The Zero Mile Post marked the meeting of two railway lines and possibly the beginning of the city of Atlanta.
As I drove into San Francisco each morning, the light would disappear. I’d started my commute in the sun south of the city, but eventually I’d entered the cold gray fog of the Bay. It was a strange world when I got closer to work.
It’s no wonder I think of those years in a haze. My memories are cloudy. I worked long hours. My fast-paced job thrilled me. I was young, but not too young. I had a lot to learn. What I learned during those years, is that you can always be learning. ABL. Always be learning. It wasn’t the art of the deal or the sale or the close, but innovation that pushed us. And I learned to always have an umbrella.
I parked in the cheap lot several blocks away from my office. I was 24 years old. If I told you what we considered cheap, you would laugh. It wasn’t cheap then and it isn’t cheap now all these years later in another time zone, but we called it cheap to make us feel better.
We were rich. Gatsby rich. But we lived like paupers.
I entered my office from the back alley. It wasn’t worth the extra five minutes of walking around the block to get to the front of the building. I dodged dog poop and homeless men in sleeping bags. It was the city. You get good at stepping over and around and looking away. I was street savvy. New York pace. Chicago eyes. San Francisco umbrella. My Atlanta way of making eye contact and Georgia lips for smiling had long died. I was alone in the city. No matter what they tell you, it wasn’t sexy.
One day a tent appeared in the alley. It was an upgrade from the sleeping bag. I felt uneasy. A person huddled in a doorway was transient. A person in a tent was making a home. I walked passed the tent for weeks. I’d see a man shuffling about. He was maybe my age. Maybe younger. His blonde hair began to tangle. He tried not to look homeless, but there was no way to avoid that when you didn’t have a shower or a bed or food. He looked rough, but I wasn’t afraid of him.
I was guilty of working early hours then. I liked to get to the office by seven o’clock in the morning. I liked the streets before people were awake. The man without a home was often awake when I walked by. One day, I caught him defecating on the curb as I approached.
He must have heard my shoes clicking down the sidewalk. I saw him, and he stood up suddenly. I had already seen everything. His nudity, his excrement, his hasty shame as he darted away then dared to look back. That was the only morning when I met his eyes. I felt a sharp grief, like death, and anger at the world and total helplessness. I could barely take care of myself. How could I take care of another? A man. A stranger. I couldn’t. I shouldn’t.
Weeks went by. I took the long route into the office. I’d rounded two city blocks to avoid the alley. But eventually, I returned to the alley and encountered something worse. In the early morning of rain and mist, I heard a baby crying inside the homeless man’s tent. A newborn has a distinct cry. There is the untried vocalization and erratic pauses for breath. An infant had been born and slept in the tent outside my office.
It was so long ago. I worked in San Francisco near the intersection of Fourth Street and Bryant. A baby slept on the streets. I did nothing.
I remember the sound of crying. It was painful to hear. That infant, if still alive, would be 18 years old today. I don’t know what happened to that baby.
I have seen a person at their most base and low and naked moments. I’ve seen shame and survival in the same eyes.
I don’t walk through as many alleys in Atlanta as I did in my San Francisco days. I have not seen a kid living on the streets until this week. I felt the gray fog and rain return. I felt the pain of my inaction. I could have called someone. I could have done something. Anything. I didn’t know what to do.
Now, 18 years later, I still know very little. And here I am. ABL. Always Be Learning. I don’t know what to do when I see a kid living on the streets. So I learn. There are resources in Atlanta and the metro area, but it’s complicated to navigate. Try to be homeless Monday through Friday 8 am to 9 pm. Try to be a woman without a child or husband. Try not to have a pet. Be homeless but employed or recently employed. Better yet, be a veteran. Be homeless when it is warm. Do not be homeless when it rains.
“I can’t fix everything,” I tell myself. It’s true I can’t. I can’t sleep through the rain. I can’t silence the sound of that baby crying all those years ago. I can’t right all the wrongs in this world. But I’m willing to try. I’m not going to look away anymore.
Nicki Salcedo knows the loops and the back roads of Atlanta. She is a novelist, blogger and working mom. The Zero Mile column appears on the Atlanta Loop on Wednesdays.