14 October 2011

Don't say there's nothing more to say

Fridays are frenetic. Everything that didn't happen the rest of the week usually has to happen on Friday. And the daughter gets out of school early.

Given that most days I pick the daughter up during rush hour, you would think that a three-hour break would make that part of my life a little easier. Guess again. The school is at the epicenter of the county seat: the court houses, the probation offices, the public health center, the aid offices. So the main drag is a nightmare mid-afternoon.

It's a rough area. The police patrol. Young men on skateboards and bikes speed by on the sidewalk and we assess each other. Sketchy-looking people abound, talking to themselves, sleeping it off on the grass medians. I came of age in the 1980s when homelessness skyrocketed in California, and I became used to the delicate dance of negotiating with panhandlers.

"Do you have any spare change?" I would be asked. In those days, I didn't have spare anything.

"Can I buy you a meal?" I would counter, knowing full well that it was likely any money I handed over would go toward a bottle of Thunderbird or a bag of something worse, but unable to bear the thought of a hungry person.

More often than not, the questioner would accompany me to a nearby restaurant. There was a hot-dog stand in Pasadena that got a lot of business from me.

Homelessness was just rampant in those days, and daily in the newspapers, there were opinion pieces and news items. I remember reading one such piece where the author opined that it was not my right to determine how I might aid a homeless person. If they asked for money, I should give them money, not offer them food instead, regardless of how that money might be used. Coming from a home ruined by alcoholism and drug addiction, I couldn't have disagreed more, and I stuck to my guns. A meal or nothing.

The idealism of youth. I still want to save the world. Even from itself.

The rules seem different today. There is wariness, evasiveness, a delicate dance that depends upon me not acknowledging their existence and vice versa. Even more, I've long outgrown the callow girl who offered a meal. Now, authority hangs about me; I have presence.

And so today, I ventured over to pick up the daughter. It wasn't a normal sort of day. A few blocks from the school, the man who shot up a hair salon two days ago, killing eight people, was making his first court appearance. A pall has hung over the county since this murder spree occurred, with the sort of collateral damage one sees in the proximity of a blast zone. There is a heaviness in the air; people seem subdued, but on pins and needles, giving no quarter.

I was early, and I went to the place where I usually stand, a pillar that shades me from the sun. I checked email while I waited for the daughter.

As I've noted, there tends to be a cast of characters in the vicinity. There is a man who always leers at me. I stare stolidly over his head whenever I see him, and when I say over his head, I do mean over his head. I'm easily six inches taller than he is. There is a security guard I see frequently, a polite and friendly man with whom I exchange an acknowledging nod and smile when we pass. There are children at the school I've come to recognize and who I ignore as a pleasantry.

Today, the area in front of the school was empty, and as I read and deleted, I suddenly noted movement in my periphery, and glanced up to see an older man rooting through the garbage can in the breezeway. I thought he was looking for recyclables; this has become increasingly common in recent years. He'd definitely hit hard times and was dressed in stained clothing, carrying two satchels over his shoulder. He continued to rifle through the can slowly, but with purpose.

Then I saw him stuff a partially-eaten roll into his mouth, and pull out a take-out box partially filled with salad. He sat down and began to eat the salad.

I was filled with a sick sense of dread and wondered what to do. Some people look at homelessness as a political statement around here, and eating discarded food is seen as an honorable way of decrying how much food tends to get wasted. As I tried to assess his motivation--real hunger or mental illness or something else--I saw a young girl, one of the students, approach him, holding out an apple in one hand and a snack bar in the other.

My chest tightened, which means one thing in most people, but something else altogether in me. The man made a brusque gesture, brushing her off. Her shoulders fell a bit, and she turned and walked away, reentering the far building. I couldn't move fast enough to catch her, to tell her she did the right thing, not to stop doing the right thing even if her offering was rejected this time. I've been there. You don't stop.

More students were beginning to erupt from the buildings as their day ended. An official-looking person walked by about then, and caught sight of the man eating as the students massed about. He stopped, and in a polite and non-threatening way, asked the man to move on. The man gathered his belongings and slowly moved my direction. As he passed me, he made a dismissive wave in my direction, muttering under his breath.

The daughter came running up to me, breathless and happy, from the same direction. As we walked toward the car, she caught sight of the man, now sitting further down the road on a planter. Her grip on my arm tightened, and I squeezed her hand reassuringly, mentally making note of the easily transported non-perishables that can be brown-bagged and carried in my straw tote.

Go listen to some good music: "Arlandria" from the album Wasting Light by Foo Fighters. It struck me as strange that two Fridays in a row, I've been witness to things I don't necessarily want to see.

No comments: