Tonight I'm with friends. We're looking for someplace to have a drink, and when a man says Excuse me, in a polite voice, we stop. Without thinking twice, we stop and turn our attention on him.
Can you help me, he says. He gives us his name. He says he's from Alabama. Are you lost, we ask. Lost is the least of it, yes, you could say I'm lost. All of this preamble shifts the tone. Urban suspicions on the alert. He keeps starting and stopping, playing it out. I watch the line of his cheekbone. He is playing the part of Exhausted, annoyed with himself, proud and humiliated by the situation. He says he needs to get to Pittsburg on BART. We give him another chance, ready to tell him how to get there. I know how to get there, he almost yells. I want to clap. We're getting the whole show.
Just tell us what you need, we finally say. He lets out a groan. I don't have the money.
I don't have to look, I can hear the disappointment turning my friends' faces blank. In a flat voice, D asks how much. Six dollars and fifty-five cents, he says. My name is XXX, I'm from Alabama. I can give you my email address and return the money.
His props are better than the other guy's. Bluetooth headset. Smart phone showing a map. Handwritten notes, of course. How much for a cab.
We don't have anything, we start to say, but then I see my friends pulling out their wallets. I give in to peer pressure and dig some laundry quarters out. D finally just gives him six dollars. I can give you my email, he starts to say. He sounds angry. We turn away and start walking.
We're quiet for a few steps. I tell them I know this scam. J tells about someone who tried it on him every day. He'd say You already tried this on me yesterday, and the guy would just say, Oh. Oh, and move on to the next mark.
D says, Why don't I feel better? I gave him six dollars, and I just feel worse.
I know what he means. I don't like being played. And with these specific markers. The implication being that people will help someone who already has money. Someone who is just in a temporary tight spot, through no fault of his own. We can imagine such a thing happening to us.
But we can't imagine ourselves homeless. We can't, or we daren't. I live surrounded by people who have fallen off the edge, and it becomes harder every day to see the sharp lines between them and me. I used to live a thin four miles from here, but it was a different planet. I was insulated from these alien creatures who rub up against me now. I didn't see them. If I thought about them at all, it was in abstract terms.
Abstraction is no longer possible. So I come back to this again and again. What does it mean? What do I do with this? Is there a way to push through, to find the common heart that beats for the guy with the Bluetooth headset and beats for me? Could I fly past my own fear to learn his actual story?
I come back to this again, and again I feel I'm no closer to an answer.