Chapel Hill: Opinion

Lynden Harris: Rolling down the window

A friend was sitting in his parked car, windows cracked, talking on his phone. He was laughing about something, laughing hard, when suddenly he heard a banging on the window. He turned. A massive black face pressed hard against the glass. And grinned.

My friend hung up, rolled down his window, and said, “Hey, how’re you doing?”

“You looked like you were having so much fun I had to come over,” the man replied. “I wanted to know what was so funny.”

They chatted a while. My friend climbed out of the car, asked the man his name, and then offered the same question he often asks folks who are homeless and wanting to connect. If you could have any one thing in the world, what would it be?

One wish. What’s yours? As children we often asked each other that same question. But what if you were on the streets? What would you wish for then?

Another friend shared his own story of home and the streets. He couldn’t remember a time when drugs weren’t in his life. All that secondhand smoke he breathed as a child sure didn’t come from cigarettes. Alcohol he tried early, but except for getting into trouble once over emptying the ashtray while helping clean, he didn’t get hands-on with drugs till much later. Eighth grade.

That eighth grade was “much later” opens the door to a whole new understanding of early. He got “hands-on” because of a family member, an honest, hard-working relative, who wasn’t going to make rent that month.

“It was the first time my peoples had been short,” my friend explained. “I had to do something.”

His relatives didn’t like the idea one bit, but as my friend said, “having a sheriff padlock the place you call home is a feeling that’s hard to put into words.”

With the reality of that lock-out only days away, the family members gave him three hundred hard-earned dollars and crossed their fingers he was right. It was a gamble, a leap of faith, to trust every penny you owned to some kid. But my friend was confident as only young teens can be. He had a weekend to convert that three hundred to seven hundred and change. How hard could it be? He knew where to buy drugs. He knew where to sell drugs. He just didn’t know how to buy and sell drugs. He had no idea how to weigh it, cut it, and a hundred little things, all of which he quickly realized Friday night. But he forced himself to learn, because people were counting on him.

His education was swift. He busted it all weekend, trying one tactic, changing, moving, sweating, pushing, winning, losing. As he shared each failure-turned-small-success, I found myself rooting for that young boy as he struggled against such odds. I could so easily imagine my own son at 14, out of his element and on the street, searching for his game face, scared to death by the overwhelming responsibility to shelter his family.

Exhausted and sleepless, my friend crawled back to his relatives’ place Monday morning. Forty dollars short. You could hear the breaking regret in his voice even now, still a young man and facing a lifetime in prison. He told his family how sorry he was. They kindly said not to worry. They were grateful someone had tried. He stayed till the landlord and sheriff showed up.

“My people said it wasn’t my fault, but all I could see was that padlock,” he said ruefully. “And all my mistakes that weekend.” Soon after, he hit the streets for himself. He had learned the lessons well.

As we move toward Halloween, All Holy Evening, I’m reminded of the Church’s doctrine that there is a continuous link between all souls, living and dead, sainted and not. Between each of us “an abundant exchange of all good things.”

If you could have one thing, what would it be? The massive man who pressed his face against the window glass answered the question readily. “To have people understand how connected we all are.” He was sure that if people only realized that, there would be peace.

So often, we live closed in by what we think we know. We forget to open the windows, because we’ve forgotten we rolled them up in the first place. Imagine how easy it would have been for my friend to shut the window to that massive face, lock the doors, and drive off without ever risking that exchange.

But he didn’t. And he said that in all his years of asking folks on the streets what one thing they would wish for, by far the most common answer is “Peace. Peace on earth.”

If those working the streets for their living can wish peace for all beings, what might we wish for them? What is the abundant good exchange that links all souls? In prison. On the streets. Housed. Reading this column. Not able to read at all. You, me, every one of us.

Lynden Harris is the founder and director of Hidden Voices. You can reach her at