Monday, March 23, 2015

Man on a Corner

I walk passed him every morning. He sits on the same downtown Salt Lake City corner. I think he might be schizophrenic. I'm not a doctor. I don't know. But something is clearly causing him to behave in odd ways. Sometimes he yells. Usually he's not yelling at anyone in particular. Most of the time the yelling doesn't seem to relate to anything happening around him. His yelling portrays him as astigmatic and disconnected.

His clothes look homemade. Like they used to be a part of something else. Like they weren't intended to be clothes until he got a hold of them. Curtains? Discarded fabric? A blanket? He's been wearing them for a while. I know this, because I pass him every morning.

He's homeless. And he's loud about it. If you make eye contact with him he tries to pull you in to whatever hallucination he's having. So I don't make eye contact with him. Not anymore. I used to. But it was too uncomfortable. Barely more uncomfortable than not making eye contact with him as he tries to talk to me when I pass by. Every morning.

A friend of mine gave him some new clothes for Christmas. This was a charitable gesture. He seemed grateful when he received them. We never saw him wear the clothes. I've wondered what ever happened to the gift.

The man has a name. Surely he does. But I don't know it. I only know the nickname a few of my friends made for him. It's not a mean nickname. We just needed a way to describe him and when one of my friends asked him his name a few months ago he wouldn't disclose it. So we came up with one.

Today I walked by this man, just like I do every day. I looked forward, avoiding eye contact and feeling a little guilty about it. Just like I do every day. He was talking long before I was close enough to hear him. He was talking to no one in particular. Half yelling, but relatively calm compared to the last time I saw him.

He called out to me when I got close enough. I looked down at my phone and pretended to be distracted by something on it. The phone was dead. My gesture was a lie. But he didn't know that. He couldn't see the screen because he was sitting on the ground, wet from a rainstorm that was experiencing a short respite.

It took about three steps to get passed him enough so that he was no longer in my periphery. Three steps to freedom. The same three steps I take every day when I succeed at avoiding eye contact and connection.

It was a split second after my foot hit the ground on the third step that I heard it. He said something. It didn't sound disconnected from reality. It didn't sound nonsensical. It sounded real. And it stripped my mind of any other thought and sound.

"Sir, I don't know you. But you really don't know me either."

I was standing for a few seconds before I realized I had stopped walking.

He didn't know me. But I didn't really know him either.

I wasn't sure what he meant, exactly. And I didn't know why the words affected me. But they did. I suppose it's ironic that words from a man trapped in insanity zapped me into reality.

I turned and looked at him. I broke the rule. I made eye contact. I looked down at him. Sitting on the ground. He looked up at me. And he wasn't talking anymore. We made eye contact.

I pass this man every day. I have for months. And somewhere along the way I forgot that he was a person with a life. A history. A background. A family. Someone somewhere at some time cared about his well-being. Maybe someone still does. Maybe a lot of someones do.

Maybe he's had a mom and a dad. Brothers and sisters. Friends. Grandparents. Kids. Nieces and nephews. Maybe he still has these people. Maybe they are wondering where he is. Maybe they don't care where he is. Maybe they're content with where he is.

He has emotions and feelings. Memories. Heartaches. I have those things, too. But mine aren't the same as his.

I don't really know him, but I can take a pretty good guess at the amount of breaks I've probably received that he never did. I can imagine that he might not have had a Bob and Cathie, like I did. I can probably accurately guess that he's suffered from some illnesses that he never wanted and that I've never had to know.

All of this rushed through me, shamefully, like it hadn't rushed through me before. And I looked at him. I looked down at him. I opened my mouth to say something, but closed it when I realized I didn't know what to say. He didn't fill the silence with his own words. And I was surprised that he didn't. He just kept staring up at me from the wet ground.

I crouched down, because it felt weird that we weren't on the same level. I opened my mouth again and this time some words came out.

"We don't really know each other. That's kind of strange considering that we see each other every day, isn't it?"

His eyes dove into me, like he was attempting to understand what I was trying to say. Then he responded, "You could just say hi. It helps me. Ok?"

I felt my eyes well up with tears. But I didn't want him to see it. I felt selfish and privileged that I might have been implicitly looking for a way to make his misfortune a profound and life-changing moment for myself. I didn't want my emotion to look like pity to him, either. It seemed insensitive to let him know in any way that what he had just said sounded so heartbreaking to me.

So I smiled at him. "I would really like to say hi to you." It was the only thing that I could think to say at the time. I still don't know how I should have responded.

"Ok. See you tomorrow then." He said it as he rolled onto his side, pulled a blanket over his face, and dropped into a nap.

Our interaction was over. For the day, anyway. I stood back up.

A few steps later he was out of my periphery.

