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Remembering Keith

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My “friend”, Keith Peniston, died recently.

I call him “friend” because once he told me that I was his “friend” after I gave him a couple of bucks to get a cup of coffee.

Most mornings, Keith was outside my office on Reid Street at about 8am, waiting to greet me and numerous others with the morning salutation:

“Morning, can you help me out to get some breakfast?”

Some days I gave him some change and many days I didn't, with the stock line “Sorry Keith, I've got no change.”

Perhaps it rings familiar with some people?

So he would smile a toothless grin and walk away, seeking kindness from someone else.

Once, when a big storm was coming, I was leaving late and he was still outside and told me he didn't have a place to go, so I opened the door and let him sleep in the foyer.

Let's be honest, Keith wasn't my “friend”.

He annoyed me more than he made me feel good; sometimes I would cross the street when I saw him coming, so I didn't have to bother, or I wasn't in the mood for stopping to find change, or I was in a rush, as usual, and just too busy.

I noticed that he was not around for a week or so recently and wondered where he was, and then I ran into him in the morning. He had some “new” clothes and I actually stopped to ask where he had been.

“In hospital,” he said. “I was sick.”

“Well, you look good,” I said. And he did.

“Can you help me out, Mark?”

“Sorry, mate, I have no change today.”

“OK. Have a good day.” And off he went.

It was the last time I ever spoke with or saw him.

What Keith was to me, and perhaps to many others, was, in fact, a missed opportunity. Sure, I was kind to him maybe half the time, bought him a meal now and then, and sometimes even stopped and spoke.

Big of me, huh?

On the occasion when I let him sleep on a cold floor during a winter storm, I didn't take the time to try and find him a bed for the night or even get him a blanket. I found him there the next morning asleep and he was grateful to me for letting him stay.

I thought once I should put $50 in the till at his local food spot so he could go in and have a bit of a tab to get something to eat instead of having to beg every day for food. I thought it would perhaps give him some dignity, but I didn't.

I never had him over to my house, took him for a meal with me, let him come into the office, gave him a lift or bought him an item of clothing when it looked like his clothes were worn out. So busy with “business” that I failed to realise, or put off to another day, that Keith should have been my business.

Kindness, generosity and understanding should have been more of my focus, but they were not. All these wonderful karmic things I had the opportunity to do; all missed with him.

Sure, I was better than many. A colleague told me of hearing a woman recently tell Keith: “Go back to Court Street!” when he asked her for change.

There's not enough ink or space for me to expand on that dismissal here, suffice it to say that there is a segment of our society that still remains kicking and screaming into the 21st century and will not think twice that Keith is gone or regret that they viewed him with absolute disdain.

Sadly, a reflection of a systematic problem we will continue to have.

I was pleased to see his picture on the front page of The Royal Gazette, and that he got a mention in Parliament, even. But he didn't get to see or hear any of that and died like he lived: alone and on the street.

To reflect on the words of the Dylan Thomas poem, I don't think Keith “raged against the dying of the light” and indeed probably went quietly into “that dark night” feeling, I pray, a sense of peace and embrace that he had not had in life.

There are many generous people in Bermuda. Some people like to tell everyone about their generosity, which I candidly find tedious and not truly generous. But as the Buddhist monk Jack Kornfield said: “Ego can be a good thing if it's used to do some good!”

Others give quietly and without fanfare. Some give nothing at all, not even a kind word or a thought to someone else's struggle. People are truly fascinating.

And so Keith is gone. Maybe he was really an angel sent to observe his fellow man? Did he test us and find us wanting? We should perhaps reflect and ask ourselves these questions.

People, and particularly those in genuine need, are perhaps in our lives for a reason. Maybe they can in a real sense help to enrich our lives.

We actually live in one of the wealthiest and most prosperous places in the world. We had little issue using $100 million for the America's Cup and entertaining the world's elite, while old established businesses thrived and prospered. It didn't change Keith's life, though; no trickle-down economics for him or many others such as him. He probably would not have got down to our fancy new airport much, either.

Maybe we need to take pause on what our priorities should be and, in answer to a rhetorical question, be able to answer “our fellow man”.

We can take responsibility for only ourselves, I think. If we want to change the world, then start there. For my part, I did not do enough for a man who called me “friend”.

I put the thoughts of kindness off for another day. Keith was my “opportunity” to be a better human being. I regret, sadly, that in large part I missed it.

When I got to work this morning at eight o'clock, I missed him.

Mark Pettingill, the former Attorney-General, is director of the law firm Chancery Legal

Man around town: Keith Peniston passed away at the age of 61 this week. He was homeless and a fixture in the City of Hamilton (Photograph supplied)
Mark Pettingill

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Published March 27, 2019 at 9:00 am (Updated March 27, 2019 at 8:53 am)

Remembering Keith

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