Seeing Tony

By Jamie Shapiro

I work at The Friendship Center, an outgrowth of the Episcopal Church of the Holy Comforter. It is a community for people marginalized by poverty and mental illness. My role is to help everyone with everything (including office work, fundraising, volunteer coordination, cooking, our art program, our garden program, meditative bread baking, etc.). More important than all of these tasks though is the most basic and the most difficult task of all: to receive everyone as Christ, to treat everyone with dignity and to be compassionate.

Wednesday evenings we have a community dinner after service at Holy Comforter. Many people in the congregation (who are also Friendship Center participants) show up sometime in the afternoon jus tot hang out. Many are driven by van, but many walk or bus to the church.

Tony is a severely schizophrenic man, living of off Social Security Disability and minimal psychiatric help from our broken healthcare system. I like Tony. He’s very funny and personable and we have gotten to know each other somewhat. He is often very repetitive and almost aggressive in his social interactions however. Sometimes he comes up to people and says loudly “Dusty Rose, Dusty Rose, Dusty Rose, Dusty Rose” and laughs heartily. “Do you play basketball?, do you play basketball? do you play basketball? do you play basketball?” he said the first time he met Liz, our administrator. He has a huge smile.

Tony asked me early in the afternoon if I could give him a ride home after dinner. I had already promised a ride home to our staff nursing assistant, so I was reluctant. I didn’t know where Tony lived (I knew it wasn’t close because he mentioned taking the train, which meant he also took at least one bus), and I thought to myself, “If I give Tony a ride, pretty soon everyone at the Friendship Center will be asking me for rides. If I give him a ride this time, he’ll expect me to give him a ride every Wednesday.” I stalled, telling him I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to.

Around 5:00 pm he asked me again if I could give him a ride. This time I said “No, sorry Tony. See if the van driver can take you to the train.” “Ok” Tony said, resigned, disappointed but as though he expected me to say no anyway. In my head, something flashed by like: “poor guy; another poor schizophrenic being denied by another privileged charity worker.” Along with that I justified refusing him: he probably has no idea how much gas costs or how long I’ve been here today. I have to learn to stand up for myself, learn when to be compassionate and when to say no. All this I thought for a minute, and then promptly forgot all about Tony.

After dinner and cleanup, sometime 8:00 pm, just as I was leaving with our nursing assistant, Pam, one of our volunteer drivers, called me over and asked if I’d mind giving Tony a ride to the train. “Of course not”, I said. “Not a problem!”

Tony sat in the backseat for the whole drive, even after I dropped off our nursing assistant and no one was sitting in the front seat. He was quiet and gracious and didn’t seem to mind that earlier I’d said no to him. Or at least he didn’t comment on it at all. I was listening to The Lumineers, a folky indie band. Tony told me he liked the music, asked me to turn it up, and asked if it was folk music. I told him it was. He gave me clear directions to his house. He said nothing incoherent, nothing out of the ordinary. He seemed pensive. He asked me earnestly if I’d be able to find my way back to my house. He thanked me very much for the ride.

I took him all home instead of dropping him off at the train. When I got to his house and he got out, I felt a profound sense of my own ignorance and a great sense of wonder. I drove back through Southwest Atlanta, past peeling paint and boarded up houses and felt not so much privileged as uneducated. I felt excited by a sense of genuine learning.

I knew so little about this man. Whatever I thought I knew about him, my image of him as a schizophrenic, as slow, as crazy and poor and in some way less worthy then myself—these things had nothing to do with Tony. They are in some ways true. But I hardly know Tony. I was reminded of why I love the Friendship Center community. I love it because there is something very profound and very subtle that I glimpsed that night. I glimpsed something about the way I categorize people. It happens instantaneously when I meet them, and though I temper it with all the impulses of kindness and equity I can, the rewards for glimpsing something truer then categories in a person are immense.

The Friendship Center may be a community of people with mental illness and poverty. But Tony is not a poor schizophrenic. He is a man who lives in (relative) poverty and lives with schizophrenia. In the end I felt no guilt for telling him I didn’t want to give him a ride. The fact is I can’t always give rides to Friendship Center participants. And charity (doing something out of pity or a sense of having more) is not the same as compassion. What I did feel was a profound sense of how small my own perspective is. Glimpsing the smallness of my own perspective, the categories I put people in, may not provide justice, but it is wildly educational and cut straight to the core that night as I drove back through rainy Southwest Atlanta.