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27 October, 2010

Bacon & Eggs

I don't know his name. But I know that he likes bacon and eggs. The reason that I know this is because I asked him what he likes. That, in and of itself, is an out-of-the-ordinary interaction; probably for him, as well as for me.

The story begins over two years ago, actually. And has nothing to do with this man. But it does pertain to the corner on which he stands: Rainier & Dearborn, in Seattle. Every day for nearly three years, I have driven past that corner on my way to work. Most of the time, the traffic light at the intersection is red, which means that I spend a minute or two idling there. As a result, I have become very familiar with the corner. One fixture of the corner was the homeless man who stood there every day. He had scraggly, grey hair, on which he usually work a stocking hat. His face was tanned, and deeply creased, and he had a unkempt beard. He looked like he was of Scandinavian origin, and I imagined him as a fisherman. His hands, gnarled-looking, were adorned with a variety of rings. One of his most notable behavioral traits is that he would wave to passing cars by flapping the fingers of his gnarled hand, as opposed to waving with the entire hand from the wrist. It was as if it would be too much effort to do it from the wrist. He seemed tired and worn out, and he walked with a slow shuffle. It's really hard to say how old he was, but if I were to take the median of the oldest he could be if he'd lived a normal life (60) and the youngest he could be, presuming a hard life (45), that would probably put him in his mid-50s.

I always felt like I should be doing something for this man.

But I never did. On one occasion, I think I gave him a banana. But the kinds of thoughts that ran through my head were crazy ideas of bringing him to my home, and giving him a shower, and making him dinner, and asking him to tell me his story. I am incredibly fascinated with how it is that people become homeless. And I realize that my morbid curiosity is not a good reason for generosity. But I just didn't understand the transition. I guess what I really wanted to know was whether there was ever a time where things were better? Was there a normal childhood, from which one could never have foretold the future on the street? Of course, I think the likely reality is that it's a mixture of all imaginable possibilities. There are people who never had a chance from the beginning, with broken childhoods. There are people who were okay up to a point, and then mental illness unraveled their world. There are people for whom drugs or alcohol pulled them from a normal life, and gradually deteriorated their world until they could no longer maintain the lives they previously had. And there are people who, through economic or situational misfortune such as losing a job, debt, or other circumstances, were no longer able to make ends meet. There are likely other scenarios that I have not imagined.

But passing this man each day, I wondered what his story was.

One day, driving to work, I noticed that he was gone. And he never returned. I do not know, and may never know what happened to him. Much as there are myriad possibilities of his history, there are also numerous possible explanations for his disappearance; some pleasant, but most not. It would be nice to think that his situation improved, and that he was no longer homeless. Perhaps he received medical care, and then settled into housing that provided a better life. Perhaps more likely, events led to him taking up residence at a new corner in some other part of the city. But the darker thought is that his disappearance from that corner, where he was seemingly a permanent fixture, corresponded with his disappearance from the world.

I never even knew his name. I never asked. He was a person who was, to me, defined by a location, an appearance, and a situation.

The corner was "for rent," so to speak, for many months after that. There would be a variety of people who might appear, and sometimes the corner was vacant. In some ways, it is not dissimilar to when any establishment goes out of business. But, being a viable venue, eventually someone new comes along and takes up residence.

A few weeks ago, I approached the intersection, and saw a new person at the corner. It was a bright, sunshiny morning, and I was wearing sunglasses. The man was holding a cardboard sign that said something to the effect of "Peace. Love. Anything Helps," or some such typical message. He looked at me, safe behind the tinted windshield of a brand-new car, for which I momentarily felt a little bit of shame. He nodded to me. I nodded to him. But the impassive appearance of my sunglasses undoubtedly gave the impression that I had not acknowledged him. He continued looking at me, and I looked away, because it felt a little uncomfortable, for no good reason.

He walked over to his pile of belongings, and put down his sign, picking up another in its place. The new sign said "Mean People Suck," and he walked toward my car holding this sign, and waving it at me, while nodding his head. Of course, this I did not acknowledge. I felt uncomfortable. I was the mean person. And I sucked. And a fair part of me believed he was right.

The next time I approached the intersection, days later (I've been traveling a lot lately, so missing many days of this corner), I was not wearing sunglasses, and I made sure to fully acknowledge him with more than one nod, and a wave, and a smile. He returned the gesture. I am not even sure if he knew I was the same person, but it really doesn't matter. It felt better.

