I always thought that students at Loyola were the only ones susceptible to these judgments of people experiencing poverty. Tonight however I realized that this is not always the case. Stereotypes and preconceived notions can live within those people that students are quick to make assumptions. One man, whom I see every time I go downtown, was talking to my friend Aileen. Another man eating a sandwich I had just given to him approached me cautiously and asked if I could speak to him for a moment. I passed sandwich duty off to another Loyola student and stepped aside to speak to him. He drew me close and whispered to me that the man speaking to Aileen had lice. He said that the man was just kicked out of a shelter for it and warned me to tell her about it. I thanked him, and told Aileen. I told her because obviously lice would really not be a pleasant thing to get. I had lice when I was little because I tried on all the hats at a convenience store. I did not tell her so that she would become frightened and stop talking to the man. Thankfully she did not.

The fact that surprised me was that the man was kicked out of the shelter for something as little as lice. I know that lice are extremely contagious, and the people who ran the shelter probably did not want it spreading to other patients. However, they could have done something for him: put him alone, give him a shower cap, or if they really had to kick him out- supply him with an extra blanket. This man now has to sleep outside tonight simply because of trivial lice. The hot chocolate we gave him can only keep him warm for so long…

He was so thankful for what we had given him despite the knowledge of his sleeping arrangements, or lack thereof, for the night. The people at the shelter had judged him. They probably assumed that if he had lice, he must have something else; scabies or another disease/malnourishment/parasite. Due to this misconception, this poor man has to sleep on the streets of Baltimore tonight. No matter how hard he tried to get people to listen to him, to hear his story and read his poetry, he was not getting a bed because of everyday lice.

Another example is when a young adult told me that he had been released from jail forty-eight hours ago. He had three manila envelopes stuffed full with his life. Birth certificate, social security card, relative documents, letters, and much more was all he had left besides the clothes on his back. He did not reveal to me the reason he was sent to prison, or how long he had been in there, but I could sense he was immensely relieved he was out. He told me that now he is released, he wants to set his life straight, get a job, find housing, and be a better person. It was hard for him to think about this because he knows that the fact he was in prison will always hinder him from his ideal new life.

I thought about when he goes to apply for a job, and they see his record; not many will hire him. I thought of how he has nowhere to sleep tonight, like the past two nights, because no one will help him due to his last ‘place of residence’ (the jail). I thought of when he contacts long lost relative and the click he might hear as they hang up. I wish these things would not occur, but it deeply saddens me that this man, no matter how hard he tries, will always be haunted by the past.

These two gentlemen reminded me of Shane from Jack Schaefer’s novel, Shane. In the short Western, Shane has a shady history of violence and regret. He comes to stay with the Starrett’s in hopes of moving on and changing as a man. Despite all his efforts, like leaving his gun unstrapped from his belt and being the reactor in a fight instead of the initiator, Shane resorts to his old ways. At the end he seeks a fight, bringing his gun, and acting like the Shane before the novel began. He even said himself that once a man is a killer, he is always a killer. Shane succumbed to pressures given by himself and the unbelief that he could change.

My hope is that the two men I met tonight at Care-A-Van are not like Shane. All three men are striving to get over their history, and encourage others to do the same. The novel character was a failure, even though he had good intentions of saving Joe. Shane failed at his goal of becoming a better person. The man with lice does not want others to turn their backs just because he has lice, as that is not a defining trait. The person recently released from jail wants to prove to himself that he is inherently good and wants others to believe it as well. I hope that as they are forced onto the streets tonight, they are not like Shane and fulfill their goal of getting over the past.

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