I've been working with Martin for close to two months. Today is his 39th birthday. He is an alcoholic and as far as I can discern he's been on the streets for quite some time, maybe years. I've never seen him sober, and he is vocal about the grim prognosis doctors have given him. His liver, kidneys, and pancreas are significantly inflamed and failing; he is dying. He holds deeply racist views, and sometimes picks fights with people of color, if not with anyone who is not patient with his significant flaws. These land him in jail frequently. He's only been out for about two weeks since his last arrest.
His son turned nine two weeks ago. Martin, who panhandles every day on Center Street, told a day's donations to buy his little boy a cap gun from the 7-11 on University Avenue, a few blocks from the street bench where he sleeps. Last night my girls and I brought him a sleeping bag and a heavy blanket donated by generous friends and acquaintances who trust me to get the goods to those in need. The cold front that overtook Utah last night chased out the prolonged summer with a bone-chilling wind in a matter of hours. This morning the valley floor woke to a thin blanket of winter. Martin wasn't ready for the snow, but I don't know anyone on the streets who ever is.
Before I left him last night he asked for one small thing. He asked me to use my cell phone to call his mother and his little son. I dialed. Martin told his mother's answering machine that he was excited to see her for his birthday, that he'd be there in the morning. The next number I dialed Martin's baby mamma, Susanne, answered. I explained who I was, that I was working to help Martin on the street, that he wanted to speak to his child. She was kind and patient and told me to put him on the line. They exchanged cordial words and Martin requested to talk to his boy. Then I listened to the sweetest, most heartbreaking conversation between father and son that I've ever heard.
Look, I'm not going to put Martin on some sort of pedestal. He's a drunk. He knows it, he says so. And when I asked him once, straight up, he admitted he has no desire to stop. But I've promised to keep coming around, to check on him, to help where I can. And when he dies—I'm not kidding myself, it's going happen sooner than later—I will feel the loss not because he's done anything for me, or because I see him as a redeemable, tragic figure. Martin, a product of our society and his own weaknesses, even with all his flaws, loves his mother, loves his son, graciously receives everything he's given, enjoys company shared when you bring him a sandwich, feels the warmth when he is blanketed against the cold.
Martin is beautiful to me because he is human being, because I have the chance to love him.