Life can be pretty damn cruel to some of us. Maybe, for some, it strikes infrequently, while for others, it’s every damn day. From what I’ve observed, when life starts pounding a person every single day, it is opening the abyss, the rock bottom ending.
I’ve always been a little too sensitive when it comes to cruelty, be it human or other. My father kicked me out of the family room one night when I was a teenager because I couldn’t handle Platoon. It was that scene when the raged-out soldier shoots at the feet of a one-legged villager, forcing him to hop around in terror. That scene prompted in me an uncontrollable crying jag, out-loud weeping, so woeful that my dad told me to “get out,” to go upstairs and find something else to do. He never talked to me about that incident, just kinda acted like it never happened. Maybe I scared him. Hell, if one of my boys did that, I’d sure as hell be scared. But we’re living now in the age of mental illness, when parents are finally beginning to acknowledge potential problems in their kids and get them treated early. I think Dad was just dumbfounded, or annoyed. Who knows. Think I’ll ask the next time I talk to him.
Anyway, I once again thank Prozac for fending off my potential to go through life in a permanent state of bummed-out. It, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, have provided me with the serenity to function, even thrive. But I still dedicate a great deal of time observing and thinking about the neighborhood downtrodden.
There’s the white-haired man who lives in his car. He parks it in the afternoons in the Safeway lot. And if it’s a cold day, he keeps it running. I worry that the car will eventually give out from being run nonstop for such long stretches of time. I am not entirely sure he lives in his car, but all the signs seem to point to that. He’s always there, just reclining in the driver’s seat, with the radio on and the engine running. He wasn’t there tonight, though. I looked for him like I always do. No late-model silver Subaru sitting in a pool of its own coolant or whatever is dripping out of it from constant running. I admit I’m a little frightened. What can he do without that car?
The white-haired man is a new one on my radar. He seemed to emerge with a whole group of people with cardboard signs who have stationed themselves on all the busy medians in recent months, distracting me from the old guard:
There’s the prostitute who used to walk up and down the highway, and hang out in parking lots, smiling at everyone going by. She had a big, welcoming smile. Her features and her demeanor led me to believe that she might have been West African. For about a year, I watched her stroll about. She started out beautiful with her flawless coffee-colored skin and her dazzling smile and her bright, revealing little dresses. As time went on, her skin lost the glow, her hair matted up, and her smile started to look a little simple. Last time I saw her, she was jaywalking through traffic at a stopped intersection, her right breast hanging out of her top. I don’t think she noticed. I stopped seeing her around, and I like to think she found a better place to be, a safe place. But who knows?
And there’s the other lady who I also suspect to be West African (my metro area has the largest African population in the U.S.). She sits every day–in a long, black dress and a white cap—on a bench at the bus stop outside my gym. On hot summer days, she sits on the nearby bank under a tree. She’s there every day except when it’s raining or snowing. And she’s gone by evening. I don’t know where she goes. I hope she has a bed to go back to. She piles loaded shopping bags all around her. Once, I saw her speaking to I-don’t-know-who, maybe the cars going by. She was animated that day, looked like a preacher delivering a sermon. Most of the time, though, she doesn’t say a word to anyone, just watches them as they walk by or wait for their bus.
And I can’t forget the old couple, the one my neighbor got kicked out of the tent they had been living in behind the nearby Walmart. I can’t really begrudge my neighbor. There was an entire colony of homeless people and transients back there for awhile, and their trash was everywhere. What do you do when you don’t have sanitation facilities? Well, you know. My neighbor told me that the man had refused to go to a shelter, but his wife went. So they got split up. I have never seen them together. I used to call him “Homeless Santa” because he had a big white beard, and he wore so many layers of clothes that he looked kinda pudgy and wobbly. He wears a lot of fatigues, and a yellow bicycle helmet. He seemed to get a lot of his meals or coffee at the Wendy’s on the corner because I often saw him sitting there on the grass embankment by the parking lot. Then, sigh, the Wendy’s closed down to make room for more condos that we don’t need. I only see Homeless Santa once in a while now. Last time was in the pouring rain, he was just trudging down the sidewalk, bent over, definitely looking like the elements had taken their toll. He’s a tough old guy to live on the streets at his age. He must have been fierce when he was young. Somehow, he and his wife ended up living in a motel that got torn down to make way for more condos that we don’t need, and that was beginning of worse, the abyss.
His wife is a slight and lovely lady with long gray hair that she wears loose. She, too, wears a lot of layers, always dresses. Her presence is so unobtrusive that she can hang out in places where her husband can’t—Panera Bread, Starbucks, the Safeway.
I can’t help but wonder about this couple. I see a flower child and a Vietnam vet. I have nothing but speculation, but that’s what I see.
I heard recently that more Vietnam vets have committed suicide than actually died during the war. And I wasn’t surprised.
So these are a few of myhomeless, just a few. I call them mine because they are as much of a part of my neighborhood as the homeowners and the apartment dwellers and the Uber drivers. I knowthem. They just don’t know me. I don’t go and sit with the gray-haired lady when I see her in Panera. There are rules, unspoken rules about how we should interact with people who have fallen into the abyss. And I think those rules are there for our own emotional protection as much as they are to protect our delusion of personal safety. Life doesn’t get easier.
It’s only been about ten years since I would have admitted that my biggest fear, beyond spiders and torture and the like, was financial destitution. There were years when I could see it on the horizon. The whole pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps, self-made man bullshit is just that, bullshit. So many of us, of my peers, have done what we thought we were supposed to do—work hard or go to college, buy a house, get a credit card. And despite all that, some of them right now are on the verge of homelessness, of living in their cars.
So many desperate people are outside my window. I don’t know what to do with them at the moment because I’m still trying to secure my own future. So many of them just got buffeted with life’s cruel jabs and didn’t know how to fight back. It takes resources, savvy, a warrior mentality, and a whole lotta luck to make it to the end these days. No one is “blessed” as the vanity plates on gaudy Lincolns I see on the highway try to claim. Go on, tell the world you’re blessed. See what happens.
Addendum: There’s a new guy. He also has white hair, and he tries to be upbeat. He wears a fading t-shirt that says, “Normal People Scare Me.” We chatted about that t-shirt months ago, before it started to fade. I think I want to buy him a new one.