“When we can understand that inside us lives not an enemy, but a being filled with hopes and failures, with beautiful moments of fulfillment as well as moments of frustration and resentment… When we can understand that our enemy has also lived with hopes and failures, with beautiful moments of fulfillment as well as moments of frustration and resentment… then we are casting a humanizing look over the skin of monstrosity.” – Silo, Talk on Reconciliation, 2007
When I woke up this morning, a strange little nonsense rhyme was going through my head:
“Uh uh, don’t worry, I’m alright, just ask Chewy…”
Must have been a holdover from the day before, which was a rough one. I’m OK now, back in the saddle, in my center, going where I want to go. But for a while yesterday I wasn’t so sure.
It was Billy who got me off track – or maybe I should say, who made me redefine my track, which in reality was badly in need of redefining. So I guess I have to thank him for that.
I first met Billy a couple of days ago, on my way to the Roe vs Wade protest with my son. We were walking through the quiet little park beside my apartment building when I heard a faint voice: “I’m sorry…”
Turning toward it, I saw a man lying in the doorway of a small tent. I’d noticed the tent the day before – the only one in our otherwise safe and genteel park – and had wondered who was inside, especially because outside it was a walker, so I knew it had to be an older person…
“Please, could I ask you to get me some food…?” the man asked plaintively.
“Oh!” I thought, “poor guy!”
Anyone in that situation would have captured my sympathy, but this guy was particularly irresistible because without even talking to him I could tell he was “one of us” – someone who had once been a “normal” member of the good old upper middle class.
My impulse here is to make it clear that “class” is not a concept I believe in – my parents, after all, were far from rich, but had interesting lives anyway, and taught their kids to be proud of being part of the humble middle class (they never emphasized the “upper” part). But today that whole concept has dissolved in the glaring light of something no one ever noticed when I was growing up: that no matter how much or little money any of us in the “middle class” had, we were really all members of the ruling class, because we were white.
Well, the guy in the tent was exactly like us, not only white, but clearly a more or less educated person who was used to having what he needed, and also a lot that he didn’t. He was so much like me that he could have been my brother. And yet here he was, in this unfortunate condition… I told him I’d bring him some food when I got back from the protest, and he thanked me gratefully.
After the protest, I went up to my apartment and heated up some leftovers – admittedly they weren’t Walt’s most successful culinary experiment, but they were certainly edible, and full of protein and fat, good for keeping warm. I also put a couple of apples and an orange in a bag with a plastic knife and fork and some napkins. Then I made a cup of tea, put some honey in it, and grabbed a bottle of water, and carried it all down to the man in the tent.
He seemed surprised to see me, but gratified, and when I gave him the food he smiled. I asked him his name, and what had happened to him, why he was there.
“I’m Billy,” he said. “My wife of 40 years kicked me out, and then I spent 7 months in jail… Since then I’ve been living on the street. I came here because at the place I was camped before, they stole my phone, right there in the middle of the day while I was sleeping…”
I assumed they also stole his wallet, or he wouldn’t be asking for food. I noted that inside his tent was a mess, a rumpled heap of clothes and sleeping bag, papers and empty paper cups and food containers.
“If I had my phone – it was just an $80 Tracfone – I could make some calls and get some help… But maybe you could do me a favor and call my lawyer? Just tell her where I am, she’ll send someone…”
“Of course,” I said, and he began rummaging until he found the number, which he dictated to me, with the lawyer’s name.
I went home and called her. No answer, but the voicemail gave the correct name, so I left a message.
That night, I thought of Billy downstairs, shivering in his tent. How unfair, here I am in this warmth and luxury, after a good meal and an evening watching imaginary scenes on a screen with my honey, safe and warm and able to sleep well…
In the morning I called the lawyer again – again no answer. But then I remembered I could text her, and when I did so, saying Billy seemed like a decent human being and telling her and where he was, she answered right back, “Thank you, I’ve assisted him a lot over the last few months, and will try to reach him again. I agree he’s a great person. Could you ask him what he needs?”
