On George Saunders and things that happen on my way home

It started on Sunday. I was waiting for the bus at Lawrence and 16th St. Mall after a long bus ride from Boulder, and all I wanted was to get home as soon as possible.

It had been a draining day. I had seen both of my parents—and both of them alone, which is rare. My stepmom was on a trip and my little brother, home from college for winter break, was at work. He has a job as a tour guide at the Celestial Seasonings Tea Company, where our dad has worked for the past 35 years. I was a tour guide there when I was his age too.

But on this day it was just me and Dad. We didn’t talk about much in particular. Football—since the Broncos were playing the Chargers that day—and my new job, life in general.

My mom picked me up and we got Mexican food for lunch. Afterwards, we went to her house and hung out. I must have been storing up some stress, because as soon as we were alone, I pretty much immediately broke down in tears. There’s something about being with my mom that just makes me feel like I can finally let go. So, we talked through it and my mom was very supportive, but afterward I felt emotionally spent and just ready to be alone.

I had just gotten to Market St. Station in downtown Denver and was waiting for the 38 bus, which would be about a 10-minute ride to my house, when a woman approached pushing a stroller, with two young kids trailing behind.

The woman looked tired. It was cold that day, and the kids were dressed in warm coats, but she just had on a thin jacket. I heard her ask a man standing at the stop if he knew if the 38 goes to the Samaritan House, which is the local homeless shelter.

I know about the Samaritan House because I stayed there when I was in college as part of a social justice/leadership training program that I was in called INVST. A cohort of 12 of us, plus two facilitators, volunteered there for a week, interacting with the “guests” and eating what they ate, seeing what they saw. The only thing we didn’t do was sleep in the dorms with them. Our group slept in the kids’ playroom, on the floor, in sleeping bags.

During the days, we did projects with nearby charity organizations like the Denver Rescue Mission and the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. On one day, we went out onto “the streets” without any money. Some of us tried “spanging” or “spare-changing.” But others of us didn’t feel right about it because it seemed like we were cheapening the experience of those who have no other choice but to ask for money.

As part of the program, we also read and discussed critical essays about the poverty cycle, the causes and effects of homelessness, and wealth disparity in general. The most memorable was a book called Rachel and Her Children by Jonathan Kozol. It’s Kozol’s true account of the months that he spent in The Martinique Hotel in New York City in the 1980s—It was a “homeless hotel,” basically a condemned, rat-infested building where many of the residents were young children who barely had enough to eat.

As a college student, raised in a pretty sheltered place, I can’t say that I fully got it at that point. I understood that a lot of folks had been dealt a raw deal in life.

I got the injustice of the fact that a handful of privileged people, most of whom got to where they are through no real effort of their own, make the rules that govern the lives of everyone else, and that they basically perpetuate the continuous cycle of the rich getting more and the poor getting less.

I was sympathetic, but I can’t say that I felt comfortable around homeless people. I was scared of them. They were dirty. They were rough. They had a rawness about them.

Over the years since then I have come to understand the significance of that experience at the Samaritan House. Although I didn’t get it at the time, it definitely made me see homelessness in a different way—like, these people aren’t that different from me or my family. It doesn’t take long to internalize feelings of hopelessness, and to continue to spiral downward. Especially if you have no one to help you out and no resources or education to fall back on.

So on Sunday, when I heard the woman ask about the Samaritan House, I felt compelled to help. I asked her if she knew the address and she said yes, 2301 Lawrence. I looked it up on my phone and figured out that they would need to get off at Park West.

Her two older kids, a girl and a boy, were hopping around the bus bench, laughing and curiously listening. I told the boy that I liked his glasses, which seemed to make him bashful. I told the mom where they would need to go and then I remembered that I had a booklet of bus tickets, which are basically the same as cash for the bus fare.

I asked if they ride the bus often, and the little boy called out, “Yeah, we do!” So I gave the mom the bus tickets. She thanked me, but seemed a little shy about it.

