People will surprise you. They'll prove themselves toward a quality or a strength you may not have thought them capable of. It doesn't happen all the time, but it happens often enough for a pattern to emerge: give somebody time, respect, geniality, or space, and they'll reveal volumes. It may be the help they give you, their heretofore concealed courage, some quality they haven't had occasion to show before.
I was wrapping up my break at the U District terminal. A still night, empty, where each word meant a little more. Marcus tapped on my door just as I opened it.
"Nathan, can I please get on early. It's cold out here and I'm feeling sick, man."
"Oh hey Marcus. Sure thing."
"Thanks." He swaggered in, tall, a brown hooded jacket over another brown hooded jacket, the heavy outdoor gear, big backpack and garbage bags a contrast to his wire-frame spectacles and gruffly companionable self. 'Hey, what do you do for sickness? What's the Asian remedy, Nate? I got to know."
"Uh," I said. "Water's good."
"Cain't do that, makes ya pee."
"You got a cold or something, the flu?"
"I don't know what I got. People coughin',"
"Yeah, you don't know what's goin' around. A number of folks I know got colds, it might just be a bad cold."
"It is. I can't handle it though," he said, in a rare moment of non-masculine frailty. "My body's achin', my legs,"
"That's awful, man! I'm tellin' you, water, it's good for the joints, flushes out the system…"
"Gotta drink a whole lotta that. Hey Nathan, take your time gettin' down there. 'Cause I wanna catch the 1:08 5. Don't wanna sit out there forever."
"Man. I love that! No one tells me to take my time! They're always saying hurry yourself up!"
"I will happily take my sweet time."
"Stop and get a Dick's burger." He reached in his bag and said, "here."
The knit cap still had the price tag on it, and rested-factory-flat in my hand. I took the proffered item, saying, "are you giving me this hat? This thing's brand new!"
He reached in again and handed me a bag of new wool socks.
"Marcus, are you sure? I got socks…."
"That's alright, I got 'em too. I tell you what, pick my bag up."
It was the size of a small child, and weighed more. I hoisted it with a burst of energy. "That's a beast!"
"That's all clothes."
"Marcus, you are hooked up!"
"Yeah, I'm hooked up. And I'm tired. Tired and sick..."
"I'll take the hat."
"Naw, take the socks too."
You serious? Thanks, man! I wish I had food or something tonight,"
"Don't worry 'bout that. I got that too."
He spoke a little more about how important socks can be, how fresh a new pair feels if your shoes are wet. In certain countries the gift of food is important, a given gesture of some size, and you accept it whether you're hungry or not. It means something. You don't turn down that goodwill. I think Marcus knows I already have socks and hats aplenty. He was giving me something larger, more important. Despite his assurances I knew he was in far greater want of clothing than I; but he needed to express his gratitude, and his brusque demeanor didn't allow for that to happen in words. His love spoke through the language of gift-giving, and I wanted him to know I heard him. We carried on at the leisurely pace he specified, my favorite. I left the lights off; just he and I drifting through an abandoned city.
"Merry Christmas," I said after a while. I'd almost forgotten what day it was.
"Merry Christmas," he replied, a softer voice now, distant and pleasant in the land of half-slumber.
Again, my dearest apologies for the intolerably intermittent posts this holiday season. My lack of posts on the blog has been due to... feverishly working on the blog!
You may know I've been searching and hustling away for an literary agent in New York to represent the book form of this blog. After years of writing, querying, revising, hoping, dreaming, and writing some more... I'm thrilled to finally announce I've just signed with one!!
It's an honor to be represented by Eric Myers of Myers Literary. Pardon me while I pinch myself! His esteemed career involves the Spieler Agency, Dystel & Goderich Literary Management, and now his own Myers Literary, as well as being a feature film publicist and (and!) an author himself.
Mensch barely begins to cover it.
Turning this book into a blog isn't a mere pet project of mine, but a dream readers have been bringing up for years. The feedback I get is about more than enjoying a piece of writing or a funny story. People will tell me the internet is an interesting place, an important place, a diverting place... but it tends not to be a happy place. You don't go online to feel better about people.
I can sense an urgency in the voices sometimes: there is a need now, in our post-2016 Trumpy world, to celebrate true stories of goodwill, human kindness, respect and love... especially amongst and toward the underserved. Things were different two years ago; we are no longer headed where we were. Today most of the country has been demoted to second-class citizenry, whether along gender, income or racial lines. There's a truth that needs to be kept alive through this period. We risk the very goodness of ourselves and our possibilities otherwise.
