The List: 3 meditations on homelessness


by Joanna Rutter

1. The art of conversation

Sitting near a mural that says “Tax the rich” in the Mission, he asks for quarters. (Has he figured this is easier than dollars?) I have three and give them to him. He does not have the luxury of starting the conversation with anything other than his urgent need for a bed that night. I realize I wish he did, so I could be more comfortable. 

We speak of cross-country bus trips and he keeps the conversation going. It seems he could talk to me forever and not mind at all; I have more time, more money, but I want to leave.

“I have to go, it was nice meeting you.”

He looks disappointed in me. I am, too.

2. A runaway dollar

In San Francisco, at the intersection, a man asks cars for money. “Help. God bless,” his sign says. My dad fishes a dollar bill out of his pocket and hands it to my youngest brother. Then, a bit of coaching. “When we pull up to the stop sign, hand him the bill.”

We are not alone in our charity: A car with black windows pulls up next to us, not slowing to a complete stop. A hand comes from the darkness with a dollar bill between fingers. There is a miscommunication, or carelessness, and the hand lets go of the dollar before the man is able to grab it, and it is swept up in a gust of wind.

The man chases the fluttering bill, which twists and spins in the air away from him, as if whatever his original struggle was is not enough, while the cars at the intersection wait. After all, it is his living.

Meanwhile, my brother is at the window with his dollar. Eventually: “We don’t want to hold up traffic,” my father says.

I wish for something solid to give him that wouldn’t blow away — or simply for a windless day where nothing would be snatched away from him.

3. How not to say no

“Please, do you have anything to spare — ”


She hears it a hundred times a day on Broadway, but it’s still the coldest the word has ever sounded coming from my mouth.

An icy, uninvolved snap. Not hard to swallow, no aftertaste and, most of all, it causes me no pain.

And I think: It could be that simple for me, every time.