We had an occasional neighbor at Cobblestones I never got to know. Not the kind of neighbor who would help shovel the driveway, and not occasional like one who globe trots or summers in Maine.
Our neighbor was of the homeless variety.
For months, he would occasionally amble up the short, wide flight of cement stairs next door and lay his heavy head in the shadows of a clandestine alcove between tremendous stone columns.
One could argue that in the homeless domain, dude’s perch was prime real estate. Upon the landing of that proud Masonic Center fortress, well protected from street and moonlight, winter wind and passersby, he had a water view — if you accept such designation — facing one stretch of Lowell’s endless black-water canals. Across the way in Lucy Larcom Park, so named for the historic Lowell mill-girl-come-writer and suffragette freedom fighter, others from our “community” doze on benches or upon the warm grass on days sunny enough, while dusky blankets air over the canal’s iron railings.
I suspect that during daylight hours our neighbor never boasted of his view to companions — protecting turf and self, keeping his secret asylum on the down low. A stone’s throw from the police stationand next to our bustling restaurant, with an above-ground view of activities below and draped in darkish clothing, our neighbor withdrew into shrouded anonymity, a shadow of a man, generally safe to slumber without being stepped on. Or worse.
He most often arrived after midnight, those times that he respected our terms. If during business hours, we’d remind that he honor the agreement, thereby shielding guests and business from the dark intolerance often associated with both realities and perceptions. Most homeless are desperate, many suffer from dementia, and some are dangerous. It was upon exceptions to his obscurity that my selfish and guilty dilemma presented, time and again.
It’s him or us, I once said. It felt bad to say.
A good friend once conveyed her story of how, after enjoying our bar with friends, she decided to explore the mysterious building next door, as I cringed in suspense. She recounted walking toward our parking lot next door and, like many before her in our 23 years, scaling the stairs to peer into those darkened windows. When she stepped into the rumpled shadow below the second window well, it stirred. She backed down and away, her previous curiosity abated.
My friend is a nurse. She remained neither scared nor offended by her discovery. And although I appreciate her compassion, as
I do that of our kind staff members who had offered him food with best intentions, the stony truth is that many guests may have reacted differently upon confronting our neighbor.
The one time I, too, offered food, he refused. He declined to seek out one of Lowell’s downtown shelters. Upon many a late night, heading to my own home, I would try to ignore him while walking past. I was denying his reality and also my own. When recognizing his presence, I was forced to accept its threat to our business. Did he pose a potential risk to guests, or to our staff, as a new manager once fretted? How could I know?
He had thus far seemed harmless, while I struggled on all of our behalf.
I was raised to be compassionate, not to be scared, and to give. But empathy can present an occupational hazard. It can compete with business interests and otherwise produce a detrimental impasse.
Homelessness is a subject so many abhor or choose to ignore, and especially face to face. It can be scary or discomfiting. We have an inclination to look away, up-button the car window, cross the street. It makes me feel disgusted, sorrowful, and helpless. And yet, such struggle pales by comparison to his.
Our neighbor has since relocated, upon my eventual request that the Lowell police assist. He was quiet, mostly cooperative
and suffering, yet I never asked his name. It is not something I am proud of.
Although I accept my ethical duty to protect our restaurant’s environment and have long embraced “it’s only business” as a sound professional axiom, at times it just feels wrong. Unneighborly.
I justify that such hard-hearted diligence sustains our continued capability to employ the able while contributing to the many organizations in our incredibly compassionate community — and those who are more hands-on in helping such neighbors in need.
As the time of year approaches when we are more active in our benevolence and in loving thy neighbor, I truly hope that against the odds, ours is better off than he was before.
I occasionally miss him.
Scott Plath, along with his wife Kathleen, owns Cobblestones of Lowell and moonstones, in Chelmsford, Mass. Scott possesses a deep well of humorous and insightful stories which you can read in each and every issue of Merrimack Valley Magazine.