Friday, February 17, 2012

Infernal Flagstones

As soon as I let go, I realized that it was a bad idea I didn't know if it was going to end well. I wasn't even sure that the man understood me. He shuffled unsteadily along the downtown street, the cup that he was holding out for change beginning to fill with dirty rainwater. It had already nearly completely covered the handful of coins that he had begged from passerby.

We'd had a pot luck for lunch at work. I'd lugged down a round loaf of wheat bread, my old rice cooker and, as it turned out, nearly a gallon of chicken noodle soup, made with large, thick egg noodles, angular chunks of carrots (along with other vegetables) and pieces of roasted chicken, some larger than my fingers. (Rice cookers, as it turns out, are excellent heating vessels for thick soups.) I find potlucks stressful, as I try to gauge how much food to bring - I always underestimate how many people any given dish will feed and I dislike bringing home leftovers. Later in the afternoon, when I was cleaning up, I was able to fill a 40+ ounce plastic container with (still slightly warm) soup. The bread had been set aside (someone had brought fresh naan) and the whole loaf was intact. I placed the container in a thin plastic bag, slipped in a fork and a spoon and set it in the paper grocery bags I had been using for transport, with the loaf of bread on top.

As I left the office for a wet Seattle afternoon (one verging, remarkably, on actual rain, rather than the persistent drizzle that normally passes itself off as genuine weather), I had the bag with the rice cooker and my serving spoons in my left hand and the bag with the soup and bread in my right. I'd gone just over a block when the man appeared on my right, on the sidewalk perpendicular to the one I was on. "Good afternoon, sir," he said, his voice no steadier than his gait. He held up the cup. His nails were long and discolored. I looked him in the face. His eyes were unfocused and a broad wedge of his scraggly, otherwise black, beard was stained a bright yellow, as if he'd attempted to drink a large cup of housepaint too quickly. My right hand came up, nearly to eye level. "This bag," I waited until he appeared to focus on it to continue. "Has bread in it. And soup." He didn't acknowledge me. He simply reached out with his free hand, and took the handles of the shopping bag. Somehow, it was a clean transfer - our hands never touched.

Immediately, the scenarios began to turn over in my mind. I've interacted with a number of homeless people over the years and once I'd given the man the leftover food I started to realize that I'd seen this kind before. This man didn't belong on the streets. He needed to be in a nursing home. I started to doubt that I'd done him a favor. By the time I was 10 yards away I wondered if he'd be able to find a place to eat, without the food being stolen from him. By the time I was 20 yards away I found myself worrying that the windfall might somehow cause him come to harm. With every passing step, a new series of events played itself out. None of them ended well. I tried to walk without thinking. The car was welcome. In it, I have to focus, pay attention to what I'm doing. There wasn't time now to worry.

Having had time to turn it over in my head, I realize that it was simply a symptom of a greater concern. The days of a homeless person, especially one who seems to be unable to really care for themselves, are numbered. Of course ALL of our days are numbered (one of these days, I suspect, my luck is going to run out during my commute), but it strikes me that for someone without a roof over their head, I can almost see the Grim Reaper standing behind them, mocking me with the knowledge that they are going to _take_ this person, one way or another. I do things, now and again, but it never feels like enough anything, honestly. I don't ever feel that I've put one more moment between them and the Grim Reaper. But for some reason, with this man, I suddenly felt that what I'd intended to be an act of utility (I was done with bread and soup for a while, and didn't want to see it go to waste), if not strictly of kindness, was going to backfire. That I was hastening the very thing that I wanted to keep at bay.

I don't really know why I suddenly felt that way. After all, it was clear to me that this man had been on the streets for some time. Years, likely. I doubt that he was completely unable to look after himself. Maybe it was simply that he struck me as old and confused. Maybe he just struck me as a bit too Skeksis. Maybe a feeling that I should have looked for something more to do for him had become corrupted. But what's done is done. And will come will come. And I make an uneasy peace with the world, unsatisfied that once again, that I do so on its terms, and not my own.

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