When the bus pulled up, the little girl looked at me and asked, “Is this your bus too?” I said yes. I watched them until they got off at Park. In my head, I said a little prayer for them. I wanted to tell the mom that, despite what are obviously difficult circumstances, she must be doing a good job. Her kids seemed so happy and inquisitive, curious and kind. I tried to imagine a hopeful future for them, that their bright spirits won’t be squashed by the fear and the bitterness that must come with that life.

I made it home and I didn’t think much more of it.

The next night, I had my first voice lesson. I am starting to take singing classes from this real cool chick named Kristine who has a studio in a church on Capitol Hill. I had ridden my bike, but I didn’t want to ride all the way home in the dark, so I caught the 15 bus to downtown, where I would then have to connect to one other bus.

First of all, the 15 took for-freaking-ever. I was waiting with two stylish high school boys, two drunk old men, and a guy on a bike who I think might have had a slight mental disability—which I guessed might have something to do with PTSD, because the dude gave me a very military vibe. Not in a bad way, but he just seemed very efficient and concerned about things. He was socially awkward in a way that indicated that he might have been medicated—not the sloppy disorderliness of a drunk or a junkie, but the hyperclarity of someone on anti-psychotics. I had already been waiting for 10 minutes or so when he rode up and asked if I thought we could get both of our bikes on the bus.

“I guess we’ll just have to wait and see,” I replied.

And then he very sweetly added, “Well, you get the first shot at it, cuz you were here first.”

I told him I appreciated that.

But eventually the bus took so long that he rode off, bidding us to have a good night. The bus finally came, and I got my bike in the rack, no problem. It was pretty full, so I sat down next to an older man. He asked me if I knew where the 15 turned when it got off Colfax. I blabbed out some unhelpful answer where I tried to pretend like I knew, even though I didn’t really know. I asked him where he was going, and he said, “23rd and Broadway.”

From the night before, I remembered that the Samaritan House is on 23rd and Lawrence, but I didn’t want to assume that was where he was going. I asked him if he really meant 23rd and Broadway, and he said yes. So I looked it up on my phone, and got the directions for him, but they weren’t easy to convey—he would have to get off the 15, then walk a block to another bus stop, where he would catch the 48.

I tried to help him, but the directions were so long and convoluted that I feared I had confused him more. He was anxiously sitting on the edge of his seat, looking at every stop, trying to figure out where to get off, but I could tell that he was too embarrassed to ask me again.

I decided that I would get off at the stop with him, and try to make it look like it was coincidental, and then I would offer to walk him to the next stop. But he pulled the buzzer and got off a stop too early. I didn’t tell him because I sensed that his pride was more important right then. I didn’t want to condescend to him or embarrass him more.

I felt terrible that I hadn’t helped him, but what could I do? I got off that bus and rode a block or two to my transfer. I saw that my bus was just about to round the corner. All I had to do was to sprint a block or so to get ahead of it. I was so in the zone, apparently, that when I got to the stop, feeling very lucky that my timing had worked out so well, I rushed to put my bike in the rack and get on. I sat down, very relieved, until the bus turned on 17th. At first I thought maybe there was a detour. But we kept going straight, so I asked the driver, “Is this a 38?” and he said, “No, this is a 15.”

Um, WHAT?? I had just boarded a bus going back to Capitol Hill, where I had just come from. Somehow without my noticing, a no. 15 bus had passed the no. 38 bus and arrived at the bus stop first. In my rush of relief, I had gotten on the wrong bus.

Crap.

So I had to get off and ride my bike back to the bus stop, where I would now have to wait at least 30 minutes for the next one.

I was not pleased. I was cold. I was pissed. I just wanted to get home.

A few minutes later, two young girls walked up. They looked about 15 or 16. Neither one of them had coats, just thin hoodies. They asked me if the no. 12 bus stopped there. I said no, and I asked where they were going.

