I am trying to navigate along Ohio under the 405, wondering whether to continue along towards Westwood or turn on Sepulveda; the latter is faster but the turn at Olympic can be a bitch. Lilah is starting to fuss and sounds in danger of falling asleep before we get home, which means her afternoon nap will last for all of eight minutes in the car. Benjamin hollers “louder!” every time I turn Peter and the Wolf down below 107 decibels. What I really don’t need right now is a Discussion.
“If that man is homeless, how did he get clothes?” Zachary asks from the back of the minivan.
“Maybe someone gave them to him,” I reply, pulling up to yet another red light. “You know how when our clothes don’t fit anymore we give them to Goodwill? Maybe someone gave those clothes to Goodwill.”
“But how did he have the money to buy them, is what I am asking.”
“The people at Goodwill gave them to him.”
“But at Goodwill you have to buy the things,” he insists.
I sigh. It’s one of those conversations. Lilah has quieted down and is moving her feet, so she appears to be content listening to her brother. “I think that they sell some things, but they give other things to the homeless people,” I reply, knowing full well there is more coming.
Zachary thinks for a moment. “I think he had those clothes before he became homeless.”
“That’s a distinct possibility.” I turn right at Bristol Farms onto Westwood as Peter is dangling a rope from the tree in his effort to catch the wolf. We’re quiet for a minute, almost until the light turns green at Santa Monica.
“But, Mommy, how does someone become homeless?” Crap. I should have known better than to imagine I was getting off that easy.
How do I make him understand that the world is unfair and people are not on the streets because they are lazy without making him anxious that at any moment we could be out in the streets? Because, frankly, the kid is anxious enough already. I stammer through a reply about not having enough money to pay for a house, hitting the left turn signal at Olympic and hoping the conversation is over.
“I am going to have seven jobs,” he tells me. This I have heard before, as he is convinced he won’t get bored if he has a different job for each day of the week. Lately, his career goals have centered around paleontology, and he hopes to run a graveyard someday as a way of familiarizing himself with bones. Yeah, because this particular child ought to be spending his time around dead people.
Now he has a new reason to want multiple jobs. “Because I don’t want to be homeless.” Zachary seems to think if he works incessantly he can shore himself up against the vagaries of life and fortune. Go tell that to all the unemployed I-Bankers
We are home safely, and the conversation pauses for the unstrapping of car seats and the carrying of lunch boxes. It does not resume, in fact, for several days, until one afternoon when I am taking all three children down the street to the bank. We pass a homeless man in a wheelchair, smoking a cigarette and reading a book smack dab in the middle of the sidewalk outside Boston Market.
Zachary stares. “He shouldn’t be smoking,” he tells me. Somehow the cigarette is more noteworthy than the wheelchair or the bags filled with stuff.
We get to the bank, where I cash some checks from other parents so I can assemble the monetary gift we are presenting to the teachers. Benjamin amuses himself by doing his own version of a pole dance on the barriers that form the teller line, eventually bringing them crashing to the floor. He then proceeds to grab all of the pamphlets on opening an account, ensuring they cannot be returned to their display by breaking the little plastic holder.
We barely make it out the door without him staging a bank robbery.
On the way home, the smoker is sitting outside Boston Market, reading. “Why is he still sitting there reading?” Zachary asks loudly.
“I’ll tell you in a moment,” I answer. We walk a few steps further away. “Well, did you notice all the things on his wheelchair?”
“So, why do you think he has all his stuff with him?”
“Because he’s homeless?” Zach replies.
“That’s right. So, he doesn’t have a house where he can read. So he’s reading right here.” This strikes Zachary as rather sensible, allowing me to avoid a conversation about mental illness, which doesn’t come up for another week. But, homelessness keeps coming up, in part because there seem to be a hell of a lot more people on the streets these days. In fact, the only time we do not see homeless people is when we specifically pack a lunch to give to someone, and then suddenly, all the “Hungry” signs disappear.
My son clearly is worried, because that is what he does best. Finally, one day, I get down to eye level. “Zach, you’re asking a lot of questions about homelessness. I want you to understand that we are not going to be homeless. Do you understand?” He nods, staring at me earnestly, waiting to hear more. “We have enough money for all the things we need and some of the things we want. And even if we didn’t have any money, even if Daddy lost his job and I couldn’t find one, we would go live with Grandma and Grandpa. Or Uncle M and Aunt A. We have plenty of people who would let us live with them. You are not going to be homeless.”
He smiles and nods, and I think he gets it. I have not been 100% truthful, because of course it could happen to anyone, but we do have a pretty wide safety net of friends and family, and I have managed to reassure him without making him think that homeless people are in some way responsible for their fate or could have prevented it.
Before we had kids, J used to joke about the “Why is the sky blue?” phase, but we covered that question eight months ago, along with clouds, evaporation, and molecules. These days, almost five years into being a parent, I would give my eyeteeth for a question as simple as that.
Part two will post tomorrow.