Dignity

Earlier this month I read this piece written by Beau Johnson .

I liked it very much. It was heart warming and gave me pause for thought.

I thought again this morning of Beau and his piece and the girl in the piece and the interaction they had and here’s why.

There’s a guy who is a big part of my weekday mornings. Same each morning. I get the same 8.01am train, get off at the same station, flash the same ticket card and, ba-boom-ba, there he is, this guy who I’m very aware of who is also having a morning of sames: same homelessness, same clothes, same seat, same lean-on as he falls slightly to one side in a daze. Same angle, with his back facing the oncoming line of foot traffic.

Everyone else on my commute does what I do each morning — walks past this guy on their way to the next segment of their morning. I don’t turn my head, I don’t want him to see me seeing him in his homelessness.

I don’t know about the others but, for a couple of months now, this pattern has left a shitty taste in my mouth. I feel uncomfortable about walking past this guy. I look around to see if anyone else is seeing him or if they’re doing what I’ve been doing and not wanting to potentially do the wrong thing, so doing nothing instead.

It was a little later that I then read Beau Johnson’s bit about the person wanting to help him. Then I forgot about Beau’s bit and got back on with my life. But — as happens when one reads or hears something someone else says — Beau’s bit sort of tilted my brain on its axis so that, now, when I’m walking past this guy, I’m trying not to wonder about whether it would be offensive if I tried to give him some money.

I myself have been homeless for a time, years ago in the late 80s, not long, for just over a month, 6 weeks. I was 17 and I had no idea and no ideas on how to get any ideas, but it was because of the kindness of others who themselves had nothing to lose that my situation was short lived. So I was trying to draw on some sort of state of mind I would have had in those times to see if it would offer me some guidance on my feelings about this guy I’d become so aware of each morning, but no solid memory of those times came to me — all I recall is a blanket sort of tone consisting of bleakness then of a rattled relief ( the end of the bleakness is not convincingly there but substantial enough that you don’t want to risk losing it) and the blanket-tone effect dulled out the situation I was in, leaving no room for anything else.

Anyway, all of this stuff mulling around in my brain made me want to do something other than just walk past this guy each day — I was feeling that I should acknowledge him — let him know I see him — he’s not invisible. The feeling was getting more insistent each time I saw him and was now walking along with me every morning in the long line to my next segment.

This morning as I moved along past this guy, I did something I hadn’t discussed first with myself at all and I did exactly that thing I do when I’ve convinced myself I’m going to take life by the balls and go for it — I opened my bag and I grabbed my purse and I took a 20 buck note out (it’s all I had and, where I was going and what I was about to do, there would be no asking for change). I stepped off the conveyorbelt of people, as if in a dream (like the one where you go to punch someone in the face but your fist slows down as you near their smug muush until it feels like a wee tap, like a prank) and walked back along the train station’s well-worn path to the guy — sitting with his eyes closed, sitting slightly on a lean to the left, toward me.

Everyone had vanished. I had no witnesses and the thought occurred to me that I was on my own. I felt a bit vulnerable. ‘He’s on his own too, it’s ok’ I told myself.

It struck me that he looked so serene. I touched him on the shoulder softly. I felt like someone else — like a Quaker in the olden days, placing my hand on a shoulder, as if in unity, saying ‘hello there, Friend!’ — I suddenly felt like a do-gooder and I didn’t like it. It felt dumb. I felt like I was interfering.

You’d think I’d pull out of it at this stage — the whole thing felt badly put together — but he’d opened his eyes and was looking at me. I was close, a concerned citizen, leaning in, and could see every line and pore on his face. The hair on his head and face looked coarse and was so white it looked a little eery. I noticed it had a bit of a shine. His eyes were a steely blue (‘tundra’ I thought, at the time) and I felt like standing there for a while just looking at his face, as if he wasn’t real life but was actually a National Geographic photo of a homeless person and I had time up my sleeve to examine it. Remembering the moment now, it makes me wonder if I did stare at him for a good minute or so. I doubt it. I hope not.

I held out the 20. It was folded into thirds like the way my mum would hand me lunch money when I was a kid. I wanted it to feel like that for this guy too — like it was a nice thing, a thing where he’d look at the money and immediately feel full of possibility about what he’d buy, not like a transaction where I was paying to feel a feel good feeling.

The guy looked from my eyes (I wonder if he saw my pores, my lines, my eyes) down to my hand with the waiting 20.

He swiftly turned his head away from me in a movement that was a pure shun. Fuck, it stung. He sounded disappointed and let down. Disappointed. He said ‘Oh…. No, thank you — no, thank you, I don’t want your money, no, thank you very much’ and he swung his body fully away from me on the seat. The look on his face — it was like I was a side salad he hadn’t ordered. He sounded like he could have been the King of England. Like a British lord. Like he’d had elocution lessons like rich people do. It sounded like he was better than me and I should be sitting in his place on a lean on the seat with my eyes closed. I felt that he was better than me.

I hightailed it out of there, cash in hand. My cheeks stung as if he’d slapped me with my 20 buck note.

I felt ashamed. I felt ashamed. I hated the feeling. I felt I’d stripped him of the thing I’d intended to give him — his dignity. I’d stripped it of myself. Who the fuck did I think I was? I’d shamed him and I’d shamed myself. I hated it. I didn’t understand and I still don’t but I know this doesn’t matter a whit to him and it shouldn’t. But I don’t understand.

Then I thought of this really neat piece Beau Johnson had written. I wondered if the girl who wanted to give Beau a helping hand still believes he was homeless, even though he declined.

This evening, as I went through the motions of the commute home, I saw the guy. Like me, he was carrying out his sames, but in reverse.

As is usual in the evenings, he had his front facing the oncoming line of foot traffic. Same clothes, same seat, same lean-on. His eyes are closed.

I don’t turn my head toward him, I don’t want him to see me seeing him in his homelessness. I don’t want him to see me in my shame.

He doesn’t see me. His eyes are closed.

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