“Westminster,” they replied.

I don’t know every bus route in Denver, but I was fairly certain that they would need to take the regional bus to Boulder, which costs $5. I told them this, but they said, no way, they didn’t have that kind of money.

They weren’t from here—one of them was from Vermont. The other from the Midwest. They had met in a group home for adolescent girls—the kind of place where you end up when you’ve gotten in trouble for fighting, or drugs, or when you’ve been so discarded that the system simply doesn’t know what else to do with you.

I could tell they were a couple, but I didn’t say so outright. One of the girls seemed to identify as more male. Her girlfriend still had a full set of braces—a sign that someone, somewhere, had at least invested in her wellbeing that much.

Once again, I took out my phone and looked up the bus routes. As I suspected, the directions suggested they take the Boulder bus. But it also suggested an alternate route, that would take a lot longer, but wouldn’t involve an increased fare. They would ride my bus, the 38, all the way to Wadsworth, then transfer to the 76 the rest of the way to the Westminster Park ‘n’ Ride.

They thanked me and we started chatting. The girl without the braces told me that she used to come to 16th St. Mall “all the time” with her dad. And that they would ride their longboards, and get drinks at Starbucks. The way she said that they did this “all the time” made me think that they had done this once, and that it was a special memory for her. She kept saying that she knows these streets “like the back of [her] head.” I didn’t have the heart to correct her.

They had been out on the streets for two nights, trying to get back to Westminster. They said that no one would help them. So they had just gotten on bus after bus, getting more and more lost. I didn’t ask them where they slept, or what they had encountered in those two freezing nights.

The girl with the braces pointed to the steam rising up from the sewers. She asked if there was something wrong. I told her no. It’s always doing that.

As we boarded the bus, I confirmed the girls’ route with the driver and he said that it was correct.

I sat across from them in the front seats. I gathered up all the cash I had—a dollar bill and a handful of coins—and I handed it over to them.

They were very grateful, thanking me, saying that they really appreciated my help.

“So many people wouldn’t help us,” they said. “They just walked on past us.”

I told them that it’s just because people aren’t used to talking to each other out on the street. That we’re all sort of in our own worlds.

“Or they’re creeps,” the one girl said.

Yes, I concurred. There are a lot of creeps.

I leaned in and looked them both in the eye, “But you have each other,” I said, “and that’s not nothing.”

The girl without the braces seemed to light up. She cuddled under her girlfriend’s arm. “She’s protected me from a lot,” she said. I could see the tears welling up in her eyes.

Ironically, when we got to the stop for the Samaritan House, the man who I had tried to help earlier passed me on his way off the bus. So, despite my poor directions, he did make it there, which eased my mind.

We reached my stop and, as I was exiting the bus, I repeated the directions to the girls. “Get off at Wadsworth and catch the 76,” I said. I looked at each of them as I said it, trying to ingrain it in their brains.

They thanked me again.

The girl with the braces said, “It was really nice to meet you.”

“You too,” I told them. But I never got their names.

I said a little prayer that they would get to their destination and be able to sleep and get warm that night.

Which all leads up to yesterday.

My coworker came into my office mid-morning and informed me that the short stories writer George Saunders would be signing his book at the Tattered Cover that night. I was turned onto him by my friend Dimitri who leant me his copy of CivilWarLand In Bad Decline, Saunders first short story collection which made him an immediate literary sensation due to his darkly comedic yet tender storytelling style.

Saunders is thought by many to be the writer of his generation. He has been praised by everyone from Thomas Pynchon and Tobias Wolff (his former writing professor at Syracuse) to Zadie Smith, Dave Eggers, and David Foster Wallace who said of CivilWarLand that it was “well worth a good deal of attention.”

On my lunchhour, I went to the Tattered Cover to get a ticket for the reading—tickets are free, but you have to get one to guarantee a seat. I bought a copy of his newest book Tenth of December, even though I was worried about spending the money. I’m trying to stick to a budget, and I can’t be randomly blowing all my cash on books.

