A few weeks ago SCN celebrated its 22nd anniversary. Our annual gala as usual was great: good food, a great keynote speaker, an inspiring vendor photo exhibit. Just a great night overall. And as usual, several people who spoke thanked me for what I and other founders created. It is always moving when someone leaves me with good feelings. But a couple of days later, I had a moment that felt like a kick in the gut and those good feelings went away.
I was at the subway station at State when I saw a former vendor of ours named Myra. Some of our vendors really stand out, she being one of them, not because she draws attention to herself, quite the contrary. Myra is shy but sweet and she doesn’t bother anyone. But on those rare occasions when she does come out of her shell, she can truly carry a conversation. She used to sell papers downtown in front of the old bookstore that is now Walgreens. It was probably the only time that her shyness didn’t inhibit her. You could hear her hawking papers before you saw her. One of the saddest parts about our organization is sometimes vendors disappear, sometimes for months and we have no way of tracking them. If a homeless person wants to vanish they can. Some come back, some don’t. And like any family we worry about them, and so do those who buy their papers. I can’t tell you how many phone calls we get or, when I’m out, how many times people ask about a vendor. Sometimes I don’t have an answer.
Myra disappeared a couple of years ago. We knew that she was taking care of her elderly mother and perhaps she needed to be there more for her. Our vendors told us from time to time that they saw her here and there, but even those reports stopped after a while. I myself hadn’t seen her in a couple of years. The last time I saw her was when I was still board president.
I always heard Myra before I saw her, but this time it wasn’t funny. She was obviously distraught, screaming at the top of her lungs about how much she hated everything and everyone. She sais she hoped she would die tonight, and that no one would care. She had two shopping carts full of what must have been all her belongings. As she screamed everyone just stopped and stared.
“Heartless assholes,” I thought.
I then realized that I was doing the same thing. I walked over to her to see if she was okay. She started screaming at me. I realized she didn’t know who I was. Myra had some problems, we had always known that, but those problems had developed since I had last seen her.
An MBTA inspector came over. Usually these guys have about as much compassion as a wet noodle, but not this guy. He asked me if I knew her. I told him who I was and how I knew her. He began to tell me of how this was a reoccurring thing with Myra. Every week either here or in another subway station she would do this. Medical personal would be called to come and get her.
“And a few days later,” he continued. “She’s right back here again.” he said it in a compassionate way, implying that he doesn’t believe she belongs out here. As he was talking to me and other concerned folks he moved slowly closer to where she was, he wanted to keep her from running off the platform. Myra had calmed down a bit. She was just crying. I wanted to go over and hug her and tell her everything would be okay.
I thought of my friend Val who had passed a few weeks before. Was she in this kind of pain? Seeing Myra like this broke my heart and I felt the tears welling up and quickly pulled my sunglasses down. God forbid that anyone saw me cry. The inspector assured me he would call medical personal as I boarded the train. That image stayed with me, it’s seared in my brain.
As I went about my day I began to think of all the accolades I got at SCN, but then I think that what we created isn’t enough. We’ve helped many people over the last 22 years and I can count on my fingers the ones that slipped through the cracks, but those are the ones that stay with me. Like Myra, like Joe Manuel who died from alcoholism, or my old friend Butch who blew his heart out by doing drugs and we didn’t find out until six months later. Them and many others. I guess what I’m saying is that I, no we, all need to do more, because what we’ve already done is not enough.