So I went out to ask. When I reached his tent, he looked at me in confusion, but then seemed to remember. He told me he wasn’t feeling well today, he couldn’t seem to stand up, and the park people had told him he had to leave by noon, and he was trying to figure out where to go and on top of that he was upset because he went out last night and spent too much money on pizza and a couple of drinks – $25, he couldn’t believe it! – and now he didn’t have anything left, and was feeling sick, and people were looking at him when they passed, making him feel invisible and ugly at the same time…
With those last words, his face twisted and I could see he was near tears, and I was reminded of a solipsistic acid trip I’d had decades ago, when I was convinced that I was the only person in existence, but that at the same time the fortunate “others” were looking at me from outside my lonely world, laughing and jeering at me, poor deluded outcast…
Of course I wanted to help this suffering soul, but what could I do? How was he going to go anywhere if he couldn’t stand up? I could offer to drive him somewhere, but even I knew that wasn’t wise… And what was this about going out for pizza and “drinks” last night – how could he have still been hungry after the food I brought him? And apparently he was an alcholic…
I told him that I was texting with his lawyer and that she wanted to know what he needed.
“Need??” he said, edging near hysteria. “A way out of here! And a phone, and some hot food and coffee from Starbucks, and some money, and a place to live!”
Watching his face as these needs erupted, I could see them rolling up in his eyes, just like in the cartoons, when they show the character’s eyes with dollar signs rolling up in them like in a slot machine.
How monstrous this was – that I could have all those things he needed, and couldn’t give them to him! I felt like he was part of me – felt his suffering, his squalor, invading me like a filthy tide, threatening to flood me out – and I knew if that happened I’d have to do the deepest deep cleansing of my life, and then let everything dry out in the sun for weeks… Everything about him repelled me – but he was human, and was in a bad way, and I had to do something if I could.
It was with that thought that I made my mistake.
“You say the phone you need is an $80 Tracfone? I could try to get you one – not sure where…”
“Oh, really??” His face lit up, hope dawning in his countenance. “That would be wonderful! They have Tracfones all over, Target, Walmart, wherever… maybe they even have them at the CVS near here!”
Well, why not? It was the least I could do – $80 is what I spend on two bags of groceries at the drop of a hat. And it might really help him – with a phone maybe he could get himself out of this mess…
I told him I’d go see if CVS had them, and left him waiting, elated.
I didn’t have any money with me, so I had to go home first. I figured I could also ask Walt if he had any ideas how to help this guy…
Back in our apartment, I asked Walt, and he said, “Call 211.” I didn’t tell him about my offer to buy the phone – it was too embarrassing, I’m always getting myself in pickles of this kind, digging myself into ridiculous holes, stepping in where angels fear to tread, just because I can’t stand to see people suffering – not because I’m any saint, but because it makes me suffer to see them suffer…
So I called 211, and the man who finally answered was kind, and offered me several phone numbers for organizations that might be able to help. Clearly though, he said, there’s probably not much any of them can do – this guy is obviously not in the worst shape, and these services are usually for more dire circumstances, life or death situations…
I thanked him and was about to begin dialing the numbers when I remembered my friend Patty, who volunteers at a homeless shelter and has decades of experience with people like Billy. So I called her, and thankfully she answered, and I told her everything.
After listening to my story, she said, “I hope you didn’t tell him where you live, and don’t even think about offering him a ride in your car!” And I thanked my lucky stars I’d resisted both temptations. She went on, “Sorry to tell you, but really, the 211 guy was probably right – there’s not much anyone can do. I love your big warm heart, but compared with a lot of people this guy is more or less ok. And clearly if he could dump your lovingly prepared food and go get pizza and drinks last night, he’s not doing so bad. Obviously he has a source of money, and is an alcoholic, which is why his wife kicked him out. For someone like that there’s precious little anyone can do until they make a big decision to change their life.”
My hopes of someone else rescuing me from this predicament were fast wilting. I told her about my offer to buy a phone, and she was also quick to dash that idea. “He’ll just sell it for money for booze,” she told me matter of factly.
I should have known. Just the other day she laughed at me in loving horror and pity and understanding when I told her about how I’d given a $50 bill – my only cash – to young man with a baby outside a Trader Joe’s. “He was probably a heroin addict with a baby for a prop!”
“I know, I know, I couldn’t help it,” I told her, “he was so sweet…”
Oh yes, anyone with a sob story can wrap me around their little finger with a flicker of their eyelashes…
“Just go back and tell him it didn’t work out with the phone,” my friend told me.
