I was trying to clarify the situation. He was asking directions.
"I don't know," he replied, struggling to stay upright, clutching his cane for dear life. I'm sure he was able-bodied once, in his younger days. "It's my first time doin' this."
He was an older African-American gentleman asking for the Downtown Emergency Service Center (DESC). Homelessness is not a permanent state, and he was brand new at it. All the chaos on the sidewalk was utterly foreign to him, and he, a frail and elderly disabled man, tried not to show his fear.
It's a zoo out here, I thought, surveying the mayhem. Figures lay draped about the cement in various states of consciousness. Some stared straight ahead. Others raged, lashing out, trying their hardest not to be invisible. Each has a mother. Can't tell if that's alcohol or urine or both, sizzling on the hot pavement, sticky. Hands over there shaking, worlds in the corner of an eye; secrets passing in broad daylight. Band aid after band aid after band aid, until we forget the names of our original problems.
I caught a woman peering with childlike confusion at the well-to-do working folk passing by, as if wondering: how is it that only some of us have to live out the worst consequences of our circumstances, our decisions?
Reader, I have to confess I love these people. They are more rude, but they are also more polite. The spectrum's just wider. All class groups act out behaviors which can be intolerable, and the homeless are no exception; what moves me is the degree to which kindness and respect resonate with those who know what it is to be in the trenches. The short end of the stick, whether deserved or otherwise, is no great place to be. Being avoided, ignored, ostracized… acknowledgment cuts through all that, and has the power to remind there are still good people about.
But all that is only my perspective. Third and James is a place I drive through nightly containing people I know who like me. Great. For our elderly friend with the cane, diving in in a way I don't have to, the scene definitely didn't read as a collection of acquaintances and friends. It was a Boschian carnival of depraved bedlam. It was all new, the deep end of the pool of life, new and strange and dense with horror. Places seem larger when they're terrifying. His reedy voice shook as much as his unsteady cane, his corduroy orange jacket and fedora slightly too elegant– not what you wear to your first day of school, as it were.
"Be safe today," I said.
"Tonight!" he corrected.
"Tonight! Right on. Well, I'll be lookin' for ya. I'm out here all night too."
"Right on, man!"
"It'll be you and me!"
"I'll be lookin' for you too!"
The exchange was just the friendly push he needed. Oh, reader, listen to that beautiful boost of verve in his final line! Especially as compared to his trepidation minutes before. He wasn't alone. We're all in this together, he now recalled, us fellow humans, working it out, doing our best at this strange and crazy and nigh-impossible task we all share:
The act of living life.