Human Being to Human Being
Today I left home with 97 bucks in my wallet.
I came home with 90 bucks, three bottles of water, one can of coke, and a heavier conscience than I left with.
I had two chance encounters with two homeless men. One said he was an army veteran, and that he’s been out all day and he was trying to cobble up eight bucks by the end of the night. The other was selling bottles of Kroger purified drinking water, canned soda, blankets and movie T-shirts. I don’t quite know if I’m spelling it right but he told me his name was Gershon. I didn’t ask for the veteran’s name.
Both times I was alone in my car, parked, bumping some Kanye tunes as I tried to work out a favourable trade package involving the red-hot DeMar DeRozan to gain an advantage in my fantasy basketball league. I had just come from the Daily Dose cafe in the Arts District, and I was killing some time in the car before meeting some friends at the LA Auto show.
I never made it to the show. I drove straight home after meeting Gershon.
When he first came up to my window, I physically leaned back to open up some space, raised my left arm and waved the most dismissive wave I could muster. Subtext: get the fuck out of my face. I was still behind the glass in the walled-off comfort of my car and I could not hear him. And frankly, I didn’t want to hear what he had to say; I had already given two bucks to the veteran who came up to my window 10 minutes ago. I already made my contribution for the day, I’m not running a charity here. I expected my wave to deter him and make him go away. But he was still standing right there, in an oversized black sweater and equally baggy grey pants that looked like they were once of a different colour. He made some motions with his hands and dropped one of his bags to the ground (he had two slung on his back). Even though I could not make out the exact words, it had all the posture and look of a misunderstood man embodying the phrase “C’mon man…” tinged with disappointment.
“Don’t just dismiss me man … hear me out. Hear what I gotta say first ‘fore you wave me away,” Gershon said as I wound down my window.
“I ain’t begging man.”
“I’m out here selling all sorts of things … just trying to make me some money for dinner.”
“I ain’t begging for money man. Hear me out man, human being to human being.”
I did. I wound down my window. I let him do his thing, I heard his spiel. As he spoke, I noticed most of the top row of his teeth was gone. His mouth still curled in a way that was closer to a natural smile than a frown. He said he was homeless but he’s been working hard, selling random things to random people by foot all around the Arts District just to not stay hungry.
Gershon started to get a little excited when talking about what he had been selling.
“Lemme show you what I got in my bag real quick … You seen that Pixels movie?”
“Oh you mean Pixar? Yeah I know Pixar.”
“Lemme find that T-shirt and show ya …”
His voice trailed off as he dropped the other bag down to the ground and began rummaging through it. He was a good one or two feet away from my car, in full view, and he had exhibited no visible sign of aggression or madness whatsoever. In my head I was already running through the worst-case scenario: he’s gonna pull out a gun, he’s got a gun, he’s got a fucking gun, it’s just the two of us here no witnesses, you shouldn’t have entertained his charade. It really doesn’t matter if I said that out loud or if I sped off in a fury or if I silently judged him with nervous (and severely misguided) apprehension. What matters is that, in that moment, the whole notion of ‘human being to human being’ was undercut by my own racial profiling that manifested itself as irrational fear of a man who was just trying to convince an Asian kid in a Mazda that he was worth some time and maybe some spare change. I never even mentioned that Gershon was African-American, but how many of us would assume Gershon is black at this point in the story?
I had just spent almost two hours reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me at the cafe. I have a tab open on Coates’s article, “A Little More On Prince Jones,” published on The Atlantic, which I had opened after reading a highly charged passage in the book about the injustice of Prince Jones’s murder at the hands of PG County cop. I have another tab open on The American Prospect’s (negative) review of Coates’s book, titled “A Caricature of Black Reality.” Two days ago, I had an African-American friend jokingly assert over text that I was “the most ‘woke’ Asian person in the world right now” because she knew I was a diehard Kanye fan, gushed over his concert in LA, ordered shrimp and grits the last time we dined out, and was now onto Coates’s highly-acclaimed bestseller. None of this actually legitimises me as being ‘woke’ in any way. These are just factual events and details that show that right now, I am earnestly interested in black history and I do enjoy and appreciate many aspects of black culture.
Point being: in spite of all that curiosity and endeavour, I still harbour inexplicable racial or sociocultural stereotypes that can be accessed on a whim to reduce another human being into a reflection of the worst of his kind. And all Gershon did to trigger this was to reach into the fucking bag.
There is a passage in Between the World and Me that informs such a moment:
I am not a cynic. I love you, and I love the world, and I love it more with every new inch I discover. But you are a black boy, and you must be responsible for your body in a way that other boys cannot know. Indeed, you must be responsible for the worst actions of other black bodies, which, somehow, will always be assigned to you. And you must be responsible for the bodies of the powerful — the policeman who cracks you with a nightstick will quickly find his excuse in your furtive moments.
I found no excuse for my thoughts. I felt terrible for first judging him as some hobo who just wanted money, and then for entertaining the baseless thought that, as a black man, it was more likely that he might actually pull a gun on me.
“I’m really sorry for judging you man,” I said without meeting his eye.
“I’m really sorry for waving you off earlier.”
He brushed it off, told me we were cool.
He showed me what he was selling. He found the T-shirt that was stuck under a bunch of blankets that he was selling too. He tried to force the T-shirt out without removing the blankets — that was why he was rummaging for so long, which gave those judgmental thoughts time to invade and fester.
“Ohhhhhh… that Pixels movie,” I said as Gershon stretched out the T-shirt in front of him to show me the Pac-man-heavy design.
A little back and forth ensued, and he told me the T-shirts were going for five bucks a pop, while a dollar would yield me three bottles of water.
“Y’know…I already gave two bucks to an army veteran, well he told me he was one, he came up to me just now…I only have fives left, do you have change if I get the waters?”
There was a very quick and sudden, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it slouch that trailed from his eyebrows to his cheekbones to his mouth — a micro-expression that I caught somehow, like a ninth round gut punch that blindsided me before I could see it coming.
I gave Gershon the five for the waters and, in a gesture that fully affirmed the ‘generosity begets generosity’ adage, he threw in an extra coke!
“You take care and I hope you enjoy that soda.”
He even called me his “brother” and wished me well. And then there was this tinge of genuine excitement in Gershon’s voice when he told me he was going to get a “combo.” I had to clarify with him what he meant by that.
“A combo! There’s a McDonalds right down the street. Gonna get myself a quarter pounder combo!”
“You enjoy that combo man.”
I hold no delusions of self-righteousness, and I know I gave him the money that he was seeking, but it felt like we established a bridge in that moment. I think we were communicating for the first time, from human being to human being.