Next Stop, West Oakland

I noticed him as I walked up to the local BART station. For those outside of the SF Bay Area, BART stands for Bay Area Rapid Transit, the train that shuttles commuters back and forth around the area. I walk up every morning since we live nearby, and you very rarely if ever see homeless people lingering about the station — at least I rarely see them.

Hard to tell what the age of this guy was, due to his wild black hair and equally wild beard. If you put him in a nice suit, he’d look right at home in, say, the Russian lit department at the nearby University of California. His clothes were very dirty, his gaze was glassy and unfocused, and his pants drooped to his knees. We’ll get to the smell in a bit.

I walked past and headed to the fare gate as I normally do. I didn’t really give him much more of a thought as I made my way to the usual spot on the platform, to wait for the train. A few minutes prior to its arrival, he pops up on the platform. I guess he had enough money for a ticket, or maybe he didn’t and slipped through somehow. It happens.

The train pulls up and the people pour in. He shambles in and stands while others try to find a seat. His possessions are gathered in a plastic bag at his feet. He has a styrofoam coffee cup in his hand, and it gets all of his attention. He examines it carefully as if it’s the most important thing in the world to him, and at that moment it probably is. Over and over he rotates the cup, fiddling with the lid. He drains it more than once- good to the last drop. Then it gets filed away somewhere in the bag. Another stop or so and he decides to plop down on the bench by the door, the one supposedly reserved for senior citizens, handicapped, and pregnant women. There’s no one next to him, nor would there be.

As the stops go by, more people get on board, although today is a light day for some reason. They all cluster at the far end of the train — there’s no one within 30 feet of him due to his powerful aroma, and he gradually slumps forward on the bench until I can’t spot him from my seat, which is barely 6 or 7 feet away. I wonder how he got to this place. What disadvantages has he had to endure? Drugs? Alcohol? What does he think of in the morning? Probably just how to get through the next 24 hours.

I can’t conceive of this daily struggle, as I watch him with a certain degree of guilt. I have everything I need, although a Silver Birch 1963 Aston Martin DB5 has so far eluded me. This person has nothing, and certainly not the respect of the Patagonia wearing commuters on this train. They keep their focus on their pricey iPhones and MacBooks, with one or two occasionally casting a stealthy glance in his direction. Sure, that’s hypocritical of me, as I have a new Android phone and Kindle in my lunch bag. Mostly, he’s ignored. The Bay Area has a huge number of homeless — you’ll see a homeless encampment near the MacArthur BART station as you whiz by. He’s just one of many. I just wonder how fine the line is between him and me. How did I get to my place in life, well-fed, a comfortable place to live, college education, and all the advantages. He’s sitting just a few feet away, and it’s obvious he has very little in the way of possessions, or a chance at a decent future. He slumps further down on the bench as the train comes to my stop.

This is Oakland 12th Street City Center. I’ve reached my daily destination. His is unknown. The train rumbles off, headed towards SFO: there’s a schedule to keep.

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