“Robert, I wonder if you can help us?”
Every Wednesday afternoon in the summer, Poetry and Pottery appears in Soda Springs Park in Manitou Springs. Potters and writing mentors set up pottery wheels, a kiln, and tables full of writing materials for anyone who want to come express themselves in art. We have about 50-60 people a week participate in the two hours we are set up: writing poems, making pots, and enjoying the company of others who are doing the same thing.
Robert has become a regular participant this summer. Healthy looking with a well-kept beard and a happy smile, Robert lives rough somewhere in the mountains around Manitou Springs. We always have soup with protein in it, and he relies on it to help him regulate his diabetes. His illness is otherwise untreated.
Although Robert lives alone in a tent away from others, he is a steadying influence when he is on the street. He helps the other unhoused people find what they need, provides encouragement, and he tends to calm people down.
He says he doesn’t write, but he does talk. I’ve acted as his scribe a few times as he talked about life and getting along with others. I am not sure if he can read and write, but he enjoys it when I read back to him what I heard him say. “That does sound like a poem!” he chuckles.
During Poetry and Pottery two weeks ago, two police officers came through Soda Springs Park. I greeted them and asked how they were. They had been called because some of the street people who were cat calling women tourists along Manitou Avenue nearby.
“Of course, we were another call when this one came in, and we had another one to get to first.”
The officers were frustrated, but it seemed like business as usual. They had missed the culprits. And then they saw Robert under the pavilion, sitting at the writing table. The officers approached Robert and asked him if he could help them out with the cat callers.
“I’ll talk to them about it,” I heard Robert say. “We have some new, young guys, and they are real knuckleheads.”
The police officers thanked Robert and walked away with a handful of flyers about Poetry and Pottery to share with folks as they continued their rounds. We could all do each other a favor today.
When we started Poetry and Pottery three years ago, Mark Wong, the pottery part, wanted to take back the park, to make it a positive community place. Manitou Springs had had some violent incidents at Soda Springs Park; Mark wanted to change that. I, Molly Wingate, wanted to provide the street people with a tool for processing some of their trauma so that they can be more at ease, make better decisions, and know that the community cares about their wellbeing.
We had hoped that people from different parts of the community would connect and collaborate on making art and making Manitou Springs more livable. And we have seen other some evidence — fewer problems between the police and the street people and more locals joining the tourists and street people at Poetry and Pottery. But the sight of the police asking Robert for assistance during Poetry and Pottery was pretty clear evidence that we are building bridges and expanding the idea of community. They worked together to keep the peace.
Maybe I’ll get Robert to tell me a poem about it.