I've finally started helping out with some public mural painting, thanks to the Beautify Lincoln (now Beautify Earth) project that fellow artist Evan Meyer started over a year ago. This week I was touching up some spots on a mural designed by another artist who is part of the project. Often multiple people help out at a time, but this particular morning I was by myself and was enjoying getting into the painting groove. A homeless man walked by and stopped and started watching what I was doing. I could tell he was really interested in the mural and in watching the process. I was happy that the art seemed to be impacting him, and I made a point to greet him warmly as I kept painting. Something in me wanted to help him feel normalized (i.e. not seen as a "homeless" person, but just as a fellow human). He said hi rather awkwardly back. A few moments later he asked me about the name of the artist that was printed on the wall. His speech was halting and slow and a bit hard to understand. I explained that I wasn't her, but was one of the people helping to finish it. He nodded in understanding and kept watching.
Across the street another homeless person suddenly started yelling obscenities into the air. The man turned and looked in her direction for a few moments. Then he turned back and contemplated the mural again. "Congratulations to all of you," he said earnestly before beginning to shuffle away, a bit of a half limp/half walk as he pulled a small cart behind him.
My heart swelled with compassion for him, but in a different way than one might normally feel compassion for the homeless. I couldn't help but wonder what was going through his head. I wonder if he longed to be seen as normal (how could he not?), if his interaction with me helped him feel that way even for a moment, and if the cursing and screaming of the homeless woman across the street made him feel trapped in a world he didn't want to belong to.