When I'm on my way from home each day from work, I have a very standard routine. Flexible, but with a forthright goal: get home from work as quickly as possible. That usually means taking the express train, but most times I get on the first thing moving; local to get a seat, walk a shorter distance to my apartment, or grab a bite on the way home. Tonight around 8:00pm, I quickly found a seat, nestled in with my journal and pen, and began to reflect on a pleasant recent conversation with my 85-year-old grandfather.
I'm thinking hard, struggling to remember in detail the things he told me, because these are cherished words not to be taken lightly as he makes a successful recovery from liver cancer. So I barely notice when a seemingly elderly gentleman sits at the opposite end of my L of seats with a giant suitcase. I'm slightly annoyed that he appears to be singing, although at first it sounded a tad like Ol' Dirty Bastard (you know, "Shame on a...") and a snicker escaped my lips. So I glance up to try to play it off, and realize that it's a homeless black man. Guilt poured over my head like hot oil and I buried my head back into my journal and played dumb. Tried to finish my journal entry.
But by then, I couldn't even concentrate anymore, the man was so fascinating. Clearly out of his mind. Stark images recalled from Barry Michael Cooper's essay "Requiem for the Zooted" made me speculate whether or not he was the modern day legacy of that tumultuous NYC combo of the 70′s. Poverty + PCP + Thorazine - Family + and/or - Jail = Him, the mentally ill, perpetually "invisible" homeless black man. Scars on his face and a lazy eye told unfathomable stories of pain. My heart became wrenched and immediately I was struck by his humanity and refusing to recoil. He was telling an elaborate story, partially to his suitcase and partially to the wall between us. Cussing and exclaiming and growling and purring and hissing and... more frustrating than any of it, mumbling. So I started to try to write down what I thought I could hear, thinking that he deserved someone to listen, even if he wasn't aware it was going on.
"Yooooooo, son! Shiiiiiit my shit is FULL, son!!"
"Tell y'all to come to bed w/me son"
"Yo, erytime I loot, I go to sleep right after."
"Yo, I'll Fucking..." mumble mumble
He was definitely a son of the streets, although his slang placed him as a young adult squarely in the 80s. I was alternately emotionally devastated and wanting to reach out to him, paralyzed because it was obvious we would have difficulty communicating, and embarrassingly tickled as he sounded exactly like ODB. And he mumbled on, increasingly animated by his own story/conversation. (It was clear that in his mind he had some sort of narrative structure.) To the point where he started rocking back and forth in the seat, near toppling when the breaks to the train slammed, fumbling with a cup in his suitcase... getting louder and angrier. By this point his musings were no longer amusing, and several folks originally sitting near us had moved to another part of the car. I feverishly continued writing, until he screamed "FUCK" again and two voices in my own head started screaming at each other:
"You know, maybe you should move too."
"But what if you actually attract his attention by moving? He doesn't quite "see" you right now..."
"Yeah well, if he decides to jump up and "see" someone or even do something to someone you're also first in proximity, first in line."
"Well, we're almost... Okay there are four stops left. Surely he's going to move."
And he's steadily getting louder and louder, more animated and frenzied... at a controlled pace though, as if he could snap at any moment and go for my jugular. My heart feels like it's about to jump out of my chest.
"You dumb bitch! This is how people get stabbed by the crazy person on the train. Because they don't move when they see danger. You know, I'm telling you this one last time."
"You're being fucking irrational and dramatic right now. He. Is. Not. Going. To. Stab. You. Period."
"Worse yet what if he tries to bite you or something. Or rub his. Ew. Just go!!!"
"Oh now you're just. This is ridiculous."
"This is ridiculous."
Just that second I heard the Ding of the subway train doors opening two stops before mine and I calmly exited the train (without attracting any undue attention, of course).
"Fuckit, I'll walk. But it's just because it's nice outside, not because that poor man was going to kill you."
"Whatever. Let that gambling go! Live to see another day!"
Another ridiculous day in this NYC life. Another jolt to my system, "What are you doing to help those in need? What are you doing to give back? Who are you showing that you care? They're right in front of you." He may have been beyond help, as terrible as that is to even be possible. But before he got there, maybe somebody could've made a difference along the way...
Not just on holidays. Every day.