The problem with the homeless in San Francisco is that after awhile, the locals become almost immune to caring for them. When they’re zig-zagging the sidewalk like bug-eyed zombies screaming at an invisible dog, we nonchalantly turn up our I-pods and walk past them. When that crazy long haired dude who looks like Jesus flown over the cuckoo’s nest is trying to sell you roses, we politely say no—if we say anything at all.
Today began playing out like any other day as I got on the escalator, coming home from downtown. I saw the same black homeless man downstairs in front of the train station that I see almost everyday. Instinctively, I began to play dumb, looking busy so I’d be too distracted to “see him” as I rummaged through bags filled from my latest shopping spree. Before I could un-wrap a Mac turquoise eyeliner (that I may or may not ever use), something about the man caught my attention: Shuffling nervously, he went up to two other black men—tourists—who were struggling to get their LV decked luggage onto the escalator going up. He cleared his throat…tapped them on the shoulder.
The tourists crinkled their faces like they’d just stepped in dog shit. In front of them, the man was holding up a Street-Sheet. (It’s a monthly paper written by the homeless for the homeless to freely sell for a buck as an “alternative” to panhandling.)
“Street Sheet, brutha?” he asked them. “It’s our special poetry edition.”
The tourists, dressed in ironed polos, black shades, and flecks of silver shining from their necks, swatted at him as if he were a horse-fly in the kitchen. “Nah man, get away,” they thwarted.
“It…it’s only a buck,” he choked at them, clutching lamely at the paper.
The men became angry. They’d just gotten their suitcases on the stairs, and we began to cross each other; me going down, them going up. “Man, get away! Don’t ask me again if I already told your broke-ass no!” “Yeah, man, get your raggedy-ass a real job!”
Their reaction seemed to sting the “bum.” And then, it occurred to me that in all the years I’ve seen him, I didn’t know this man’s story at all; What if he’d had everything at once, and lost it all in one streak of bad luck? Maybe he’d gotten the pink slip from his kindergarten teaching class, and his wife and kids took off with a richer man after the house foreclosed. Without a clean shower, interview clothes, and a legit address to reference, it’d become harder and harder to pull himself back up…and now here he was. I didn’t know this man’s life but what I did know was that he had probably seen himself in those men—with their fancy luggage, polished leather shoes, and Ray-bans, no less. He saw probably what he could’ve been, and maybe who he wanted to be. But the tourists, same skin color or not, did not see themselves in the bum at all. If they had, it repulsed them.
Hollering “stupid-ass bum” and “raggedy-ass motherfucker” all the way to the top, the men’s bodies grew smaller against the backdrop of towering buildings until they disappeared completely out of sight.
I felt terrible as I dragged off the escalator. While people around had gawked and stared, no one made a single gesture of empathy. And then, everything carried on as it was before: Tourists poured out of the station, unfolding their maps and squinting up at the sky; a flock of teens lit up a blunt; a clique of girls smacked me out of their way with their Forever 21 bags.
I couldn’t get just leave and get on the train though. I knew I had to do something. (I wouldn’t leave someone abandoned on the side of the street who’d just gotten hit by a car—how could I leave someone who’d just been emotionally run over?)
Reaching in my purse, I tapped the homeless man on the shoulder.
He turned around quickly, not meeting my eyes. I wondered if they had tears in them. I handed him a five-dollar bill—it was the only money I had, and it was supposed to be my Bart fare home.
As I waited for my good Samaritan-ness to be rewarded with a filling look of gratitude in his eyes, I was stunned instead, that the man snatched the bill out of my hand and pocketed it without even a thank you. When his eyes finally looked into mine, I flinched away like a bird with a wounded wing. His soul seemed to have vanished. His black eyes were hollow—no feeling or emotion attached—and the only thing that made him human was the jittery twitches of his body. He was a dead man walking, his entire livelihood sold to nothing more than his daily fixes of crack or heroin.
As quickly as I’d given him the money, he was gone.
Suddenly, the reality of what I’d done kicked in: I’d just assed myself out of a train ride home!
I fought with some rowdy kids and a lady with a stroller to “sneak” on the back of the bus. The driver rolled her eyes at us, and mouthed what looked like “sons-of bitches” under her breath. My no-hassle 10-minute train ride home had turned into a 45-minute trek across town—and, of course, I picked the aisle seat next to some girl yelling at her boyfriend the entire time that he was “hella stupid” for not calling her back last night.
When I finally got home, I must’ve chugged an entire beer down in one standing. The buzz went straight to my head, smoothing out those rough edges almost instantly. I played Scrabble on my I-phone and dug through my shopping spree purchases, while nibbling on leftover pizza from last night’s delivery. Back to my perky self in no time and buzzed off Blue Moon, I thought back on my deed of the day. And that’s when I realized, who was I to judge anyone on how to get their fix?
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