By Stephanie Ann Harper (Engl’09)
I work every day in downtown Denver. To get there from my home in the suburbs, I take the train, which lets me off on 16th Street, a grand pedestrian mall of red and gray granite lined with planted trees, shops and eateries, all against the backdrop of skyscrapers and renovated historic buildings. It’s a mile-long, and while it would be convenient to just hop on the free shuttle and ride it down to my final destination, I find something exhilarating about wandering down on my own two feet.
When the weather’s warm, in particular, I enjoy watching the revelers on any number of patio dining areas chatting in the sun that sometimes peaks between buildings. I marvel at the eclectic crew of Starbucks coffee drinkers (there’s a shop just about every block), some clad in business suits, others in skinny jeans and Ray Bans, still more in bohemian florals. I cherish the pleasant surprise when a baggy panted kid with noise canceling headphones covering his ears passes me on the street, humming a tune I recognize as one on my own iPod. Down here on the mall, it’s a vibrant world in the city at the foot of the Rockies and it thrills me to know I am a part of it.
I notice other things too. The smell. It’s kind of sweet, but not in a pleasant way. Like when fresh baked cookies are overpowered by a sewage problem. I glimpse little moments of destruction—a broken window, an obscene artistic rendering on the side of the building. And, of course, I see the homeless people. A shirtless man sleeps under the shelter of the portico of a building. A group of street kids with worn back packs and matted hair congregate on the sidewalk, smoking and laughing. Sometimes, they bring a dog. A woman with watery eyes and cut-off jeans asks for spare change at the train station.
Sometimes they keep to themselves. Sometimes they beg for money to buy food or maybe a bus pass. Sometimes they are alone. Sometimes they are in groups. But they are always there and often in the same spot. Like the woman who spends her morning around the Starbucks where I stop. She has long, gray braids and wears black sandals on dirty feet. If the weather’s nice, she’s out on a bench, communing with voices no one else hears. When it’s cold, the rain pooling on the uneven sidewalk, she comes inside, sits and turns her head occasionally, whispering.
I tell this story and others because I’ve come to realize that despite being homeless, Denver is home for these people I see. They live and eat and sleep and breathe just like the rest of us. So, when I buy an Egg McMuffin for a hungry woman one chilly morning, the next time we pass on the street, she remembers and waves. When a man stops me outside the coffee shop and asks for a drink, we chat and wait for our frothy beverages, only to discover we both have family in Westminster. He tells me next time I visit my cousin, I should look up his brother. His name is Joe.
It’s important to recognize these patterns. It’s important to remember the faces of the homeless you pass on the street because you’ll see the same ones over and over again. We often treat the homeless like they’re foreigners in our city. But, this is their neighborhood, their home. They sleep in the same spot, sit on a particular bench, because they create space for themselves. They are not an affront to the city. They are a part of it. And, to love Denver, to love any city, you have to look at the whole, industrial, life-brimming place that it is and not just accept but truly appreciate all of it, and every person in it.
Stephanie Ann Harper (Engl’09) is pursuing her MFA in creative writing with an emphasis in fiction through Fairfield University’s low residency program, where she is also a co-editor of Mason’s Road, an online literary journal. Her work has been featured in Poetry Quarterly, Haiku Journal and the Midwest Literary Review. She loves having the opportunity to work and spend time in Denver every day.