Monday, September 19, 2005

A dollar for a cup of coffee

Tonight, when I went down to the corner to get some plain yogurt from the organic market, Milton was there talking to his friend Bernice and a guy named Mike whom I've only met once before. Mike looks like Johnny Cash, with salt and pepper hair pulled back into a long ponytail. He sounds a bit like Johnny Cash, too, with a deep smoker's rasp. The last time I saw Mike, he was sitting on the corner running a sign, "Homeless, please help," and he had an old comic book, a real collector's item, sitting on top of his pack. I mentioned that I had a friend who collects comic books, and offered him some dinner. He accepted, but it took longer than I thought to get the food ready, and by the time I got back to the corner, he was gone. But he'd left the comic book with somebody else to give to me.

I went to shake Mike's hand, and he reached out gingerly, saying he'd hurt his hand a few days ago. I sat down on the little brick wall in front of the library, with the sun setting and a cool breeze blowing, and we talked. Mike told me about how he likes to feed the birds in the morning. He gets day-old bread from the local café and scatters it for the pigeons. Years ago, he found a baby pigeon that had fallen out of the nest prematurely, and raised it till it was old enough to fly, then released it. He named it Sammy. Mike said that he could recognize Sammy out of all the other birds, but that last year Sammy stopped coming around, and he figures a hawk probably got him. He said that a song he once heard by Celine Dion made him think that maybe he would see Sammy again "up there." I told him that I thought that an act of kindness is never lost, that one day every generous act would come back to us. So maybe he's right.

Mike told me he has a learning disability; it doesn't really show, except that he talks slowly and deliberately. He strikes me as kind and peaceful. He is a musician; he has a one-man-band act that he puts on for the tourists in town, with a guitar and a harmonica and bells on his legs. He's even recorded a CD with a man he met who has recording equipment. One of his songs, a gospel/blues number, is called "Hear the Beggerman Cry."

A few weeks ago, Mike was walking his bike across a crosswalk, and a woman hit him with her car. She hit him pretty hard, hard enough to knock him down and break his bike. He was lying on the street, and she pulled up next to him, rolled down her window, and asked if he was hurt. He said, in his slow way, "I don't know. I don't think so." He stood up, and she told him she was in a hurry; she had her nephew in the car and had to get him to school. "Can I give you a dollar for a cup of coffee?" Mike said no, he didn't think so, and bent over to pick up his ruined bike.

When he looked up, she was driving away.

Mike was hurt in the accident, though he didn't feel it right away; his hand was injured, and he was unable to urinate for over two days. He got down on his knees and tried and tried. His abdomen distended. Finally he went to the hospital. They told him he had internal injuries, possibly a hernia. His ureter was blocked. They catheterized him and drained 1,000 cc's of urine, gave him a leg bag, and released him back to the street. He told me that now there's a discharge of pus from around the catheter.

I brought him down some dinner: spicy cucumber salad with yogurt, tofu with peanut topping, brown rice, and orange juice, with lemon meltaway cookies for dessert. I told him I thought he should go to the hospital. He said he was thinking about it, but he wasn't sure he would. He didn't want to get an infection. He looked over at Milton, who got a staph infection while he was in the hospital for a broken leg, and ended up losing the use of his leg and being confined permanently to a wheelchair.

People on the street know all too well that they don't get the same care as everybody else.

My wife checked out a book from the library over the weekend called Disposable People, about slavery in the modern world. I couldn't help thinking about Mike when I looked at the title. Here is a musician, a songwriter, a guy who feeds the birds like St. Francis, peaceful, generous with day-old-bread and antique comic books. A kind person. In my mind's eye, I see him walking across the street, see the car coming up and striking him, see the window rolling down, see the face of the person inside, saying "can I give you a dollar for a cup of coffee?"

It's my face.

I'm just as guilty. I see someone hurt, someone in whose injury I am complicit on some level, and I offer just a little bit of help, a quick and easy fix, something small and manageable and noncommittal, and then drive away. I'm in a hurry, after all. Places to go, things to do. I'm an important person. One of the non-disposable people.

"A dollar for a cup of coffee" is what passes for compassion in our world.

Fortunately, shame gets smaller and smaller as it recedes in the rear-view mirror.


olympiada said...

That was a beautiful post Sampson thank you.
I saw a homeless man in my shopping center yesterday. I identified with him more than all the rich yuppies that patronize the place.
I have seen violence in my time. I saw my ex beat up some homeless man outside our former community.
It sounds like violence also exists in this woman who ran over your friend.
Lord have mercy.

Sampson said...

Dear Olympiada,

I think you make an interesting point by connecting this post with our previous discussion on violence. My own observation would be that somehow our capacity for violence is linked to our being in a hurry.

I would go so far as to say that we commit some of the worst acts of our lives because we are in a hurry.


Stacy said...

It seems, perhaps, that maybe the woman driving the car deserves our pity more than the homeless man. He seems to "get" a few things about life that are beyond the material. All she seems to have is the material. In her person she embodies the ancient heresy of gnosticism.

olympiada said...

Stacy gnosticism is a powerful heresy. Don't undersestimate its sway. The woman deserves compassion if indeed she is under it.

Sampson this is olympiada.

Nathan said...

Whatever pity or compassion the woman needs, she also needs a visit from the police - leaving the scence of an accident like that is criminal.

But I read this post yesterday morning and then went to take my wife out to lunch on her lunch-break. We stopped by a Subway and after we sat down I noticed a young woman filling out an application with her young child sitting next to her in a stroller. The kid had a black eye and a bandage on her cheek. Obviously I don't know this for sure, but from the intent & careful way she was filling out the app, I got a sense of desperation from her. And I couldn't imagine myself being desperate to get a minimum wage at Subway. I think that's where the problem, at least for me, really lies - a lack of compassionate imagination. We can't see ourselves in the shoes of someone praying for $5.75 an hour.

Stacy said...

I agree with the need for a police visit. And some massive insurance claims. Having pity and holding responsible are both compassionate.

Sampson said...

Mike and I briefly discussed the possibility of some kind of legal action (he thinks he remembers the license plate number), but he wasn't really enthusiastic. He rattled off a few of his other health issues, then said, "Looking at it as a boilermaker, I'm not optimistic about the machine."

Mike is fifty. People on the street don't live much longer (the average age of death is about 43, as opposed to 70 for the rest of us).


Ernest said...

The woman-in-the-car's actions speak more of what I feel is the biggest evil in the modern world ... the "All About Me" mindset. It's all too easy to justify as non-important the things that don't impact the Me. Ultimately there is no You, there is only the Not-Me.

These people aren't evil, they just view the world as their own private reality show. Somewhere she's in Starbucks drinking a 5$ cup of coffee telling her friends about this homeless guy who walked out in front of her and she brushed with her car. By next week it'll be the story of a homeless guy she almost hit, and then a month from now it'll be the story of a scary homeless man who was obviously deranged and she tried to help but he refused.