Shiny Happy People. Not.
I’ve been working at the grocery store for several months now. When I started, I figured it would be a short-lived chapter of darkness; a blip on my lifescreen. I’ve been over under sideways down on the whole can’t-pay-my-bills thing, and sheer desperation haunts my every footfall. I’ve been hopeful at times that things will get better, even in the face of contrary evidence. But the longevity of my difficulties has brought me to a unique vista. And I find I’m no longer just a dispassionate observer, because I seek to understand this thing called misery. Fully. To understand it from a more universal point of view. Not for a pity party of one, but for a sympathetic party of … more than one. And you can’t do that unless you’re in it. Far inside it.
We start with a basic truth, which is there are people much worse off than I. Operative word: people.
In the store, we have a “cafe” area where, in theory, shoppers can get coffee and a snack (there’s a microwave also) and sit down and relax in front of a large screen TV. In practice, what the area really seems to be is a magnet for people who obviously have nowhere else to go.
During the winter, there were several lost souls who showed up to get warm for a while before heading back out to stand next to traffic lights with signs that said things like, “SOBER PLEASE HELP” or, “HOMELESS BUT NOT HOPELESS” or, “3 KIDS GOING HUNGRY” among an almost infinite variety of others. While I have no doubt that many of these people really are begging for their desperate families, I do work at a store that sells alcohol, and I can tell you that quite a few of the people on median strips collect change until they have enough cha-ching for a pint of 5 O’clock vodka, or at the least, a couple of 40’s.
One woman who shows up pretty regularly in my lane is so dirty that, after giving her her change, I always bust out the hand sanitizer. I want to say to her, “You know, there’s a restroom right down there next to the produce section, you could definitely take a little sponge bath in there,” but she’s rather tetchy and I imagine my words wouldn’t elicit a positive response.
Another person who uses the cafe looks like a Hunter S. Thompson/Ralph Steadman creation: long unruly gray beard, dark dark glasses and a hoodie always up over his head. It’s as if he’s erasing anything that resembles a human face. I nearly jumped a foot the first time he bought something in my lane: he placed the money in my hand with fingernails that were extremely long; curved like talons and filthy. Alcoholism and other mental illnesses are brutal passengers, and in a place like Maine where the only thing more brutal is the elements, I imagine personal hygiene — not to mention life expectancy — for les miserables isn’t anywhere near what it is for the rest of us.
One fellow in particular has caught my attention, and I’ve followed his progress (or should I say spiral) over the past few months. He’s tall, middle-aged and roughly handsome: looks like he could have been a prime-time Glenn Frey from the Eagles, sporting what began in December as a rather elegant, windswept haircut shot through with gray, but which now has grown ragged. Clearly, he was raised with manners, as he is very polite in any interchanges (when he’s flush, Hot Pockets and Mountain Dew seem to be his preferences).He’s educated, it would seem, and genteel. Unlike his compatriots, he cleans up his table before he heads out into the night. His nails are short (bitten?), and his face is weather-beaten but clean.
At first he would meet my eye and smile when I took his money, we’d have a little small-talk about what kind of day it was, that sort of thing, even though we both knew I knew he was heading back to the cafe, where he’d spend the entire day, at times wandering over to the magazine section to peruse for an hour or two. But these days his eyes dart away from mine; time has passed, he’s a little less cavalier about his situation. Well, that’s to be expected: so am I about my own. I don’t think he’s mentally incapacitated, and I don’t detect any substance abuse. So I’m haunted by one question: HOW DID THIS HAPPEN TO HIM?
Listen, there are many in this world for whom the bottom has fallen out. Contrary to what some believe, they didn’t really do anything that preceded their tumble from grace. Truly, some of them are blameless. We’ve just been through a maiming depression that would rival the one from the 1930’s, even tarted-up in that slutty party dress called “the recession.” Yet there seems to be little-to-no real care about the souls who are perishing, day-by-day, piece-by-piece on the streets. Even in a place like Maine where the word “summer” is a verb.
I confess, before things went south for me, I would hand a dollar or two to someone on the street who looked like they desperately needed it. But volunteer work? Here and there; nothing that stuck. Did I try to make a difference, anywhere? Mmm, maybe a little. If someone I knew was on shaky ground, I tried to help to the best of my ability, but, I’m ashamed to admit, I mentally tabulated it as, “Strike one up for me, the generous benefactor.” Now the shoe’s on the other foot: I’ve been on the receiving end of isolated acts of generosity these months and now I get how it feels to—really, desperately—need to be helped. When friends and family have reached out, I’ve accepted their assistance with a curious mix of gratitude and shame. Having had this experience, there are only three words that occur to me about poverty. They are: NOW I KNOW. I didn’t before when I had the opportunity to make a difference. Now I do.
This guy, the handsome, weatherbeaten guy, and even the Ralph Steadman character, make me think about something Mother Theresa famously said, “Being unloved, unwanted, uncared for, forgotten by everybody, I think that is a much greater hunger, a much greater poverty than the person who has nothing to eat.” These are the people I see each day in this fucked up little city that teeters at the top of the country. Walk over to Portland’s Preble Street any time of day and there are men, women and children lining up for meals and shelter for the night. But only a few blocks away the city teems with upscale restaurants, clothing stores and rents that are astronomical. It’s Los Angeles, in miniature: just a few blocks from the Nickel, L.A.’s hopeless Skid Row, there are sleek, sky-high lofts, stores and restaurants where uptrending young professionals are burning their dollars like there’s no mañana.
What does this mean to the gentleman I am describing? I don’t know. He doesn’t seem to be from around here, more like someone who somehow found himself in less than ideal conditions and doesn’t quite know how to go about extricating himself. For me, I will leave the grocery store and Maine and go on to another chapter in my life. I’ve Gypsy blood, or so my family and friends like to say. That makes it sound like I’m fearless which I’m not. But I also have their love and support. Glenn Frey’s support options seem rather limited. But he’s become a regular in my nightly prayers. “He’s got the materials,” I tell God, “He just needs your help and he’ll find his way again. God, am I wrong to believe you can help him? What does it mean if you don’t? Or won’t? What can I take away from this about your immeasurable love if you allow him to waste away in this morass of poverty?”
Or maybe God’s nudging me to do something, even though I feel like I’m too impoverished to make a difference. I haven’t a clue what it is I should do, but I’ll start with remembering Glenn Frey.
I plan on giving him something before I leave. Nothing valuable, for God knows I’ve sold pretty much everything I have that could realize a profit. I’d like it to be something that says, “You are a human being with a heart and soul and who will not be forgotten. I see you.I will remember you.” Maybe a Mountain Dew, a Hot Pocket, and a good magazine he can keep. And I’ll continue to pray for him, even if he only lives on in my mind’s eye.