I saw him again today, standing on the corner of 9th and Hennepin. We had a slushy mix of rain and snow last night, and today the sidewalks were covered in water and ice. Every curb sported at least a three inch-deep puddle. I spotted him standing there under the red awning of the closed porn shop, and I lowered my gaze. Thankfully I was too busy navigating the icy puddle and maneuvering around the crowd of people who just stepped off the bus to make eye contact.
He just stood there, arms in his coat pockets, bag resting on the concrete sidewalk. One more person passing him by.
Do you have any spare change?
How are you supposed to answer that? Of course I do. I have fifty cents in my bag and another dollar in my wallet. Do I need it? Not really. I could fairly easily part with it.
But how do you answer the request, usually from a homeless person? Some people like to answer ‘no,’ and quickly walk away, rationalizing that free hand outs won’t help anyone. And there might be some truth to that. But part of me thinks that’s just a nice excuse to clear your conscience and walk away guilt-free.
My standard answer is to pat my pockets and mumble something like, “No, sorry, I don’t,” –which is usually a lie. I’d have to dig that fifty cents out of my bag and I’d be two minutes late for work. Even though I get there ten minutes early every day. There’s one guy I recognize. He always stands on the corner of ninth street in front of the closed-up porno shop. A bag sits on the ground next to him and he stands there with his hands in his pockets, looking rather purposeful. Twice he’s asked me for change, but he hasn’t asked recently. He must recognize me and figured two times was plenty. Now when I see him I’ve taken to keeping my eyes on the pavement and not making eye contact.
I can’t help but wonder if there’s a better way. Is it a good idea to give fifty cent handouts? Does that accomplish anything? Is there a way I can help these people more? I saw a guy standing on the corner of a shopping plaza holding a sign that said he needed work. Are jobs that scarce? Sometimes I wonder if these homeless people truly have gotten a bum deal (no pun intended), or if they’re just lazy. I understand that it’s difficult to get a job when you have no place to stay, but is it really as bad as that? And if so, isn’t there a more reliable way I can help then giving you my spare change? It just seems like we need a better solution.
A hunter orange jacket. A rainbow colored yarmulke. A full beard. He bowed his head four times on the bus.
A black leather trench-coat. A black fedora. Bleached blond hair that stuck out below the hat in the back, but not at all on the sides. Black, Frankenstien boots with souls two inches thick. He asked where Shinders Bookstore was, and I didn’t know. I pass it every day on the way to work, but I didn’t know the comic book shop with the poster of Wolverine in the window was called Shinders.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa.” Five times. Just like that. The cop whipped a u-turn, parked on the curb, and stepped out to utter those words. I was too busy making sure he wasn’t talking to me to notice who he was talking to. “What do you think you’re doing?” The questions continued for the man who crossed the street when the little red hand said don’t cross, but I was already crossing 8th street.
So many people, and I’m supposed to love them all? Some days I don’t even love myself.
Ten years ago we attacked Iraq. Bombs fell in Baghdad and the power went out and the TV networks were cut off. There were press conferences in Washington and neat little graphics of F-14’s introducing Good Morning America. What a time for our happy little nation. Ten years later we still fly over Iraq, we still drop bombs on them, and we still shake our little fist at them. Does the average American even realize that the average Iraqi is just like them, a person? Few of us ever realize that, no matter our nationality.
It’s like the woman on the bus today. She talked with the loud, white trash man, even sharing her kleenex with him. She was blind. Of course I was too blind to notice that the white trash man gave up his seat for the blind woman, something I didn’t do. And the white trash man asked the blind woman for a kleenex–only so he could hand it to me to ease my bloody nose. And the white trash man struck up a conversation with a freelance writer for Nightline who looked like a passive Black Panther. It seems I’m too blind to notice a lot of things. Wasn’t yesterday Martin Luther King, Jr. day? And I talked about goulashes.
