Alone in a Land of Millions

1 November, 2012 § Leave a comment

We were driving somewhere yesterday to one of the few places on the outskirts of the city that is truly beyond reach by bike or bus and as we came up underneath one of the many concrete overpasses where shadows mix with the constant hum of traffic, I exclaimed out loud, “Oh! Careful, don’t hit him.” Several feet ahead of us, moving one slow and painful hand grip at a time, a hunched over figure in a dirty baseball cap and cut-off jeans was wheeling his creaky wheelchair across the 6-lane intersection without any regard for the crosswalk lines.

We usually try to give the many men and women in our city with their inexorable forest of cardboard signs, blistered heels and sad eyes food instead of money — and when we can’t give either, then we at least seek to be intentional about rolling down the window, or pulling over to the side of the road, or stepping out altogether in order to pause, make direct eye contact, ask for their name and then listen to however much of their story the-no-longer-stranger is willing to share in the moment.

As the light flickered from yellow to red, the slow rolling wheelchair man made his way down the line of cars in the lane directly next to our own. If his wavering trajectory down and across the pavement was any indication, he seemed to think other drivers with their larger modes of transportation still ought to yield to him, mindless of the potential disaster that awaited if some careless SUV driver was too busy texting to see his small, vulnerable figure in the middle of the intersection.

When the time came for him to pull up next to us, we unrolled the window and asked for his name. “Hey,” I said, leaning over from the passenger’s seat to address him out of the driver’s side, “be careful out there. You’re kind of hard to see and this looks like a pretty dangerous spot.” To my shocked surprise, rather than feel noticed or cared for, the homeless man erupted in an angry and palpably bitter cloud of despair, spit flying along with rage. “Let them! C’mon, you mother f—-ers,” he yelled, shaking his clenched and shaky fist in my face, “go ahead and run me over! What do I have to lose?” At that point, the light turned green and impatient cars behind us started honking their horns. We were left with no choice but to wish the still nameless man well before pulling away, a faint trail of anger words disappearing in freeway exhaust and preoccupation. “Go ahead! Run me over!”

Hearts have broken over less truth-telling: isolation, abandonment, anger, need. It’s impossible to tell where the one picks up and the other lets off — and any attempt to make sense of what had just been spoken would lead to a rude diminishing of the rawness of the moment.

We remained silent for the next several miles.

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