In the fall of 2007, my foreign travels began when I first went under the bridge on West 3rd Street near Cleveland Browns Stadium. Beneath the busy highway, a man named “Jack” lived on an old, torn mattress. His camp, which smelled of brandy and cigarettes, was cluttered with empty potato chip bags, bottles, and other scraps that had been carelessly scattered by “Jack” and the rodents that he lived with. But in striking contrast to the mess, next to his bedding was a neatly organized library of at least a hundred books. “Jack” spent most of his days reading. Classic to contemporary, his book stacks did not discriminate: I remember seeing Lorna Doone sandwiched between Twilight and Harry Potter.
Besides the books, the strangest thing about “Jack” was his hospitality. I had never imagined a person in such extreme poverty being so engaging and friendly. The first thing I ever heard him say was, “How are my favorite John Carroll University students? Anyone want one of these Ensure drinks? A nurse dropped a box off for me today and I’ll never finish them all.” How could I not accept his offer? I drank one.
As we served “Jack” a dinner and gave him a blanket, I got my first exposure to his storytelling. While eating the chicken breast and mashed potatoes, he gave a riveting oral summary of The Di Vinci Code, and somehow related it to his opinions on global politics. When we were finally ready to leave “Jack” and visit other Cleveland camp sites, Brendan, the leader of our homeless outreach group, gave him a framed picture featuring “Jack” with a few of the John Carroll students. “Jack”, doting over the picture, placed it right above his mattress on the bridge beam.
For years at John Carroll, I traveled to exotic places like “Jack’s” camp as a member of the homeless outreach group, “The St. Benedict Joseph Labre Project” (often abbreviated “Labre”). On Friday nights, in two vans filled with food, blankets, clothing, and hygiene items, we visited the homeless on street corners, underneath bridges, and within abandoned structures. While befriending the homeless, I learned the details of some of their most intimate problems. “Jack” suffered from paranoid schizophrenia. At times his illness would become noticeable: “The federal government is trying to shut Labre down because you guys are coming to visit me,” he once said. After statements like these, the conversation was sometimes hard, except I knew that I had to step into his world and try to see things from his point of view.
By seeing some of the darkest and poorest parts of Cleveland, I discovered the city’s greatest beauty, the kind souls that live in its shadows. So although I have no global travel experience, it would be wrong to say that I have never visited foreign places. “Jack’s” camp was probably more exotic and colorful than the hotels, beaches, and restaurants that many American vacationers venture to when they travel across oceans. I had the privilege to explore foreign worlds, experience unique sub-cultures, and collect many strange and beautiful stories.
This summer I am traveling to Swaziland, a country in southern Africa, to do a medical school elective at a clinic run by the Luke Commission medical team. I shall assist with their efforts to provide primary care and HIV/AIDs services to the people of Swaziland, who are burdened with one of highest HIV/AIDs rates in the world. Since I have never lived anywhere other than Cleveland before coming to Dayton for medical school, a month in Africa will be a great adventure. I plan to continue this blog in the fall with a follow-up entry discussing my experience in Swaziland. After learning so much from traveling around in my own backyard, I can only imagine the new experiences that I will have and the “Jacks” that I will meet in the wilderness of Southern Africa.