A few days later I saw the young vet in the wheelchair again (see the post below for more). He was crossing Third Avenue, being pushed by a friend, and they were milling about in the ongoing melee known as the Third & Pike bus stop. I'm pulling in, cruising up to the head of the zone. Nowhere near these guys. There's somewhere in the undulating crowd, and I'm jumping outside my bus now, looking for them. Three seconds. A snatch of recognition here and there. My curiosity is compelling me forward: did he make it to the showers? Is he okay now? Five seconds. I want to see peace on his face. Six seconds; there they are. I sprint over to them.
He looks up.
"Did you make it to Urban Rest Stop that one day? Remember, the..."
"What? Oh. Yeah."
"Nice. I jus' wanted to make sure everything worked out."
"Yeah, it worked," he muttered, avoiding eye contact. "Thanks."
Maybe he was embarrassed. Or stressed. They moved on.
Thirteen seconds; I'm back on the 70, driving away. Later on, after my shift, I was at Med Mix in the Central District with a friend for dinner. Outside the establishment was a man in a wheelchair, asking the patrons for handouts. I greeted him, made friendly but noncommittal remarks when he asked me for chicken, and went inside. After a time I bought him a cookie and went out to give it to him. He was enjoying a plate of somebody's leftover chicken.
"Hey, this is for you," I said, handing him the cookie.
He looked at it before saying, "aw man, couldn't you get me no chicken?"
"You got chicken right there, dog. This is dessert. That's dinner, and this is dessert."
"Hey. You got any money I could go buy some chicken?"
"I got cookies, is what I got. I'm the dessert guy. Gotta keep this meal balanced, my friend. Food Pyramid, bro. This one's for you."
"Okay. Okay. Alright."
"You have a good rest of the night now."
Later on he waved at us through the window as he left for the evening- peace, two fingers- his only gesture of thanks.
Now, there's something about the lack of gratitude in these two incidents that I actually like. For a time I couldn't put my finger on it. There was a coldness to it that felt in accordance with what Joyce calls the "vast indifferent dome-" the ruthlessly impartial world we live in. It was as if these men knew the helpful attitude I was offering does not- should not- deserve praise. In a model universe, it should be the default norm for human interaction. In their silence, they were telling me this. They didn't have to thank me; I was behaving as one human ought to toward another. Only in the shortage of such do we feel the need to be grateful.
Of course I like being thanked. Don't get me wrong. I love it. It's more than a heartening or flattering sensation. I'll be vitalized because the person thanking me is likely experiencing their version of what I feel when someone is kind to me- that warm sense of belonging, of acknowledgement. It isn't about transfers or directions or free rides; we know those aren't really the things that excite people. It's about the gesture, or lack thereof. You didn't have to help that lady up the stairs, or nod at the thug getting on your bus, but you did. Respect.
The notion of having a place in this world, of having your value recognized; the assertion of an equal plane, and the idea that you and I both exist on it. I imagine they're happy not because they think I'm a good person, but rather because of the generous, enveloping sensation that acknowledgement brings. Sharing in this energizes me greatly. When people are grateful, yes, I melt.
But there was a buried wisdom in these two men's silences, and it gave me pause. What I am doing is not so worthy of acclaim. Ideally, it should not be remarkable. If anything, their attitude was one with a perverse optimism: they were acting as if people are selflessly generous to each other all the time, and that, well, this was just no big deal since it happens constantly. I'm not out here to garner thanks, though I'm galvanized and rejuvenated by it. The good energy you put out there comes back tenfold, in many ways; but that's not why you put it out there.
I'm reminded of what the great operator Ernie L once said to me- "I greet every single passenger. It doesn't matter if they don't respond. What matters is that I put myself out there. I accomplished that."
Active, not reactive.