Please share this blog around. Doing so increases (dramatically!) its chances of being realized in book form. More importantly, it also might bring someone up at just the moment they need it– not because I'm in the stories, of course, but because they're a document of what people in the early 21st century sounded like, looked like, and talked like... when they were good to each other.
Thanks for reading!
Here they come, as old and new as the wash of time. I'm often struck by the degree to which young people try to be interchangeable– especially visually. The hippie movement was in many ways a rebellion against stultifying bourgeois values, whereupon thousands of youngsters took a radicalized stand against homogeneity by...
Dressing, talking and looking exactly like each other!
Bless their cute little hearts. It's a natural impulse in the clawing search for identity, but the fact is there's a line past which rebelling becomes conformist. When everybody's sagging their oversized pants, bragging about stealing, chewing gum in class, wearing their hats sideways, leaving shoes untied, trying drugs, exploring eating disorders and worse– as they did at my high school– the original intent behind the actions begins to lose currency.
There's a point at which sagging your Jnco's and skipping class becomes downright bourgeois (or better yet: "so boozhy"), and getting called into the principal's office becomes, to use the parlance of our times, "so basic." The truly radical thing to do is to recognize a society's structures and maximize them, maybe bend them toward something better, walking out of class with good grades and pants that actually fit. Breaking the pattern and fitting in are not supposed to be the same thing. Teenagers near and far: if getting the rebel bug out of your system involves trying really hard to be like everyone around you, please do so, but recognize you're not rebelling so much as subsuming your own identity for a group think-tank that may not actually care about you.
Here they come now, a roving pattern, a pack of young souls calculated to look strong, emotionless, threatening: vestiges of a biological survivalist impulse no longer necessary. Or at least that's what I'm thinking. It's dinnertime on a Tuesday, guys, not the Aleutian Islands or Congo River Basin.
But maybe I'm wrong, and their guarded gait is exactly what's most appropriate in the neighborhood's fading ghetto twilight. When no one's waiting at home and half-drunk dealers want your attention, maybe this is the chance to be part of something, to feel safe. Putting up walls can be a good idea when there's not enough love to go around. You want to at least look whole.
They were dressed in the shapes and colors we expect to see on this side of town. Red, stripes, laces, athletic logos, unzipped outerwear, hoods pulled up, sleeves pulled down... a many-legged beast of seven or eight pacing leisurely, life's best imitation of slow motion, crossing from the High School to take over an abandoned storefront parking lot opposite.
They took no notice of the overturned shopping carts or drained liquor bottles, or the Sheriff SUV a little ways outside their path, parked and idling in the otherwise empty lot. They took no notice...
I looked up again. One of them had broken from the formation. A young man, tall in a grey pullover hoodie and Adidas tracksuit, African-American like his friends, approached the Sheriff van alone. He waved and stood by the driver's side door; a burly white face within rolled down the window.
It happened quickly.
I couldn't hear them, but saw the voices in their body language. The young man leaning in and waving with an upward nod, extending his arm now, offering a handshake. The officer smiling in pleasant surprise, taking the proffered hand with his own, a nod and one firm shake, up and down. That was all. Then the boy walked away, catching up with his friends.
Sometimes a single spoken sentence can change a whole room. That's the effect the the young man's handshake had on the parking lot.
He made it a nice place to be.
I'll never know his precise motivations. Maybe he wanted to take the first step in emphasizing good relations with white cops. Maybe he knew the man, although based on body language that seemed unlikely. Maybe he wanted to introduce himself on friendly terms, offering a token gesture of goodwill that de-vilified both sides; or perhaps an uncomplicated but overwhelming urge to be nice, to reach out. I don't know.
The real point is that he was breaking from the pattern. His friends didn't appear into his behavior. It looked like he had to explain himself. I wonder what he said. I hope they understood about values beyond coolness, beyond the narrow confines of group mentality; notions of a positive difference, the longer term. Standing up for what you really think.
Change starts with intrepid moments like that.
*I was so inspired by the young man's hello that I later on extended the same thankful hello to the same Sheriff. It's something I've wanted to do, but I'm not brave enough. What force of personality that boy had, and what courage. I've got no excuse. In a total copycat move, I waited as long as I could and then walked over. "Nothing's going on," I reassured his mildly confused and surprised self. "I just wanted to say thanks for all the good work you do." Hopefully he was pleasantly flummoxed by the random goodwill being thrown his way, as in: two people on the same night? What gives?
You want to give them a reason to believe.
