Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Really, it's not so bad as all that

It's fogged in, but the air is fresh this morning. A man wearing the neon orange vest of a city worker rests against a fire hydrant. He's Asian, well over sixty. His hair, in two long braids, stands straight up from his head like antennae. His eyes are alert and smiling.

A woman at the bus stop beside me must be older than anyone I know. She's toothless, skin wrinkled and cracked. But her gray hair is in a ponytail. She wears skinny jeans and tennis shoes, her hands slotted casually into pockets.

I give up my seat on the bus for an elderly man wearing a perfume of marijuana. He looks at me closely around cataracts, nodding his head. "Somebody raised you right," he says. It's only a little thing, but he's tickled.

A black man rattles toward me on the street, his arms and legs moving loose in their joints. He throws one arm at his reflection in a store window. "Back in your motherfucking box!

In your box!" he laughs, passing me on the sidewalk.

Sunday, July 25, 2010


A man is lying on his back, halfway into the street. A well-dressed woman stands over him, making gestures with her hands. It looks incantatory, like she is calling his soul forth from his body. As I get closer I see his cane, his back resting awkwardly on the edge of the curb. Now I can hear what the woman is saying, "Can you roll this way?" Her hands eloquently calling to him. "Can you roll far enough to get out of the street?"

"No," I hear him say. He doesn't sound distressed. Like he's just fine where he is, thank you. "No."

I walk by, only slowing my steps long enough to take it all in, I step over his cane and keep walking. Behind my back I hear a man's voice: "Is everything okay? Can I help?"

Have I sinned against this man, against all of us, by not stopping? I'm quick to rationalize the decision: there isn't much I could do, even between the two of us, we wouldn't be able to move him, he seemed okay with where he was, not many people drive down this alley, there was still room for a car to pass. If the driver could see him.

My neighbors live close to disaster every day. They're out there on that edge: the man with blood running down his face, the woman with the bruised face and missing teeth, shoeless, shaking, crying out. In the morning I can hear voices from my window. It's hard to distinguish between ordinary street person fights and true desperation.

But there are are people who take the time to make that distinction. People who work in the free clinic, social workers, legal aid. I see them out here, too.

At the bus stop, a man with a black eye approaches me. I'm already steeling myself for the usual answer: I don't have anything for you. Is it a sin, my fear? My fear of knowing him, of knowing too well what he needs and my inability to provide it. Or worse - maybe I can give him what he needs, but I don't want to.

He introduces himself as Vince. He grew up here. He wants to ask me a question. Here it comes, I think.

"Do you really, truly believe that we landed on the moon?"

This is of great importance to him. He wants to know what I think. "Yes," I say. "Yes, I do." I don't go on to say it isn't a matter of belief. His face shows astonishment.

"Really?" He says, as I step onto the bus. "You really think that." I watch him as long as I can from the bus window. His hands are in his pockets and he's shaking his head.