When I started my federal government career at the Department of State in 1951, I remember my first encounter with Willie, an apparently homeless man – the nomenclature in those days was “vagrant” – whose Foggy Bottom domicile was a sidewalk steam grate not far from the entrance of my building. He was well known to the State Department personnel who passed by him each day, many of whom commented on his neglected appearance. Despite the deterrent effect of his dirty, ragged clothes, sole-less shoes, and long, matted hair and beard, people occasionally made attempts at conversation, only to be met with blank stares. I often witnessed passersby offering him money, which he seemed to gladly accept without acknowledgement. I sometimes wondered how he managed to survive the vagaries of the weather and changes in the seasons. In fact my last memory was of him huddled in a ball on his grate during a mid-winter cold snap, wrapped in a thin, torn blanket, his bare feet seeking the steam’s warmth.
My time at the State Department eventually ended in 1976, when I assumed a position at the National Science Foundation, and memories of Willie soon faded. Five years later, my daughter was hospitalized for an extended period following a motor vehicle accident. Her rehabilitation continued for ten months, during which time my wife and I came to feel like part of the staff, often discussing changes around the hospital and sharing the in-house news of the day. One day, amid the daily traffic on the neurology floor, I was stunned to recognize a familiar face as a gurney was rolled pass me. It was Willie. My attempts to obtain information about this new admission were fruitless. Staff knew only that he was a homeless man who’d been beaten and brought in with a head injury. Beyond that, there were no other details. He remained in a coma for several days.
Emerging into consciousness, Willie was violently disoriented and required sedation and restraint. His endless ranting and raving signaled his inevitable and imminent departure. A few days before his discharge, word spread around the floor that Willie had no clothes. The ER reported that the rags covering him upon arrival had been immediately thrown away. Donations were solicited from staff and visitors alike. Among the items received was a used suit with an Yves Saint Laurent label. The next day, with an accompanying delegation, Willie was escorted to the front door of the hospital and bid farewell. With nary a word, he walked off into the dusk of evening looking, as a staff member noted, “like an Ivy Leaguer.” Although amid an ostensibly hopeful scene, I was struck by the realization that this was but a solitary moment of dignity in what I knew to be Willie’s long, depraved existence. The memory of that day came back to me recently as I heard someone quoting Martin Luther King.
“We are called to play the good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It is seeing that a system which produces beggars needs restructuring.”
If only the Willies of this world weren’t so easy not to see.