On Wednesday, our second day of work, the interns from Catholic Legal Services wasted half an hour looking for a Peruvian restaurant before settling for a Subway near the office. I had packed my own peanut butter and jelly sandwich and was simply looking for something small to supplement it, so I bought a six-inch sandwich. Everyone sat down and started to eat.
As we were eating, a man sat down one table away from us. He asked us how our day was going, and told us he was homeless. He asked for our leftovers. I had already eaten a good amount of my sandwich, but since I had more food in my lunchbox, I had no reason to be stingy—especially because my DukeEngage food stipend was still barely used. I brought the couple of inches of the sandwich to his table.
The man thanked me repeatedly and told me God was on my side—he said that was all I would need to make it to high places in life. With a wistful look, he told me he had once confined to a wheel chair, but had eventually gotten over his illness and could walk now with only slight difficulty. He then told me that people like me, who “walked with God,” would never end up “like him,” sleeping on the street and begging for food. I told him I was glad his health was improving and that I hoped his other circumstances did too.
But I was very uncomfortable. I had given him the end of a sandwich and didn’t feel as though I deserved anywhere near the praise I was receiving. He was a homeless black man who suffered from a once-incapacitating illness, and I’m a white, upper-middle class, able-bodied college student. I was suddenly very aware of how fancy my dress slacks, button down and tie appeared, and of the thickness of my wallet with Duke money in my pocket. I thought of how insignificant the hard work that allowed me to arrive at my internship in this city was compared to the struggles he had undergone only to arrive at much less favorable situation.
I told the man I needed to get back to the office, which was true. He offered to walk me out of the restaurant. On the street he asked me where I was working, and I said I was interning at a law firm. He said he was going to have to follow me so he could get some legal advice, to which I responded that I unfortunately wasn’t a lawyer and that my firm only dealt with immigration cases.
“Immigration. Hm… I sure would never tell someone they couldn’t come to this great country,” he said. I agreed.
“But it is a damn shame that this country and this city can’t even take care of the people born here who’ve been living here their whole lives. Don’t you think that’s a shame?”
Before arriving in Miami, I knew Miami as the “Capital of Latin America,” and all the reading about Miami leading up to my time here—both formal preparatory research and the city’s presentation in the media—has approached Miami as a city of immigrants and older Latin communities. My work at Catholic Legal Services, serving low-income immigrants exclusively, grew out of this aspect of Miami’s reality. But there are so many other facets of Miami that my internship and my eight weeks in the city won’t force me to grapple with. From homelessness to gentrification to public transportation access, there are surely a hundred issues Miamians are facing that I want to try not to simply forget about this summer. While no issue—including the very important one I’m focusing on at CCLS, immigration—can be solved by one outsider in eight weeks, tunnel vision would disrespect Miamians’ realities and do a disservice to my own personal growth and understanding. I’m still figuring out how to avoid becoming a tourist as soon as I step outside the office—sure, many aspects of Miami deserve awe and enjoyment, but I don’t want to turn a blind eye to what I can learn from being here.