She was saying something about something being “straight out of the dryer”, to noone in general. She was in the front door alcove of the hardware store, the one with the neon “Open” sign in the front window, right above the note that perpetually hangs there, reading “Had to leave, customer needed door fixed.” The neon sign is always on, even when they’re closed. Nothing she had just came out of a dryer. She was wrestling a large sleeping bag into a shopping cart, full of her belongings. Her hair, not quite shoulder length, stood straight out on the left side of her head. She was wearing pajama bottoms, and sandals without socks. She was…thirty something? I was pissed off and walking. Like yesterday, and the day and week and month before. Wake up, curse the day, curse the invisible force that holds planets in their orbits and causes hearts to beat, journal, being careful to express gratitude for the “little things”, so as to avoid the appearance of being a dick as some imagined being observes me and chides me for my lack of gratitude, fight back today’s panic attack, and walk. I can set my clock by it. We made eye contact as she was completing her sentence, and I quickly looked away. Best not to intrude here. Ignore her, keep walking. Easy enough. I ignore everyone, regardless. And yet, I stopped and looked back…because some voice told me to, and I did, and she looked right at me, so I pretended to be checking traffic on Fairgrounds Rd, then stepped off the curb to cross it, even though this was never my intention…but she caught me looking, so now, in my lopsided mind, my only choice was to pretend to be Doing Something Else.
As I stepped off the curb to cross the street I had no intention of crossing five seconds earlier, she said “Excuse me -”
“Do you have a cigarette?” I said “No, I dont, sorry.” She pushed her shopping cart slowly, and appeared to be limping slightly.
The rain arrived on time, around 11. It was mostly dry this morning, but as things are right now, she’s most likely taken shelter in one of her familiar alcoves or alleys to stay dry. It wasn’t raining as she and I crossed paths. I continued on my new path, embarrassed to have been caught looking back at her. She knew, she saw me see her. I thought I outsmarted her, but I didnt. I used to care. I used to give dollars here and there, I’ve brought meals to men sleeping in doorways, smiled and said “Hi!” as they trudged by…because I’m supposed to be grateful, and in being grateful, my needs become less noticeable. Right? Right. I gave a black man twenty dollars a few months ago, and as I was walking up to him, he was bracing for a confrontation. I’m white. I live in White Oregon, in these White United States, and when you’re black, standing on a corner panhandling, White World “tsk-tsk’s” you a lot. White World frowns on you. Not wanting him to be any more uncomfortable than he already was, I offered my hands up, in a calming gesture, said who knows what, and gave him his cash, and walked off. He offered a hushed “thanks.”
I offered my act to the universe. I would’ve bought weed with that money, or cereal. I cared, like I’ve cared in the past. Without reason, just to do it, hoping that in some karmic logbook being tended by some mysterious scorekeeper, I would receive a check mark. Not an “X”, those are like “tsk-tsk’s”. I wanted my check mark. Those are good.
As I circled back towards home, I saw her again, pushing her shopping cart, limping. Her life is a struggle I probably will never know. Mine is comfortable. Her clothes are filthy, mine are not. Her living room is a doorway, a loading dock, an alcove, mine is a rectangle with furniture, movies and books. My life is neat, ordered. Her life is chaos, and bottles. Recyclables. Shopping carts. Uncertainty.
She smiled, and said “Ahh, yeah, I didn’t think so” when I told her I didn’t have the cigarette she craved. I appear healthy. In some ways I am. In others, not so much.
There are events in life that can sap human strength. Maybe not all by themselves, more of a combined effect, a cumulative effect and one day, something breaks…the weakest link, I suppose. I cared, once upon a time, in my own limited way. It was as genuine as I could make it, which is really to say that I believe in karma and was probably just making a deposit and hoping for dividends. I’ve cared, in the past, and it felt genuine, in an uncertain way.
I’d love to see the world’s pain manifest as a celestial light show, an aurora borealis comprised of your pain and mine flickering and dancing across a cold and desolate starry sky. It would be horrifyingly beautiful, like watching a mushroom cloud majestically rise above the death and destruction of its infernal human source. So much pain and sadness held by so many souls. So many universes, with indistinguishable boundaries, wracked with pain.
I used to care…I suppose. What an odd thing to do. I’ll never be the hero I think I am.