Roy Exum: How Kindness Works

Sunday, July 5, 2009 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

At first the two men would hardly nod, one a high-profile Boston lawyer of considerable acclaim and the other a homeless guy who was dutifully guarding his buddy’s grocery buggy in the morning sun. But the lawyer loved to walk to his office, high in a stately building above the fabled Boston Common, and every day there would be “Rob” standing guard over his friend’s tiny trove and saying “hello.”

Most who would walk by would ignore the sour-smelling “Rob,” who would sleep each night in the covered doorway of an Army recruiting station. Oh, some might offer a reply, their eyes never meeting, and fewer still would hand over a couple of quarters or even a buck on a cold day, but – in the most minute of increments – the lawyer himself began to warm; “Good morning.”

It soon became easy for the two to speak. Then there was a joke or two passed, and the lawyer found the homeless guy could talk easily about the Red Sox or the Patriots or current events, and, then – best of all – the famous lawyer learned that a man whose name we only know as “Rob,” absolutely adored reading books.

You see, the lawyer – Peter Resnik – loves to do that, too. He was a literature major at Yale long ago. So one morning, as Peter left his house, he grabbed a paperback copy of the marvelous book, “Water For Elephants.” That same morning he gave it to Rob, telling him he might enjoy it in the same way millions of others have been enthralled by the fabulous story of a young veterinarian working for a circus during the Depression.

Peter was trying to be nice. Rob appeared grateful, but, in a perfectly marvelous tale that appeared in Sunday’s editions of the Boston Globe, writer Jenna Russell explained homeless people have nowhere to gather their possessions, hardly anywhere to even read after the sun sets, and are beset by such a phalanx of unique problems the chances were good the book would never be read.

Guess what? Within only a few days “Rob” was as excited as an overgrown Weimaraner puppy, jumping around as he delightedly talked with the lawyer about the fabulous book. So Peter brought him another paperback, “The Kite Runner,” as soon the two were talking about the books for 10 or 15 minutes each morning.

“Chris,” another homeless guy whose grocery cart “Rob” would guard in the mornings, also read “Water For Elephants,” too. Now all three talked excitedly each day about other modern-day blessings such as “Angela’s Ashes,” “A Monk Swimming,” “The Glass Castle,” and so forth.

Now here’s the clincher. You know what the homeless guys loved the most? Get this: they could have an intelligent, knowing conversation with a brilliant man from Yale who was wonderfully well-versed in arguing the merits and flaws each author presented.

You know what the lawyer loved? Sure, he was deeply moved, as most always are, that the homeless are brilliant in their own right. But what enamored Peter was that what these unfortunates may lack in formal education and worldly possessions is nothing when compared to the way they see life from their side of the street. Believe this – Peter would soon find that some were Magna Cum Laude at it.

So late last summer Peter had an idea and, with the help of a Beacon Hill priest whose mission it is to help the homeless, the Tuesday Morning Book Club was started in Ron Tibbitt’s church under the auspices of a non-profit group, the Oasis Coalition.

The meetings last two hours each week. At first Peter wanted to spring for everybody’s lunch, but the group nixed it, saying they can get free food to eat but that they wanted to talk and debate and critique far more. So “Rob” makes the coffee and Peter brings the doughnuts and there, in a lush meeting room of the revered Swedenborgian Church of the Hill, the homeless and the mighty gather together beneath the rich oil paintings on the wall and go at it every week.

Does it work? It was on the front page of yesterday’s Boston Globe! It is about respect, mutual admiration, and opening each mind so they can all see what great writers like Frank McCourt and Jeannette Walls and O. Henry were trying to convey to their reader.

I have got to tell you one more thing. One day after the meeting Peter asked “Rob” why he couldn’t get into public housing or something. It turned out “Rob” had an old traffic ticket outstanding.

What do you think those at the courthouse thought when “Rob” shows up with Peter Resnik of the firm McDermott, Will & Emery? Hang the “pro bono” in your ear – the application was approved as though it was greased with creamery butter.

So, yes, that is the way kindness works. Was it “Rob” saying “hello?” Was it Peter responding? Whatever; the two most unlike people in the world now read books together and enjoy their friendship every week. They laugh and tease and eyes roll and every opinion is weighed on Tuesday morning in a Boston church.

And, honey, that’s stronger than the coarse-ground mustard they spread on the “brats” at Fenway. So help me it is.

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