Reclaiming the Human Within

BeautyBeast_Marianna Mayer (1)
Beauty and The Beast Marianna Mayer and Mercer Mayer "Beauty's task is... to look where others would not, and to perceive the man within the Beast. The Beast's own task is patience, and the reclaiming of the human within himself" Windling, T. Years ago, when I was a young woman of 21, I had a job in Santa Barbara at a small boutique on State Street called “The Midnight Butterfly.” It is no longer there, but my memories of it remain vivid for one reason in particular. At that time, State Street was not the posh tourist attraction that most people flock to now in order to escape the realities of urban life. Back in the late 70’s, homeless people were still allowed to sit or sleep on the streets, use public bathrooms regularly and mix with Santa Barbara locals and tourists alike without being harassed by police to move on to another less colorful, less populated spot. During my lunchtime, I would see the homeless men downtown, (they were mostly men back then) gathered in front of what was then The Schooner Inn and Donut shop. Most had been drinking all night and into the morning, yet there was a forthright and generous comradeship among them. Before changes were made to divert traffic on the main freeway, many of the men camped all night beneath a lofty fig tree with wide and sheltering branches that grew in a small park beside the railroad tracks. On my days off, I would see them there in the afternoon and early evening, drinking and cooking, setting up their sleeping bags within the roots of the great tree as if she were a source of succor and solace that they found wanting elsewhere. Not one of them was unpleasant to anyone, and I knew several men by name. Occasionally, I would buy sandwiches for some of them, although I don’t think it was food they were interested in.  There was one fellow about thirty years of age, who particularly attracted my attention sitting in front of the donut shop most of the day. I remember asking him once what he was doing and he replied that it was his task to “hold up the building which was crumbling quickly.” His name was George and he told me that he was originally from the Deep South. He had a lovely, rich, baritone voice like dark honey on warm bread; it was during my afternoon lunch breaks, in fact, that I would find him on the corner where he would be kind enough to play me a couple of tunes. The  melodies flowing from that old instrument were bright and vibrant like sunlight on a warm coastal day.  We became friends in short order. As a friend, he asked me if he could walk me home from work when it was dark to which I agreed. George would come into my place on those evenings, play me some songs that he had learned over the years and I would feed him dinner. Sometimes he would simply walk me home and leave after giving me a hug. I never knew where he went when he left although he was always clean and appeared better taken care of personally than many of the men on the street that I had seen. Because I was young and unfamiliar with life on the street, I tried now and then to help George acquire work, and he would dutifully fill out an application, but I believe he rarely arrived for an interview as liquor and low self-esteem had stolen his better angels from him. One night, as we were walking home in winter, it began raining incredibly hard, and I asked George where he would be staying for the night. He assured me that he would find a place and told me not to worry, but something in me didn’t feel right, and I asked him if he would like to stay. I lived in a studio with an efficiency kitchen and half bath, so small that if you stretched your arms across you could reach both walls, with your fingertips. He accepted my invitation and rolled out his sleeping bag on my rug near my bed. As the silver rain beat down on the roof of the old Victorian in which I lived, the two of us remained cozy and warm for the night. I asked George if he would like me to read him a story. He looked at me in great surprise and then smiled and said, “Yes, that would be nice.” I went to the shelf and brought down my copy of Marianna Mayer’s version of “Beauty and the Beast” the most beautifully illustrated I have seen. I sat on the floor next to him and he lay in his sleeping bag as I read him the story of a woman who was able to look and love, where others could not, and a beast who was finally able to find again what was most human within himself. (paraphrase of T. Windling’s quotation). When I finished the story, George remarked to me, “That is the first story that anyone has ever read to me. My father always told me that I wouldn’t amount to much.” And then he went off to sleep. I hope that his dreams were good ones, of dancing with a princess in a rose garden while drinking out of a fine goblet with birds serenading him as he looked into the eyes of his beloved. I would like to say that there was as happy an ending for George as there was for Beauty and the Beast, but I don’t know that that is the case. I knew him for a couple of years and then he disappeared from Santa Barbara altogether. I still think of him, and it has been 34 years since that night that two lonely grown children shared a roof, a midnight conversation and a fairytale together. If you are reading this George, I still see you.
--Noelle Clearwater (all rights reserved by author). For a history of homelessness in Santa Barbara, please see this incredibly well written post from Isabelle Walker’s blog


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