I’ve done it hundreds of times. I think maybe we all have. Sometimes I stop and give them change, a cigarette… most often I just walk by them. I always see them; or rather, I don’t see them at all. They are the ghosts, shadows, the ignored conscience of a city. Especially if there are many in our own neighborhood (as was in my corner in Los Angeles) their presence is ignored and forgotten. If I give one person spare change, I am not likely to give them more the next time. They are the homeless, the panhandlers, the dregs of the city always reminding us that there are others in more dire circumstances than we are.

My corner in LA had its fair share of the homeless. Whenever I visited Santa Monica (where there are apparently laws against the police shooing away transients) I came face-to-face with them over and over. There are many types of homeless, from the high-functioning ones just down-and-out and those who are so lost in their own mental disorders that, sometimes, I think they don’t even realize what their life is and don’t even realize that they’re homeless. These are the ones sleeping in the doorways, mumbling incoherently, barely able to realize they should be asking for handouts in order to continue their lives and not starve to death. But what do they really mean? How can I be touched by their lives and come out unscathed without literally giving them the shirt off my back in order to assuage the unreasonable guilt that I have for the have-nots when I am more-or-less a have. I have a roof over my head, money to spend on food and beer, the ability to survive the elements without worrying about survival.

I haven’t seen any transients in my neighborhood in Chicago, a stark contrast from my time in LA. I think perhaps there’s an inherent difference separating the homeless of LA from the homeless in more intemperate climes. My friend Jeff, who used to live in New York City and then Los Angeles, said there is a fundamental difference between the homeless in each city. In Los Angeles, they tend to be a little baked by the sun: the elements don’t weed out the most dire of cases. They are a bit more dangerous… a bit more likely to inflict violence. Apparently in NYC they are much more apt to just be needing mental health care because the really don’t understand where they are and what their lives have become. He said that since the sun of California doesn’t kill and weed out the most unfortunate, the sun only serves to increase the mental instability of the transients.

But when it comes down to it, I think they show me a metaphor for my own life. Since bipolarity is classified as “severe mental illness” I find myself constantly fearing that someday I’ll snap, lose all semblance of reality, and end up on the street, joining other homeless without a clue as to what reality really is. I think that’s why I tend to be good to the homeless, whether spare change or a smoke. I can’t forget that, for the fortune of life, I could be one of them.

I think my opinion of the homeless comes from having grown up in an Indian household and traveling back to India so many times. As we drove in the taxi, with children at every corner begging “Pisay, pisay” (money, money) my heart broke a little each time. These are my people, the roots of where I came from. When I was small, I looked out the window once and saw a boy about my age, stark naked, urinating into the gutter in front of his cardboard hovel. When a kind teacher of mine in high school expressed an interest in going to India to learn more about the culture, I warned her that since she was such a bleeding heart, she wouldn’t be able to stand the stark difference between those middle-class or above and the pure, unadulterated poverty that strikes the majority of the Indians. She paused, processed, and understood that I was coming from a place of truth and nothing that I could say would erase the fact that she would be unable to fully accept, process, and forgive the world for the pain it’s caused upon so many millions in the country of my origin.

I remember the first time I saw a beggar in my hometown of Waterloo, Iowa. When you grew up in a city of about 110,000, one doesn’t expect to see the homeless in such proximity to one’s own home. He held a cardboard sign that said “Will work for food.” I was a passenger in the car with my sister driving, and we both felt such incredible compassion for this man sitting at one of the most major intersections, simply wanting to live. We passed him and then turned around. We had just bought food from McDonald’s, and we turned around and I handed him my burger and my sister handed him the spare change in the car.

Quite an awakening it was. This was before I had lived or visited many major cities, apart from Mumbai and foreign cities where we’d stop off on our journeys to India. It was heart-wrenching to experience poverty three blocks from our house.

But at the same time, don’t the homeless give us a little strength towards the cruel world? I look at them and think that if they can do it, I can too. They appear to have nothing to live for but survival, and I’m mired in my emotional problems while I have food, clothing, shelter… the basic survival necessities of life. When I see a homeless person, hanging on with such incredible tenacity to life, I have to remember that, really, my life is blessed. I regain hope that my life will get better and that at least I don’t have to worry about where my next meal is coming from. They give me faith that my life will work itself out and that I can overcome the issues that I have.

Faith that no matter what, I know that I’ll at least have a roof over my head. And it’ll work itself out.

Pieces about my life and other thoughts, for better or for worse. Mostly for worse.