I never learned Pops’ name. Everyone just called him Pops. He was happier than any man had a right to be who was living homeless in the parks or under the bridges. I wondered if he was simple minded, truly spiritually disciplined, or was just born happy. Scientists tell us that people’s happiness centers in their brains develop differently in the womb. At any rate, he took the lessons his mama taught him seriously! If he couldn’t say something nice, he wouldn’t say anything at all. He wasn’t homeless for being lazy. He was always busy. He had a big shopping cart. He used it to collect recyclables to turn in for cash.
He would go around to the renovation and demolition sites and ask for any of the metal they would part with. Many times the union men would have him go in and do some of the particularly dirty work, up in the vents, etc., in exchange for the metal and all the wire. They usually didn’t get much, if anything for the wire, unless it was stripped. Pops would recycle all the aluminum, steel, copper and tin. He would keep the wire. He also snagged cords from the blinds on these jobs. Pops would then painstakingly strip the used copper electrical wire. He would then wind it into crosses. He used the salvaged cord from the blinds to tie necklaces for them. He always wore one and had several more on his person. He was in the habit of giving these cross necklaces away. He would say, “Just trust Jesus” or “Jesus loves you” and offer you a cross. If you told him he had already given him one, no matter, please accept another.
Over the years, Pops offered me four crosses. I passed three of them onto others. Pops eventually did succumb to the dementia that comes with Alzheimer’s. He spent his last year or so living on the street in a large crate with a loving community of four other men living in adjacent shipping crates under a parking ramp bridge. These men looked after him with sensitivity and love rarely seen in nursing homes with all the amenities. They knew just how to deal with him when he was present and when he ‘went off’. It was tragic, yet also beautiful, to witness. Pops was reaping loving care in the roughest of circumstances from the most unlikely caregivers after sowing a lifetime of simple love and cheer.
I have to say, though, to witness this in the USA in 2002, and to have no way to intervene to get him to a properly heated space with proper treatment, because we as a people lack the compassion to muster the political will to provide universal, easy to access healthcare as a basic human right, was heartbreaking.
When I was chrismated in 1999 in the Orthodox Church, my godfather, Alex Smerkanich, gave me a very nice, shiny, real gold cross, on a gold chain. I lost it, one dark winter night, while serving the homeless at 18th and Vine. So I had Pops cross blessed on the holy table at St. Philip’s and I started wearing that instead; in memory of Pops and for all my homeless brothers and sisters. When I started to tear out the wiring to rewire our house, I saved the old wire. I strip it and I make crosses like Pops did and give them away, for people to remember Pops and his simplicity; to remember all my homeless brothers and sisters; to work to end homelessness; to work for universal healthcare. It’s pro-life!
I painted Pops from memory. I made him younger than I ever saw him to reflect his childlike faith and unsinkable optimism. Yet I included his white hair and long white beard to reflect what a gift of wisdom this was. I made a small cross out of salvaged doorbell wire and fastened it to the canvas on the necklace.