Arthur Conan Doyle once noted that worlds of considerable complexity and size can coexist in the same physical space with relative invisibility; different levels of life swirl around us as we, unbeknownst, drift through. These layered milieus often only take form in the eyes of others through instances of unexpected violence, which is unfortunate.
While in some cities different standards of behavior are more markedly relegated by geography, Seattle is a touch more enthusiastic in fulfilling the American notion of the melting pot. Here it is possible to walk through the southeast corner of Third and Pine in heels and shopping bags without knocking the balance of worlds out of order. That this doesn't happen a hundred percent of the time is one of the great urban tragedies; though, having said that, just yesterday I watched a collage of dealers and shakers at the aforementioned corner. They parted like the Red Sea for two older European seniors, who passed through none the wiser. That doesn't happen in every city. The connection point for all these worlds is our shared humanity.
To return to our friend, now headed for James Street. Most homeless people in the US are white males between thirty and fifty, with quite a few reaching into their sixties;* aside from his race, this fellow fits the upper end of the bill, with his bald pate and sad eyes, red Adidas sweatpants today, gracing a hollow frame with no context.
What is his story? Who once held this being in her loving mother's arms, and who used to value this man's company, his wit and soul? Did he dream of the great things he could one day accomplish, and still can?
I won't find out tonight, because his toothless gums are vibrating against each other. His is a withdrawal so extreme he cannot speak, and can hardly control his muscles; they spasm quietly as we pass under the orange lights. Before, during and after I greet him, his song is a funereal dirge of helpless groans, a repeating grunt I know from moments of extreme pain. He sits up front, staring nowhere, unresponsive and moaning as I ask after his welfare and mention the weather, filling out the spaces with pleasant noise. I want him to feel welcome.
"Here we are now, looks like Third and James, made it here in one piece,"
"Lemme get close to the curb for ya." Pause. "Did you want this one?"
"Are you gonna be able to stand up okay? Can I help you stand?"
The faintest glimmer of recognition in his eyes, for a fleeting moment- that's him in there, that's you, that's me!
"Lemme help out. Make it a little easier. I'm just gonna reach under your shoulder here, and then we'll stand up together. Sound good?"
I power him up gently. "There you go my friend, there it is...okay. You take care tonight, be careful now. And oh, don't forget your cup of coins there, don't wanna leave that behind."
"I'll see you again."
All the while: "uuuh, uuuuh, uuh," disappearing into the shadowy recesses. Figures meld with each other in the low light.
A dear friend of mine has a six-year old daughter, whom I consider a friend in her own right. One evening we were walking out to her car, and I was carrying little Athena, by now fast asleep. Into her dreaming ears I whispered, "you're one of my good friends, Athena. I love you very much."
Nobody heard me. She definitely didn't. She was shifting in my arms in slumberland, busy making new memories. But there's a part of you that believes in some sort of osmosis, in the magic of things unknown, of stars and souls and moving time. I was yielding to this romantic notion, believing in her sleepy murmur, or the glimmer in the man's eyes. I doubt either of these two understood my words to them in the moment, but that's okay. I say the lines to be myself, and to share, if not the literal meaning, the tone.
Sometimes all that matters is the tone, a distant kindness from far away.
*Source: the 2011 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress (published 2012), the end-all be-all for homeless statistics.