THERE IS A MAN who sits near the pumps at the gas station I drive by each day. The man is very obviously from somewhere else and has about him a certain look—the meek, awestruck eyes, the apprehensive gestures—that indicts him as someone who speaks little if any English. A stranger.
He remains respectfully distant from the customers—who incessantly fill their tanks, like bees returning to the nest before heeding the urgency of their instinctual obligations—but near enough to the action to remain in plain view. He sells flowers. Actually, he doesn’t seem to sell anything; he pretty much sits there, on an upturned milk crate, often from early morning until well in the evening, after the rest of the weary warriors have commuted past him, home from work and their worries of the wicked world. He silently plies his wares, content to play his part in the charade: he is not accomplishing much, he is begging, and the milk crate and collection of fading flowers at his feet communicate an inexpressible anguish. Please help me, his unscrubbed face, his unlaced sneakers, his oversized slacks, his filthy, fidgeting fingers—everything but his voice—all ask, saying what he cannot, and will not, say for himself.
Hey brother, can you spare a life, the woman moving past me does not say.
I’m in too much of a hurry to stop (like always, like everyone else getting on and off the subway), but there is something so familiar about her that I’m compelled, despite everything I’ve learned, to pause and look back: she is still there, off to the side, shabbily clad, immediately recognizable by her contrast to everyone around her; she wants to approach one of these businessmen, but all of them are walking too fast, too deliberately, too purposefully. Getting from Point A to Point B so we can get paid.
Automatically, the doors move aside and sweltering air earnestly greets everyone headed its way. It takes about five seconds (as always) to feel the heat and then the money dread: if it weren’t for the money, it wouldn’t take much—in a strange city, lost, alone. Broke. That’s how shit like starvation and sleeping on grates gets started. Quiet in the corners, huddled under bridges, working the frenzied crowd for a friendly face, hoping for the handout that never comes.
I don’t have any lives to spare, but I’ll dig deeper and give ‘til it hurts.
This hurts me more than it hurts you, I don’t say.
Who was he?
I think the same question each time I see him (once a week, sometimes more, occasionally double-shifts: the same man in the same spot, holding the same sign that tells everyone who he is, now—prompting the question: who did he used to be, at some point in the past?) at the intersection he has stood at for several months now. The cardboard sign he holds both question and answer: Homeless veteran (the explanation), can you put some pocket change in this plastic cup (the question). The sign says he is a veteran. Okay. And even if he isn’t actually a veteran, he has been homeless long enough to be a veteran; or if he is not actually homeless, he has been acting the part long enough to earn the title. Either way, it is time for a promotion.
And so, I think, this is the problem with the homeless problem: it wasn’t (some of us learn—too late) the ones who hustled or even approached you who were down and out; they were the ardent ones, half the time they weren’t even homeless; it is the ones you never see, even when they’re sprawled on the concrete right beside you, the ones who are down, the ones who are out, the ones who have nothing to ask for, nothing to say, nothing to do except wait, sit it out until time or the whiter man’s burden delivers them that eventual, inevitable verdict. It was the ones you could afford not to be afraid of, the ones who could not even hurt themselves, because they’d already dug as deep inside as their ashen fingers could reach, the ones too dead to tear out their hearts, but not dead enough to unloose their souls, the ones who learned (too late) that death was only impatient for the fools who failed to acknowledge it, it had all the time in the world for those who the world owed nothing except the decency of an overdue release.
Could that be me?
A primal foreboding, an ancient fear. Who knew how it happened, who could make sense of it? And yet. These people do not wake up one random morning, on the streets and out of their minds. Or do they? If you believed the signs the man on the corner held, the government did this to him—and could do it to anyone else: that was his message, his mission.
The problem with the homeless problem is that these people who don’t see you and can’t see themselves are all chasing something they can no longer name: memories. Or, even worse, it is the memories that are chasing them, speaking in tongues they long ago ceased to understand.
Newark Airport. That shithole. A place has to be exceptionally beautiful, appalling, or incomprehensibly pointless in order to be easily remembered years after a brief visit.
When I was a kid, (I couldn’t have been much older than ten) my father and I had a layover in Newark Airport. Even then, I was perceptive enough to understand that this was no place I ever needed to return voluntarily.
An unassuming older man (at any rate, he was noticeably older than my old man, which made him old) sat in one of those impossibly plain plastic chairs, with his pants leg rolled up. It wasn’t until we got closer that I realized two things: he was alone, and he was scratching at a series of scabs on his shin. For some reason he looked our way at the moment we passed him, and after sizing us up, he stood and amiably approached my father.
“Sir, did you need someone to help you and your son carry your bags?”
“No thanks, we’re okay,” my pops replied, looking ahead and picking up the pace.
The man was persistent. In the space of fifteen seconds—my father denied him three times—my emotions slid from the appreciation of possibly having someone carry my suitcase for me, to the vague, uneasy suspicion that my father was being somehow rude, a jerk, to the unsettling awareness of recognition. I sensed something I’d seen plenty of, but never before in any person older than myself: fear. I saw it in his eyes, and felt it in my insides.
As we walked away my old man waited until we were at a charitable distance, then looked at me meaningfully and offered the somber assertion: That’s as low as you can go. I asked him to elaborate, as was my style, and he was either unwilling or unable to add anything to his observation, as was his style. It wasn’t that I didn’t understand what my father was saying, I understood him perfectly. It was because I understood him that I needed him to say more, to talk to me a little longer about it, about anything, anything to interrupt that silence and the sudden thoughts that accompanied it.
It’s easy to believe that people like this exist for our sakes: they are dying lessons on how not to live, warnings of what could happen if you weren’t careful and found yourself scratching at scabs in the world’s ugliest airport. Or enlist, get used up and ask not what your country can do for you, because you’ve already received the answer. We forget, or we don’t allow ourselves to entertain the idea, that these people have histories; that these shadows and signposts don’t happen to serve a purpose for anyone else; they were once actual people themselves.
I realize, now, my father was wrong about one thing. That’s not as low as you can go. You can go lower, a whole lot lower. But perhaps it’s more disturbing to see the ones that are on the way down, it’s somehow easier to accept the ones at the bottom of the ocean; it’s the ones who are sinking, who are still within reach, who are drowning noisily in front of you, who sometimes have the temerity to ask you to hold out a hand. These are the ones we can scarcely tolerate, because every so often we look at them and see ourselves.