Last week, I arrived back in town from a trip, and was riding a taxi home from the airport, in the morning. The taxi approached the intersection. We stopped at the traffic light. He was standing on the corner, but on the opposite side of the street from usual. From the back of the taxi, I nodded to him, and he nodded to me. Still no idea if he's identified me as the same person, or if it's three different people, or nobody, in his mind. He's big on eye contact, so there are multiple exchanged glances, again almost to the point that I'm feeling uncomfortable. What I never stopped to wonder (until now) is that maybe he feels uncomfortable too. He speaks to me through the closed window of the taxi (without approaching). He says, "Don't look at my lip!" I gestured that I didn't know why he was saying that, but then I noticed that his lip was split. He says, "I got this from standing over there [pointing at his usual spot], so now I'm standing over here." It would appear that the guy on the other corner had battled him for the spot, and won. The politics and economics of panhandling. Is it first-come, first-serve? Or do people "own" a corner? Things I have never pondered. Until now.

Yesterday, I approached the intersection on my way to work. He was back in his usual spot (first-come, first-serve?) and I did the wave and the nod, which he reciprocated. Then something came over me that made me feel I needed to say more. His story from the taxi cab morning somehow gave me enough of a sense of him, perhaps, that he's now "someone I know," and I just had to say something this time. So I roll down the window, with no plan, and I say something stupid like "Looks like winter's here, huh?" He replies in agreement, and then informs me that it's been tough, but that he's happy because someone gave him a V8 and a cookie. And that he just wants some food. Again, without planning, the words that come out of my mouth, "Well, what do you like?" This took him a bit by surprise. "What do I like? I like bacon and eggs!" He said this with a bit of a laugh. "I'd like to just have a hot meal." He goes on to tell me (all in the span of the brief traffic light cycle) that he used to be able to go over to a place under I-5 where they would cook meals for people, but recently the Department of Health closed it down. And then the light turned green, and our conversation was over.

My entire morning, and day, and most of the time since then, my mind keeps coming back to the question of how it is that I'm going to give this man bacon and eggs. Because I asked him what he liked. I now know more about him than I ever imagined I would know. I have invited myself into his world, in a tiny, but undeniable way.

Bacon and eggs.

What's your name, sir?

19 October, 2010

The mirror

I think it would be fair to say that I do a lot of "projection." Enough so that I am not really sure even how much. Sometimes I catch myself doing it. But if you catch your cat digging in the potted plants, you can be damn sure that it's happening 20 times for every time you actually see the cat doing it. That's what alarms me. And there are a million reasons why it alarms me. Some of them are just plain paranoia, but others amount to something substantive about my perception of the world around me, and my place in it.

Let me give you an example.

Every time I go home to visit my friends from Boston, I always have a great time. These guys have made different choices than I've made in life. They've all got families, children, and live in the suburbs of the city where we grew up. In spite of the different path we've chosen, the connection is still there. And it feels like, essentially, we are the same people whom we've always been. That's not to say we haven't evolved. But just that we have not morphed into unrecognizable individuals.

But every time I go home, I experience the same anxiety. I think a series of thoughts...

They must think I'm crazy
They must think I'm a freak
They must wonder what my problem is
They must think it's pathetic that I can't keep a relationship
They must think I'm the kind of person who could never settle down
They must think I'm very unstable
They must think I'm inconsistent
They must think I am living an immature existence like some sort of teenager

The list goes on. With the central theme being "Things They Must Think."

But when I visit with them, I don't hear questions like that. I don't hear "What are you going to settle down?" or "How come you can't just pick something and stick with it like we did?"

What I hear is "How are things going with the band?" or "Are you seeing anyone new?" or "Do you still like living in Seattle?"

And occasionally, a comment comes at total odds with my inner talk: "We're living vicariously through you."

And it makes me stop and realize that the things "They Must Think" are not the things they think. Rather, they're the things I fear about my own life. Projected onto the people whose approval and respect I want. Sure, they know I'm different and maybe a bit eccentric, and unconventional. But, by and large, they look at it as something exciting. Because, in spite of the fact that they all seem to be happy with their choices, there's something interesting about still having so many questions unanswered, as I seem to have.

The real issue for me is the question of why I fear these things so much in myself. Obviously it's got to do with self-acceptance. On the one hand, I should be glad that I'm at least willing to make the choices that work for me. But it would be so much easier if I could go the extra step of accepting the choices I've made, rather than constantly beating myself up with a measuring stick.