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Snapshot: A Childhood Admonition's Lasting Value

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Snapshot: A Childhood Admonition's Lasting Value

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Snapshot: A Childhood Admonition's Lasting Value

Snapshot: A Childhood Admonition's Lasting Value

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In this week's "Snapshot" audio essay, an encounter with homelessness leads commentator S. Pearl Sharp to remember the old advice not to judge a book by its cover.

FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

Anyone who's been five years old has probably had someone wag a finger and say, you can't judge a book by its cover. The line is a cliche to be sure, but it raises an important question. In today's Snapshot essayist S. Pearl Sharp considers whether we should be judging the book at all.

(Soundbite of traffic)

S. PEARL SHARP: Monday morning, downtown, rush hour. Oh yeah. One particular morning found me driving to the Skid Row section of this huge metropolis just as hundreds of men and women began crawling out of cardboard boxes, unscrunching from sleeping bags on the cold (unintelligible) sidewalk.

Around of them, wholesale junk merchants peeled back the heavy metals walls that protected their businesses through the night. I flowed with the traffic, out of the Skid Row section into the other downtown.

The slow unfurling of the homeless on the streets a few blocks away contrasted sharply with the rushed snap of women in spike heels and tailored business suits. Men in mandatory uniforms of shirt, suit, tie (unintelligible).

People get lost here, too, among the symbols of corporate America, high-rise condominiums and expensive hotels. And almost every skyscraper is labeled at the top with a bank logo. While stopped at a red light, I glanced to my right and saw through the car window a heavyset man sitting on the ground on the other side of a low wall, in his fifties maybe. I couldn't see his legs, but his head was down.

He appeared to be sleeping while sitting up. I assumed that he was homeless, probably in a sit-down drunk. The man was out of his territory. This was the business district, the nice section. What was he was doing up here? Okay, it was not a nice thought and certainly not a politically correct thought.

My personal dichotomy about the homeless is constantly being challenged and rearranged. For two years, I had volunteered with an agency that tutored children living in the homeless shelters down here. I had developed relationships with mothers who are doing everything they could to get out of that situation and mothers who did everything to sabotage getting out of that situation. It kept me baffled.

On the one hand, I understand how someone can become so overwhelmed with life's day-to-day demands that they cannot function. Maybe that was this man's situation. On the other hand, I had met belligerents, crass irresponsibility and some perpetual scam artists. This guy was more than likely a dropout from one of the many Skid Row programs designed to help men get a new hold on their life. Or maybe, maybe this was his choice.

I had come to understand why some preferred the homeless life to the so-called normal life I was living. It is their safety zone this familiar turf and in that familiarity there is a slim slice of power, of belonging.

Still, as I looked over at the dirty, drooped man hugging the ground, I was straining to feel sympathy. The traffic light changed and just as I started to pull away, dozens of hidden birds that had apparently been nestled around the man lifted from the ground up into the sky, and his arms lifted with them. And he threw his head back as if he too was taking (unintelligible). And then he laughed right out loud a healthy, robust laugh.

As I pulled away, I could see his face in my rearview mirror and I was amazed. It was a face full of light, full of absolute joy. Now, whenever I'm downtown, I find myself looking for the birdman. I want to plug into that moment again, into that simple unbridled joy. I want that moment for myself. I am, after all, overdosing on email and orange level threat alerts.

(Soundbite of song "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'")

Mr. RAY CHARLES (Musician): (Singing) Oh, what a beautiful mornin'. Yes, what a wonderful day. Look out there. You know I've got a beautiful feeling, everything's going my way.

SHARP: Am I going to sit on the street in the middle of downtown and hope a flock of birds come to sit with me? Hardly. I am surrounded by self-help books, spiritual renewal workshops, new age CDs and stuff, yet a man to whom I gave little respect paused me to check myself. The birdman cut to the core and taught me in one gesture to see each sliver of life through a different lens. Hey, Ray, how are you doing this morning?

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. CHARLES: (Singing) They don't turn their heads as they see me ride by…

CHIDEYA: S. Pearl Sharp is a writer and documentary filmmaker living in Los Angeles. And thank you so much, Pearl.

Anyway, that's NEWS & NOTES for today. To listen online or subscribe to our podcast visit us at npr.org/newsandnotes. You can also go there and find News & Views, our blog.

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