~It Just Gets Stranger

33 comments:

  1. Amazing. Life lessons in 5 sentences or less.

    ReplyDelete
  2. How Can You Feel Lyrics
    by: Julie Dexter

    How can you feel
    When it ain't real to you 
    When it ain't real to you
    How can you feel

    You ain't never heard a woman cry
    Til you heard her weep for the loss of her child
    You ain't never seen pain
    Til you seen that woman with her face tear stained
    You will never know poverty
    Til you're hungry and homeless on the street
    You will never know sadness
    Til you find Yourself
    Searching for some happiness
    (repeat chorus)

    You will never walk alone
    Unless it's Him that you're denying
    You can't be denying Him
    You will never see the light if you give up the will for trying
    You will never know madness
    Til they lock you up in a cell
    Fill you with pills
    Tell you it's good for your health

    (repeat chorus)

    They tell me about the blues
    They tell me about the blues
    Well I got news
    I know the coo

    Saying hi is all it takes sometimes. :-)

    ReplyDelete
  3. This is so beautifully written. Thank you for sharing your experiences with us.

    ReplyDelete
  4. You're a good person, Mr. McCann. Don't ever let anyone tell you that you aren't.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I am one of those that's a big fan of all your posts, Eli, but this one. This one. "Hi" is so simple that sometimes we just plain forget about it, don't we?

    ReplyDelete
  6. One of the best experiences of my life happened when a man in South Korea sitting on the street stopped my sister and I and in his practiced English asked us where we were from. (We were both expecting him to ask us for money.) We told him were were from Memphis,TN and the most amazing thing happened. He said "Like Elvis?" We both smiled and said yes and then he began to sing...song after song Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Peggy Lee, Patsy Cline, Buddy Holly, Jim Reeves, Dottie West, Frank Sinatra, Johnny Cash, Ella Fitzgerald, etc. Not only did he sing several lines from over 20 songs but he would tell us the album they were from and the year the album released. They were all songs that our parents would have been familiar with and a few of them we knew right away or had heard of the artist but not the song. We had to pass him in both directions on our trip that day and when we came back he flagged us down again because he had thought of even more songs he knew and had been waiting to see us again. He was the friendliest most cheerful man I think I've ever met. He was only a couple of years older than me and teased my sister who is two years younger than me for being a baby. If we had avoided him as we were wont to do, we would have missed out on one of the best moments of our trip to South Korea. Thanks Eli for reminding us, we really don't know the people we pass on the street and we don't know what we might be missing.

    ReplyDelete
  7. One of the best experiences of my life happened when a man in South Korea sitting on the street stopped my sister and I and in his practiced English asked us where we were from. (We were both expecting him to ask us for money.) We told him were were from Memphis,TN and the most amazing thing happened. He said "Like Elvis?" We both smiled and said yes and then he began to sing...song after song Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Peggy Lee, Patsy Cline, Buddy Holly, Jim Reeves, Dottie West, Frank Sinatra, Johnny Cash, Ella Fitzgerald, etc. Not only did he sing several lines from over 20 songs but he would tell us the album they were from and the year the album released. They were all songs that our parents would have been familiar with and a few of them we knew right away or had heard of the artist but not the song. We had to pass him in both directions on our trip that day and when we came back he flagged us down again because he had thought of even more songs he knew and had been waiting to see us again. He was the friendliest most cheerful man I think I've ever met. He was only a couple of years older than me and teased my sister who is two years younger than me for being a baby. If we had avoided him as we were wont to do, we would have missed out on one of the best moments of our trip to South Korea. Thanks Eli for reminding us, we really don't know the people we pass on the street and we don't know what we might be missing.

    ReplyDelete
  8. What a beautifully heartbreaking story. It's Biblical really. That longing to both know and be known by another is written into our souls by God. For all the world might have to say about that man's station in life, he has the wisdom to know what helps him begin to meet that longing -- in this case, a simple, acknowledging "hi." How much better off we would all be if we realized that about ourselves.

    ReplyDelete
  9. I have no words either. Sounds like a beautiful eye opening moment though.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh, and take out the trash tonight, it's garbage day tomorrow.

      Delete
    2. Good call Lee, I was going to remind him of the same thing, but of course I forgot. Good thing we have you.

      Delete
    3. I just took out my own garbage can to the street and thought to myself "don't forget to remind Eli!" You beat me to it.

      Eli, amazing post. It's made some thoughts re-surface that I've felt in times of passing such people on the streets wherever I may be, but you put them so eloquently into type. I guess I'm always afraid to say "hi" even, because I really don't have anything physical to give them should they ask for it, and I worry about hurting or angering them by denying them their requests. Hopefully I can muster more courage in the future - saying "hi" and showing a friendly smile is surely better than nothing at all, and it is especially better than pretending that they aren't there right next to me.

