Quarter after five on Friday and I had a few minutes to kill before meeting some friends for dinner. So I decided to head to the closest store in search of the ever-elusive metal measuring cups my Memaw requires. Upon arriving, I notice this older man in Army green slumped over on the sidewalk near the door. I can’t tell if he’s awake or even alive — a beard obscures much of his face. I mean, a beard of sorts. The same way you might refer to the grass you haven’t mowed all summer as a lawn. He has a cardboard sign in his lap. I watch him for a few seconds. The store is busy. Lots of foot traffic. People are stepping around — some almost over him. No one stops. He doesn’t move. I turn off the car, put it in gear, and get out. Sigh. Goddammit.
I approach the store somewhat slower than normal. A little warily, since he’s awfully close to the door. I have to know what that sign says. My internal dialogue during the seconds it takes me to reach him goes a little something like:
“You have to do something.”
“Wrong. I’m off the clock.”
“Wtf? Is he dead?!
“He’s probably drunk.”
“That’s pretty fucked up. Stereotype much?”
“Stereotype much when he grabs your ankle and starts gnawing on it like a dinosaur?”
“Lol! Aww, looook at It…”
Number one, “It” is a pronoun of endearment in my family; and two, I looked at It, alright — long enough to see in the half-instant before he turns his head that he is, in fact, awake. Two tiny sparks glimmered in the depths of the forest that is his face. He looks away. A second half-instant to note the collection container he has inexplicably fashioned from white plastic shopping bags, and that I can make no sense of the word salad/scribbles on his sign. The word help jumps out at me. As does thank you for anything or nothing. The rest is a puzzle. An incredibly frustrating puzzle that I want to stop and solve. My pace does not falter, although I can hardly walk any slower. I am aware of how much we are both pretending that we don’t notice each other. Like we are *whistling a tune* and
“Just taking a little break here on the sidewalk in the freezing cold with a damned near indecipherable sign that asks for help. Nothing to see here…”
“Just walking in the store, trying to find some measuring cups. Nothing to see here….”
I am aware of the horrific irony of politeness in this instance.
I wander the store aimlessly for a few minutes. I don’t look for measuring cups. I look for the line of people purchasing refill cards for their cellphones to be gone so I can speak to the cashier about the man in front of the store. I pick through a display of marked down fingernail polish near the register as I wait. 60 cents each. Good deal. I wonder if I ought to be thinking about fingernail polish, and I feel a little ashamed to have money to spend on such things. But the polishes have…astrological names. And I am me. As I wait, I listen to two men debate the merits of a pay-as-you-go phone behind me, and find myself amused by the assurances of the man who is familiar with the phone in question when he wraps it up with, “None better.” I don’t know why, but I liked that part. “None better?” I think. “Well, alright then. Case closed.”
Finally my turn, and I put five packages of fingernail polish on the counter, asking, “Are you aware that there is a man with a sign sitting in front of your store?”
“Really? Is he right out front? Oh.” She sighs, then frowns. She is maybe 40, with a friendly face. Her updo is failing. She is tired.
“Homeless,” offers one of the phone debaters. I never saw either of them.
“Yeah.” says the cashier.
“What’s his story?” I asked, “I mean, is he alright?” <– YES. I ACTUALLY SAID THAT. And before anybody says anything smart, know that my inner dialogue had a fucking field day with that shit. Somehow we got past it.
“It’s sad,” she replied. “I mean, when I was at the shelter, he helped me. He helped my whole family. He just…wanders around. Sometimes he has money to come in here and buy him a little soup or something. I warm it up in the microwave for him. I don’t care if they fire me for it.”
I am painfully aware of her reference to living at the shelter, and I feel…absurdly proud of her for having this job and, I reason, probably not living there anymore. “Anybody who would fire you for that is a piece of shit.”
“I know, right? Sad.”
“It is sad,” I agree. “It hurts my heart to see it.”
“Well…thank you. Have a good night.”
I exit the store through the Out door, a few feet away from where the homeless man has not moved and does not look at me. As I reach into my pocket for all the actual money I have — which isn’t much, really, I observe two men approaching the In door. The one on the inside nearly trips over the homeless man, and shouts, “[Get] the FUCK out my way!” and half-turns to kick the homeless man’s legs and
His companion is laughing, and I hear myself shout, “HEY!” Inadvertently.
They pause. Turn to me. “The fuck YOU want?” His companion says nothing.
I want you to watch where you’re fucking going, have a little compassion, not kick a homeless person, not murder me. I want to fight you. I say none of these things.
Two little sparks in the forest. He sees me now.
A moment to gauge their time and distance from me. There is no question that these assholes are alive. And drunk. And fucking impolite.
I just…get in my car and leave. I drive to the bank. I was going there anyway because I needed some cash for dinner.
I am ashamed of myself. Hate myself a little bit, actually. But…?!?!
As I wait for my receipt, I am aware that my breathing is wrong. Any minute now I’ll be crying. Not happening. Two minutes ago I was late to meet my friends. I feel…an overwhelming sense of grief; the suffocating weight of injustice, my suppressed fury, and worse — inadequacy. Everything I could have said and done plays like a movie in my mind.
I breathe. I think about Liam Neeson, and what he would have done. I think about all the martial arts skills, and weapons, and psychic/super powers I do not possess and what might have happened if I did possess those things. I need to go to dinner, but instead I drive back to the store, and of course he’s still there. I see him and he sees me very well. This time, I approach him purposefully.
“Here,” I say, putting a ten dollar bill in his container. Then I say nothing. Because I can’t think of what to say.
He looks down at it briefly — shakes his head like he is saying yes. He opens his mouth as though he is going to speak and closes it again. I notice his hands tremble as he picks up the bill. I notice his hands, and how hurt-looking and worn they are, and I do not know if they trembled from the cold or from something worse. He shakes his head yes again. He does not look up again. So I stupidly say, “Take care,” and walk away. Drive away. I pick up my phone and see a missed call, missed messages. I call my friend back and tell her I am on my way.
A saying came to my unquestionably agnostic mind as I was driving, “There but for the grace of God, go I.” Don’t get me wrong, I admire faith and certain ones of those who have it. I understand its purpose and benefits. But I cannot and do not credit God’s mercy with my successes, such as they are. Nor do I blame God (or the Devil) for my failures. My brain cannot reconcile the idea of a merciful God or a competent Devil picking and choosing the way they do. Come on. But it was and is clear to me that “There but for the [blank] of [blank] go all of us.” Filling in those blanks have puzzled greater minds than mine. But my mind, such as it is, is nonetheless concerned with solutions. And implementing them. This is where my heart is. This is my particular passion.
Or it will be again, as soon as I stop obsessing about the beatdown I wish — so desperately — that I could have administered to the piece of shit (and his laughing companion) who would have kicked — and may, in fact, have kicked, a man while he was down — literally and figuratively. Because at the risk of stereotyping SOME MORE I am relatively certain that I can fill in some of tonight’s blanks with “There, but for the absence of ninja skills went I,” and “There, but for the absence of ass-whippings, went they.”
But for my lack of relevant skills and/or physical presence, I am absolutely the right person to fight people who fight homeless people.
“Thank you for anything or nothing.”
If it’s the thought that counts, I’m pretty much alright, although I do believe that thoughts (like words) without deeds are meaningless. When I reflect upon numerous actions and courses of events in my past, I comfort myself with the notion that I have always done the best I could do with the information and resources I have possessed at any given time. I trust my heart — always, to be in the right place. I hope it somehow shows. Even when words and deeds fail. But not dreams…
I will dream tonight of fighting people who fight homeless people. Be sure, beloved readers, that I shall emerge victorious.