His hand ruffled Kimo's soft grey wavey hair.
"First time in years that I've touched anyone."
He raised his street-worn face, looked into my eyes and said, "I always had a dog at home. But that was a long time ago."
He reached down to stroke Kimo's head as he said "Good bye."
Moments like this let me see behind the inner city masks. The masks of drunkenness, madness, homelessness, addiction, poverty, hunger.
Living on 96th Street in a rental house that earned its condemned label took me to a world most hear about, read about — and drive through quickly.
Having my dog proved to be both a passport and protection. The souls existing on the margins of society often responded to Kimo, calling out to her, reaching down to give a pat as we walked by. If our pace was slow, the man or woman would venture a word or two.
And if we had time, Kimo and I would stop.
Usually the words were muted and I had to listen intently. Kimo had no such trouble. She raised her head, swished her tail and would lean into the pats. She heard the loneliness, the hunger for companionship.
Almost as though they wished to explain their presence on the street, most would cover decades of their lives in three or four sentences.
And almost always it was loss of love.
"My wife died. Don't seem to be able to go on."
"Lost my job. Couldn't pay the bills. Wife and kids left."
"Once I got to be 18, the government didn't pay for my foster care anymore."
Father Jim Holland at Sacred Heart walks the same sidewalk with his scampering Yorkshire Terriers. And he easily sees behind the masks. He speaks out about his concerns over aboriginal youngsters in foster care, puts on everything-for-25-cents rummage sales several times a year, hosts Christmas parties for the children, and does so many more acts of kindness that most never hear about.
Father Tom Talentino at the Marian Centre looks into the same faces when they come for the lunchtime stew or search for mitts, winter jacket or socks. They most always want socks.
In his homilies at the monthly open Mass, he would sometimes share glimpses of the Christophers' lives.
(People in the apostolate refer to their guests as Christophers since they see the face of Christ in each visage.)
One bitter day, the priest told of a woman's coming to him and asking if he had a candle she could have. The heat from the flickering flame would give a bit of warmth in the tent she was living in on the side of the riverbank. Father Tom found four candles for her, telling us her joy was such that, "You would have thought she won the lottery."
As the poignancy of the story seeped into my soul I thought of the red pillar candle I had bought to burn while I prayed. How warm that would be for someone trying to survive the brutal cold. So I brought it to Father Tom so he could find the right home for its potential heat.
And when I can, I go on the second day of various church rummage sales and buy a big garbage bag for $10. Then I choose warm clothing — especially socks — boots if there are any left, and candles, especially big pillar ones. Then I drop it off at the Marian Centre or Refuge Mission at 95th Street and 104th Avenue.
I don't have a choice. Living all those years in the city's tenderloin I know of the multitude of souls struggling to survive.
It is so easy for some to dismiss the poor, saying, "They made choices. It's their fault they are there."
But in reality most did not have choices. One slip out of the work/societal circle and they tumble down to the ghetto.
Given today's recession-shadowed world and rapidly changing economy, poverty can be just two or three pay cheques away. And behind our masks — we are all one.