      Delete
  10. If you ever get a chance, read "Under the Overpass" by Mike Yankoski. He and another man traveled around the United States and lived as homeless people for a year. They are Christians, but it wasn't their intent to "spread the Word". They wanted to experience how the homeless feel and how they are treated. Surprisingly, some of the worst treatment they received was from those whom you expected the best. I live a very privileged life and the book set me back on my heels. Now I do more, but it never seems enough nor exactly what I should be doing. I'm still trying to figure that part out. What is it that I could do that would help those less fortunate? Sometimes, it's as simple as an acknowledgement that a person is just that....a person. A human being. We are all on this earth. We are all sharing this existence. A simple "hi"? Yeah, I can do that. And hopefully, that person will feel like they exist at least for that moment in time. Thank you, Eli, for sharing your experience.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Of course, this wasn't what I was expecting to read when I clicked on your Facebook lead. Very touching, and not your usual comic banter. I couldn't help but think of my nephew. He was schizophrenic, and, probably the very nicest, most empathetic person one could ever meet. However, when he had a psychotic break his behavior was the most socially unacceptable one could imagine. Yes, he had family who cared deeply for him, and, except during times of breaks when it took days to find him, he lived in an apartment (not necessarily up to par with middle class), food, friends and family. During those times he was missing we were all frantically trying to find him and get him where he could get help. After being found, it often took days, sometimes weeks, in a psychiatric ward to stabilize him once more. I'm sure strangers were not kind to him during those breaks since it was difficult for family to be with him then and we knew what a kind, generous person lived beneath that exterior he presented. Unfortunately, the last time he went "missing," it was because he had died from a heart attack, but, thankfully, he was stable and at home when it happened. Kudos for you to make the time to say hello. You don't know what lies beneath the exterior of that man.

    ReplyDelete
  12. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  13. Phenomenal piece of writing. Thank you.

    ReplyDelete
  14. This is the most important blog post you've ever written.

    Remember when your client died while you were at Disneyland? It effected you more deeply than you would expect from the death of someone you didn't really know well. That blog post touched on the same feelings I had when a friend I was very close with in high school died young, unexpectedly and tragically last year. We hadn't spoken, except through FaceBook in 15 years. But his death devastated me. In my search to understand, I came upon his PhD dissertation (he was a psychology professor). The topic was how doctors can behave differently so that homeless patients feel valued as human beings. So, in a weird way, the post about the client dying and this homeless man, are connected, at least to me.

    And the conclusion I've come to about people in my life like "the client" and the homeless man, is that we are all connected. In deep ways. As humans. And we forget. Until we stop, look them in the eye, and remember. Like you did.

    ReplyDelete
  15. Thank you for this. It reminds me of how much we lose when we are guarded.

    ReplyDelete
  16. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  17. Thanks, Eli, for this. This was insightful and I needed to read this, even if I didn't expect to read it here. Thanks for being willing to share these moments with the rest of us.

    Also-- I noticed Lee already reminded you, but just in case you have forgotten by the time you scrolled down to this comment -- don't forget to put your trash out tonight (Tuesday!). Garbage day is tomorrow (Wednesday) :-)

    ReplyDelete
  18. I don't know if you read, but your post made me think of a book called The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls. It is an autobiography/memoir of Jeannette's childhood. Part of it deals with the fact that by the time Jeannette was in college, her parents were actually homeless. Thus, while is surely cannot encompass the plights and lives of all homeless people, it certainly did document the lives of her mother and father who are homeless.

    I live in Mexico now, and at many red lights, I am approached by people who are selling or begging (usually selling here). Sometimes I buy their fares, but more often I don't. I always try to smile at them though. I see them get ignored car after car, and it makes me feel sad, because Mexicans are usually super friendly. Walking past strangers, you hear everyone saying with a smile: "Hola," "buenos días," "buenas tardes," etc. So it stands out even more that those working the street corners are ignored. So, I always smile at them while I shake my head no, which is probably a confusing combination for them, but it makes me feel better than ignoring them. They're people, working hard and enduring the elements.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The book: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/7445.The_Glass_Castle?from_search=true

      Delete
  19. Beautifully expressed. Thank you.

    ReplyDelete
  20. My Peggy (grandmother, she wouldn't allow me to call her that) always taught me one of the kindest things you can give a stranger is your smile and an honest hello. Love that your encounter shows that. Thank you for sharing this.

    Heather

    ReplyDelete
  21. This might be one of the best posts you've ever written.

    ReplyDelete
  22. Let me take a second to just say, forgetting that this story is compelling and important etc., that your writing here is incredible. You have such a captivating way of portraying emotion. This just sucked me right in from the beginning. I hope you never stop writing. You are on to big things, methinks.

    ReplyDelete
  23. Perfect. Thank you for sharing.

    ReplyDelete
  24. Keep us updated on this. What happens as you say hi to him from now on.

    ReplyDelete
  25. A "hi" from a stranger is a masterpiece of humanity.
    Wish him well from the "Stranger" Community.

    ReplyDelete