“Is he sleeping there? God, I hope he’s just sleeping.”
My car crept along in the right lane. I was caught up in the morning rush with other drivers who, like me, were trying to avoid even slower traffic in the I-94 construction. 7th Street is a nice alternative to the freeway. It brings me through old city neighborhoods straight into downtown St. Paul. 7th Street isn’t necessarily a faster alternative, but the fact that traffic keeps moving, however slowly, takes the edge off my commuter frustrations.
I’ve only recently begun to regularly use this route to get to work in the morning. When construction began on my usual route, I needed to find a less frustrating way to get to work. The routine of my new route brings more familiarity each day. Just beyond the 7th Street Bridge, I always notice a sporadic procession of men walking east toward the traffic moving into downtown. I never thought much of them on those random days when I drove 7th Street instead of the freeway. But now that I see them daily, I’ve begun to notice things. They wear jackets even on the warmest of days. They are of varying ages, but are all adults. Many of them tow rolling duffels behind them as they walk. Some have long hair or long beards. Some travel alone, some in groups of two or three. One sits on a retaining wall and watches the cars go by every morning. I wondered out loud to Mark one day, “Are they homeless?” He thought they were most likely leaving the Union Gospel Mission over on University Avenue for the day. I was skeptical at first; they look too tidy, most of them, to be homeless. But each day I look at their faces as they walk up and my car creeps down the street. Maybe Mark is right and maybe I am just naive for not knowing it immediately.
I’ve grown used to the men. Most seem to possess some level of confidence and wherever they are going, they don’t seem too worried. It was the boy who struck me as out-of-place. I could see him sitting on the sidewalk on the corner of 7th and Payne Avenue, his back pressed up against the wall near the entrance of Gregg’s Auto Body. It was after 7:30 this morning, the sun already blazing in the sky and the day shaping up to be another hot one. Yet here he was, wearing a black sweatshirt. He had his knees pulled up to his chest, his elbows propped on his knees and his arms crossed over his chest. His wrists were crossed in front of him so he could prop his chin up.
Traffic was moving so slowly that I was able to watch him for a couple of minutes before I inevitably passed him by. It seemed a strange place to just sit, with busy traffic turning the corner and cars driving up and down the street in front of him. There was plenty of pedestrian traffic as well, both coming from Payne Avenue and of course, the procession of men coming up the street toward the bridge. A group of people waited at the opposite corner for the next bus. A big Sidewalk Closed sign sprawled across the sidewalk right next to where the boy was sitting.
All the while I drew closer, he didn’t move. All I could think was that I hoped he was just sleeping. He had to have been, right? People were coming and going past him both on foot and by car and no one was stopping. Finally, my car drew near him and as I rolled down the street, braking every few moments with the ebb and flow of traffic, I got a good look at his face. His eyes were definitely closed. “Please just let him be sleeping.”
I would guess he was maybe fifteen or sixteen, definitely not older than seventeen. His face was so boyish, so innocent. What was he doing there? Why was he sleeping on a busy street corner on the outskirts of downtown on a bright summer day. He brought tears to my eyes. I tried to tell myself that maybe there was a reason he was there, but what possible reason is there for a boy to sleep on a street corner unless he’s alone, homeless, in trouble … ?
In a matter of seconds I was past him and any chance to check on his well-being was quickly slipping away. If I’d tried to stop, I’d have held up traffic even worse than it already was. And what was I going to do anyway? There was a young girl a few weeks ago on this same street. She was in a visibly heated argument with a young man. His body language was aggressive, though he did nothing but yell while I watched from my car. She kept backing away from him and I wanted to roll down my window and offer her a ride, but in those moments, she took off running behind my car, across the four lanes of traffic and was gone. Mark wanted to know what I thought I was going to do. I said I would have given her a ride somewhere… anywhere away from him. Mark didn’t say so but I think he was glad the opportunity never arose. I remembered the girl again today as I thought about the sleeping boy.
Really, what is someone like me going to be able to do? Still, that boy kept coming to mind all day long. If he really needed help, did it matter whether I would have held up traffic by stopping? Would I really have the guts anyway? Didn’t he have parents somewhere worrying about him? And how bad does your life have to be before sleeping on a busy street corner seems acceptable? I kept asking myself what I thought I could have done and a nagging voice in the back of my mind kept asking, “If not me, then who?”
I don’t know what, if anything I could have done. But the failure to do anything has weighed me down all day long. It’s a strange feeling to know that a world where people sleep on the street is only just miles from my safe and comfortable world.