So I was already a little stressed about money when I left the bookstore, and just a few feet from the door, I passed a young man who was standing stone-still on the sidewalk, watching me go by. He had a sleeping bag and a backpack, and he looked a little rough around the edges, so I assumed he was homeless. He seemed to want to get my attention, but he was speaking so softly that I couldn’t make out what he was saying. I asked him to repeat himself, even though I knew I had no cash on me, and that he would likely ask me for some.

He seemed surprised that I was speaking directly to him. I stood in front of him and looked him in the eye. He looked to be in his early to mid-20s, very soft spoken and humble in his demeanor. He said his name was Kevin.

He spoke louder—he told me that he had come out here from another state (I can’t remember which) with a woman who had told him that he could rent a room in her house for $400 a month. They had driven together, with all his stuff, but when they arrived it turned out that she didn’t have a house or a room at all. She took all his stuff and his money, and left him with nowhere to go. He had been on the streets for two weeks—homeless for the first time in his life.

For most of that time, he had been able to get a bed at the Denver Rescue Mission, until the previous night, when they had already filled up when he got there. He tried to get into the overflow beds at the Samaritan House, but they wouldn’t take him until he got a $25 tuberculosis test to show he didn’t have TB. He said he had already met with a caseworker there though, and that they may be able to help him, if he could just find somewhere to stay.

He said he needed $30 for the hostel, but that he’d been asking passersby for spare change for over two hours, and had made less than $3.

The night before, he had slept outside—he had found a steam grate which was keeping him somewhat warm, until about 2:30 am, when a cop came by and told him to move along.

Kevin said he begged with the cop, “I’m not intoxicated,” he said, “the shelter is full—I’m human. I can’t walk around all night. I have to sleep.”

“That’s not my problem,” was the cop’s reply. He said it’s illegal to sleep outside in public due to Denver’s Urban Camping Ban.

I just felt like I had to help Kevin. We walked over to the ATM and I withdrew $20. I told him to consider that, even if he could raise the rest of the money for the hostel, that would only get him one night and then he would be right back in the same predicament the next day.

I suggested that he would be better off spending that money on the TB test. At least then he would have the option of getting into an overflow bed at Samaritan House. I shook his hand and wished him luck.

I stopped into Illegal Pete’s for lunch, feeling sad for Kevin, and also frustrated at myself for withdrawing another $20. I had already been feeling guilty about spending money. I had already splurged on a book. What was I going to do, give 20 bucks to every homeless person on the 16th St. Mall?

I reached into my wallet to pay for my burrito, and noticed the corner of a check folded up in the billfold part. That’s when I remembered that I had meant to deposit that check earlier in the week. It was a refund from when I cancelled my Internet.

The amount of the check was $20.90.

So, basically, the money that I had been so worried about withdrawing and giving to Kevin, was sitting right there in my wallet, ready to be deposited back in the bank.

What struck me about all of these experiences was how different all of these people were on the surface—the mother and her kids were African American; of the two teenage girls, the one without braces was white and the girl with the braces was Asian; the vet on the bike was white, as was the old man on the bus; and Kevin looked to be Hispanic or possibly part Native American.

What made them all similar was that they were all kind and vulnerable. And none of them seemed to deserve to be homeless. Yet there was something still hopeful about them too.

That night at the reading, George Saunders said that he really only found his writing voice when he stopped trying to “climb the mountain of Hemingway”—stopped trying to live up to some impossible standard—and planted his flag in the “dung hill of George Saunders.”

During the Q&A, someone commented that they were surprised, considering the dark content of his writing, to find Saunders himself to be so upbeat.

Saunders has heard this before—he said that one time someone actually referred to him as “perky.”

“How can that be?” people always want to know.

They ask him: Which is it?

Is life terrible? Or is life wonderful?

Yes. Saunders replies. It is.