Let the Little Sparrows Die
It is freezing in DC right now, and I spent the afternoon yesterday watching rain turn to snow from the cafe where I was working. Rain, then sleet actually, then slush, then snow.
I was finishing the outline for one last final go at the screenplay I’m adapting from Hungarian playwright Andras Visky’s Juliet. It is a true story about the playwright’s mother, who was imprisoned with him and his six siblings in a camp in Romania during some of the worst years of Communist oppression.
In the play, Juliet recounts when they became snowed in. She woke up to find that they couldn’t open the door. Strangely, she was thrilled. At the time it was winter, and they had no food or heat. They lived in a hut that had a little patch for a roof. She had become certain that she would have to watch all of her children freeze, and so the idea of dying together pleased her in a sick, cowardly sort of way.
She says, “I was so ashamed of myself. I had reveled in the possibility of collective death. Let the little sparrows die, die like flies! Let it be over, be really over!”
The cafe from where I often work is near the White House. Only a few blocks away from the President’s mansion there’s a Metro station with a covered entrance. Escalators and steps lead up and down into and from this space that, for the most part, stays warm even on the coldest days. In the winter, homeless people gather under the covered part of the entrance and sit for as long as they are allowed there.
My husband likes to spend time with them. He buys them food sometimes and sits with them a while. One of them told him once that in the winter shelters will often come around and help them find a place to sleep at night. But in the summer, he said, when homeless people sleep on the sidewalk, drunk college-age and just-out-of-college-age kids will stumble out of the bars and kick them hard in the ribs. It’s a little bit of a game: Kick-a-Bum, you might call it.
One day I came out of the cafe and walked to the metro like usual. I expected to see my homeless neighbors there. But no, they were gone. In their place, pigeons had gathered under the covering and puffed up their feathers to keep warm.
Perhaps a shelter had come by and helped them out much earlier than usual. Or did someone come by and kick them out? Wherever they were, I wondered if they had ever reveled in the idea of collective death. Suicide is not uncommon in homeless communities. And neither is freezing to death.
It made me honor much more the work of homeless shelters and of people like my husband, who stop and acknowledge the personhood of these otherwise anonymous men and women. It would be a terrible thing to find out one of those little pigeons had frozen to death. But how much worse to know it was Javier, or Micky, or Sam?
It also made me honor the courage of the men and women who do live homeless in this city. It would, in many ways, be easier for them and for us if they did choose collective death, wouldn’t it? Easier on our economy, our time and resources. Easier on our eyes because we wouldn’t have to look at them. Easier for them not to fight starvation and cold and addiction and drunk college boys all the time.
But they have not chosen collective death, even if all around them the world says “let the little sparrows die.” They choose life by sitting at the Metro. And we should help make that decision even easier for them in word, thought, and deed.