Traffic was crawling. Of course it was. From the moment the southbound express lanes close at 10:45 A.M. until the end of evening rush, I-5 south moves at a crawl. Michael Crichton once wrote that if aliens landed in Los Angeles, they'd think automobiles were the dominant life form; the cars here approach the city center slowly, as if a funerary procession, an act too reverential to speed up. We pay our respects to downtown, coming in from the outside with a sense of stately gravitas and wonder.
Which means there's plenty of time to have a conversation. If driverless cars and predictable travel times ever really do take off, over-trafficked corridors like this one will become oddly attractive. You'll have that much more time to fix your makeup, Skype with the relatives, get a nap in….
For now, chatting with my fellow colleague will do. An energetic and strong-willed mother of two who radiates positivity, I benefit from listening to her.
"I like your blog because you understand this," she was saying, referring to the impermanent nature of homelessness. Basically nobody's homeless their whole lives, after all. "Suffering as a phase."
"I like to share another angle of looking at these you know, 'tough subjects.' "
"Yeah," she replied. "Are they really tough subjects though?"
" 'Cause if someone that people think is a drug addict, might just be going through a lot of pain,"
"And it's a short term solution,"
"Or, if they're in pain and they don't have food,"
"And they haven't slept, their mental ability…"
"Exactly. They're going to look like a drug–"
"Yeah. And in those conditions can we really expect them to be on their best behavior?"
"Totally. No way," she nodded, adding, "if they have that perfect storm of no food, no place to go, and no hope,"
"Oh I love how succinctly you phrase that. The perfect storm, those three."
"Yeah. Can we really expect them to…"
"Of course not, gimme a break!"
I'm so grateful for reminders like this. I need them. Being positive in the realms of contemporary urban life is a decision I have to sign up for every single day. I've written about how compassion is disproportionately visible on the street, that respect has so much currency out here, that love reverberates and comes back in spades. All that is true, but it doesn't mean there's none of the opposite. The selfish apathy of survival can be galling, and the destruction– self-inflicted or otherwise– of what were once promising lives, the ugliness of despair manifest as hate, anger, fear… these are out here too, and sometimes I get disappointed by them. It's a duty to give love out to the world without expecting it back, but it can feel thankless.
I need the reminder, that we generally see only what we're looking for. That the negative energy lobbed in our direction is never about us but instead a ripple of their own life problems; and that the positive energy shared, conversely, usually is about us, it being a reaction to something we've done. I need the reminder that we effect positive growth not sweepingly but one person at a time, through the incredible impact of a single, respectful exchange. You bring out the good in people when you make them feel human again, and loved. That's the importance of being nice to this face. And this one, and this one and this one….
In your mirror they remember their better angels.
Photo by Tim Willis.
In case you missed the NPR interview through KNKX, here it is! Just under ten minutes total:
Finding Humanity On A Public Bus, by Jennifer Wing. Interview by Gabriel Spitzer. Once again, an enormous thank you to both those fine luminaries for making this happen.
And thank you for listening!
He was asking if I turn into the 7. I explained the details, and he listened with those crystal blue eyes of his. They shined through the grime and matted grease of his disheveled exterior like pearls; never mind the life-encrusted Raiders jacket or the jeans, starched and shredded, and not from fashion. "Thank you, sir," he said, politely. The contrast between appearance and voice was a surprise. I was further taken aback by his farewell: a mellow voice, the kind you had to strain to listen to. "You have a beautiful night."
Beautiful isn't a term you hear often in street parlance.
Such politeness. It wasn't the first time a street person has been polite to me (as readers of this blog know only too well*); respect has enormous currency out here, and it reciprocates easily. It wasn't the first time, but it was the right time. Did he know he was balancing out the universe for me, reminding me there is always a lighter half?
He couldn't have known that only an hour earlier I'd been berated by a man in a very different mental headspace. This fellow was also on the down and out spectrum, but he'd set the humanity I'm sure he has aside in favor of a different approach: he wanted to be in the U District, and was furious that we were in the U District. Somewhere in there it all made sense. He stomped off with the tantrum of a child's temper, the frustration we hide behind when we know it's our fault. I hope he figures out his story.
But here's this other guy now, still a twinkle in those silvered-out baby blues, like some sort of messenger from the universe, reminding me of the great bus driving balance of things, a balance one veteran operator long ago amusingly summed up to me as:
"There'll always be somebody who loves you, somebody who hates you, and somebody who wants to know how to get to Everett!"
*New to the blog? Welcome! Here's a quick "greatest hits" overview with links and highlights.