I grabbed onto that suggestion like a life raft – obviously that was the only thing to do – and went back down to give Billy the unwanted news.
When I found him, I told him right away that I was sorry, the phone thing didn’t work out, but his lawyer was trying to find someone to help him – which was true, she’d just texted me again.
When he heard about the phone, his face changed. “You’re kidding!” he burst out. “Well can you at least get me a coffee and a sandwich? There’s a Starbucks just up there, just get me a large black coffee, and any kind of hot meat and cheese sandwich!” It was like he was ordering at a take-out place. Put off by his tone, I thought, it’s my fault for offering to buy him a phone and then disappointing him – but this is the last thing I’ll do. I’ll get him what he wants and then wash my hands of the whole affair.
I set out for the Starbucks, but I knew it really wasn’t that close, and there was a pizza place only a block away, so I went there instead. All he really needed, I figured, was coffee and some hot food with protein, so I order a coffee and a slice of pizza loaded with meat and cheese. They were busy, and had to make fresh coffee, but finally they gave me everything, the pizza in its special triangular box, and I carried them back to Billy.
When I got to his tent, I called his name, and said, “Here you go, a large coffee and some hot meat and cheese pizza…”
At the sight of the pizza box, he completely flipped. “Pizza!!” he wailed. “Not Pizza!!! I hate pizza! I wanted Starbucks coffee and a hot sandwich! Fuck you, I hate you! Fuck you, fuck you, fuck youuuuuuuuu!” he screamed, exactly like a toddler throwing a tantrum – except that his deep voice shook the air with a bizarre, unchildlike ferocity.
Shocked, I backed off while his howls reverberated through the lovely afternoon, his vitriol whirling after me like a deadly fishing line cast by a madman intent on reeling me into his den, wrapping me in his poison spider silk, and sucking the life out of me…
Thankful that he was too weak to chase me, I retreated back into my privileged life. I had plenty to do at home, but I couldn’t go there yet – I was too full of Billy, his victimized squalor rising in me, clinging to my insides like a taint, a miasma… I had to do something to shake him out of me.
I got in the car and drove aimlessly for a while, until I found myself near the park-like grounds of the local university. There I parked, and set out walking under the joyously new-leafing trees, the sunlight shimmering, everything green and gold in the wet, delicious springtime air.
Music, I thought – music always helps – so I put on my headphones and listened to some meditative Indian music, Deva Premal, which I usually love – but today it just sounded sappy. So at last I resorted to my old friend J.S.Bach, one of his cantatas, Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut… My heart swims in blood…
And at last, like an anointment, I felt his music healing my wounds, opening my heart… So I walked, and listened, and little by little my horror melted so that I could make out the glimmer of the Sacred – the Sacred that shines in everything, even in Billy and his scrofulous hellish life.
Later that afternoon, I told a couple of good friends about my misadventures, and they listened without saying a word, just understanding – it was clear they’d been there. Telling them, and knowing they understood, comforted me.
Because it’s not Billy who is the problem. It’s the ancient disease we all carry: the scourge of the inflated egoic “I.” It’s a disease that has always been around, but it’s gotten way worse in our culture, because it feeds on fear, which our very lifestyle churns out in massive quantities.
Of course we all need our little “i” – we can’t function in this world without it – but it needs to be tended to. It needs to know that it’s ok, that it’s appreciated and is being taken care of, but also that it doesn’t get to run the show. Because if it feels all alone, it gets so scared that it pumps itself up on its own poisonous venom, swelling and swelling until it bursts and kills the host, wreaking havoc all around it…
Personally, I’m intimate with my own inflated little “i” – as are all my best friends with theirs, and we talk all the time about how to handle them. Since we all have the same problem, we recently started a cooperative nursery school, and it’s been great. Every day we drop off our little “i’s,” telling them to play nicely and not to squabble over their toys, and we’ll be back later. Of course we don’t leave them entirely alone, that would be a disaster. Instead, we keep them in our collective co-presence, with just enough attention on them to make sure they don’t kill each other, while we devote ourselves to more interesting pursuits…
As for Billy, I hope that sometime soon he too will get tired of letting his inflated little “i” run and ruin his life, and will begin to yearn for something more, something wonderful that lives inside him. Because I have not the slightest doubt that deep inside him, just like in all of us, there lives a joyful, shining being – a very human being whom I hope one day to get to know.