People. Walking to and from the bus stops and riding the bus has reminded me of people. People seem real in a way they’ve never been before–not when I drove to work anyway. There’s something about freezing next to somebody while you wait for the light to change that gives you a sense of compassion. Being trapped in an enclosed automobile seems to quell this feeling, this understanding. Sitting next to total strangers, sitting around total strangers reminds me that we are all human.
It’s not that I’m connecting with anyone on a deep spiritual level–I’m not connecting with anyone period. I don’t like the fact that bus passengers have this cold acknowledgment of one another. We let you sit next to us, but we barely grumble a hello, if you’re lucky. And if a seat opens up, you better go take it. We wouldn’t want to sit next to each other if we didn’t have to.
But despite the distance, I still see these people. I see their faces, their skin, not the make and model of their car as it speeds by at 55 mph.
And aren’t people what’s really important? The rest is just clutter. Or it should be.
Of course I still don’t know how to connect with these people–or if I even should. Is it any better to see people as opposed to not seeing them if nothing comes of it? Or is seeing enough? I like to think it is.
I walk to my truck and there’s a couple making out in the car across the street. Their silhouetted shapes separate as I slam my door and start the engine, coming together again as I pull away. It’s late, and it’d be a lot warmer if they made out inside. When I park the asphalt is covered in frost, tiny glimmers of light like glitter falling from the sky. I can’t tell if it’s on the asphalt or in the air.
It’s late and I should be going to bed. But only out of convenience. I’d rather read a book. Or flip through a catalog. But it’s more convenient to sleep at night, when all should be quiet. Sleeping after class never quite works.
The pithy little hymnal started and I hoped we’d sing only one verse. The comments from the missionary and the guest speaker were enough to squelch any inkling of interest I might have had in a missions conference. I wanted to sing a hymn and depart, the sooner I could be on the road and spouting my intellectual complaints the better.
The sentimental hymn finished and the pastor started a real send ’em out prayer–but I was no longer listening. Ralph–the miniature old man who collected the Sunday School attendance sheets with the gusto of the energizer bunny–had turned the color of an onion. He didn’t stand for the hymn, he didn’t stand for the prayer, and his wife had a distant, immobilized glaze over her eyes. A woman rushed forward, scanning across the rows of bowed faces. The associate pastor nearly bowled over his wife. Another woman butted her way through a row and disturbed a praying doctor. He rushed forward and began slapping Ralph’s weak, bony hand. They laid him down, and began undoing his tie and his shirt.
The prayer ended and eyes opened, the organ began a rousing goodbye tune, and everyone in the vicinity turned to leave. Then their eyes fell on the commotion and they all stopped. Ralph’s head was half hanging off the pew, people were scrambling, and everyone else just gawked, unsure of what to do. I wanted to reach out and help, but there were already too many people helping. The pastor stepped off the platform and into the fray, not even realizing what had happened. All color had left Ralph’s face, and I didn’t even recognize him as the jovial man who dutifully took the attendance from us Sunday, always waiting patiently when I’d forgotten to fill it out.
I walked out of church slow, hesitant. The man had probably suffered a heart attack. The ambulance hadn’t pulled up by the time I left, and I didn’t hear sirens the entire way home. I wanted to do something for Ralph. I wanted to do more than watch and wonder. The man may be dead by now. He may be in heaven, or a stuffy hospital room. Either way I don’t know what to do. My complaints are quickly forgotten, and I don’t remember them until later that evening. There’s something about a man dying in a church pew.
I always thought there might be a hidden path there. I’ve walked by that patch of ground a million times. But for some reason, tonight, I noticed something odd. As I walk the path late at night the rabbits usually jump when I go by. I never really thought of rabbits as nocturnal creatures, but there they are. If they just stayed put I’d never even know they were there. I always like to watch the rabbits, too. They watch me for a few minutes–I’m usually completely oblivious to them–and then they hop away as if they had to decide how dangerous I was. After they start hopping I watch them disappear into the woods, and they stop to turn around and watch me again.
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