Saturday, November 05, 2011


They call it "flying signs." I didn't know there was a name for it, of course, until I was given the skinny from the inside. Until my clients came in and told me, quite nonchalantly, that in order to get their alcohol that day, they flew a sign. And I didn't have much perspective on it until then, either. Not until I knew their lives, their stories. Not until I called detox in vain, asking for at least a hint that they were there, were safe. Not until I watched them come back from rehab and blow it. Again.

Flying signs: Standing on a corner with a well-tailored (to look believable) carboard sign.

I write this knowing that I can't generalize all those who fly signs. I can't call them all fakes or manipulators, and if it helps, I also can't say that I dislike even those who fall into one of those two categories. But my time working at a homeless day center and winter shelter did change my perspective. I don't hand out money now, even if I do still feel hard and uncomfortable passing by them on a million city corners. On occasion, I will buy someone a meal or a tank of gas. But I mostly drive by. The dilemma I feel in those moments is rooted in my wrestling match with what it means to love. After watching client after client destroy themselves with alcohol and drugs, not actually in need of food as much as freedom from addiction, I no longer believe it is loving to aid someone in feeding that addiction. I wept for clients who made it 100 days without booze, almost got themselves back in housing, and came to me trashed and broken some unfortunate afternoon- back at square one. And so I continue to wrestle with all the uncomfortable ways those clients- friends- changed my perspective on love, and with what that should mean for my actions, but for now, it's where I have landed.

Recently, however, a sign-flyer gave ma a different change in perspective. He gave me what I now recognize as a true gift.

I was headed home after work that day, tired and perhaps unnecessarily grumpy (an all too common malady for me). Waiting on the offramp for the light to change, one almost always sees a figure of some shape or story, wandering the shoulder with a cardboard sign, and today was no different. At times, I am selfishly irked by the fact that I must wrestle inwardly yet again, when I am already tired and, quite frankly, would rather have my conscience left undisturbed (terrible, that thought). I shifted in my seat, and my eyes darted between detachment and the natural desire to read what has been scrawled on this particular shred of cardboard. I caught a glance of the ragged, worn man and watched him walk toward me. I caught his gaze, but saw that, unlike any other scenario like this one, his eyes asked me no questions. I paused, and then I saw his sign.

Scrawled messily in black marker, on a scrap of cardboard that had surely seen better days, were three words: "I am blessed."

That was it. No attached request. No "I am blessed, but pretty darn hungry, too." Just a declaration that caught me so off guard that I almost missed my light. Shaggy, dirty, and very likely pretty darn hungry, this man wandered the shoulder of our busy commutes and told us all, lined up and probably thinking a multitude of complaining thoughts, that he was blessed.

It has been months since then, but I cannot shake his image. His face. The moment I caught his eyes. And of course, I cannot shake the words written on his sign. In the busyness of my day, in the frustration of wrestling with the meaning of love, in the million ways I live as if I am the center of the all of these things, I completely forget the truth he shared so clearly with me. I am blessed. It is true of me now, and would remain true of me even if I were to find myself in that man's shoes. In many ways, he redeemed each encounter I have with a ragged face, flying a sign. There, alongside the dilemma, is a memory and a reminder.

Take a breath and chill out, Katie. You are blessed.