I’m outside the building smoking when two young guys approach me. One seems clean cut and extroverted; a smiley glad hands sort of fellow. The other, a scrawny white kid, looks shy and disheveled. It’s the first guy who asks me for money, and I motion towards the building behind me, to the fast food restaurant.
“I work here, man,” I told him, topping off the subtle suggestion with the blatant announcement, “I don’t have any money.”
I cannot hope to ever express how much I enjoy watching the whole demeanor change. This happens so fucking often. Someone comes up to you with open body language, direct eye contact and a kind smile. Unlike this guy, some warm up to you first; fore play before they try and get in your pants — figuratively, for money or cancer sticks.
This guy, he jumped right in.
As soon as you say no, you won’t give them money or let them bum a smoke, you suddenly don’t exist to them. You’re unwilling to fall prey to the sympathy they are trying to elicit in you, fail to provide for them, so you have no use to them. They might even get visibly angry, say something crude.
This guy? He’s a pro. I say no and he goes to the opposite end of the sidewalk to try and get the other guy enjoying a cigarette to fork over some cash. He leaves me with blond-haired skinny boy, sinking beneath his shoulders, hiding beneath the hoodie.
As strangers and friends alike often do, he begins spilling to me. There are no hidden aims, no ulterior motives, he just needs someone to listen. He talks to me as if he’s in training as a beggar: he tells me he’s getting better at it. How he tries to find a job, but he doesn’t have a home or a phone number, so that causes issues. His parents kicked him out, he tells me; they want nothing to do with him. He doesn’t know what else to do.
What do I tell him? That I remember a life where I died homeless and alone, that buried in me somewhere I might know how he feels? Or do I maintain an illusion of sanity and restrict it to this life, tell him how if it wasn’t for friends and family I would have been in his position years ago, perhaps be worm food right now?
And the wall I erect nowadays when it comes to beggars: how do I go about explaining that? Do I be honest?
How can I help people when I can hardly help myself, especially as I have learned that people do not always return the empathy you have with them but rather use your empathy to manipulate you, to serve themselves, and to hell with you?
We have a polite conversation. I finish my smoke, kindly bid him a good evening and go back inside.
Later, as I’m cleaning the dining room towards the end of my shift, Wes strolls in. I’ve known him on and off for years. I met him through a guy that used to work here with me.
He’s out on the streets, homeless again. He might go to prison, he tells me, and this time it wasn’t even his fault — he was in the wrong place, wrong time, and someone in the apartment he was crashing at died from an overdose. Now he’s selling weed so he has some income. So he can eat.
He asks me if I could get him some food. I make him a quarter pounder and hide it in the gondola where I put the trash. I put it outside the back door for him, and he thanks me. Hugs me. And goes on his way.
There was talk that day about a fire uptown, another story about a fire alarm going off in a nearby Walmart, so when we saw what looked like a fire truck flashing its lights at the motorcycle place next door, I figured it was just some nomad arsonist making rounds. Upon going home that evening, I learned it had nothing to do with a fire. Some guy had overdosed on heroine in the darkness just outside the building. What I read online gave no name — “let’s call him Ben,” it said.
My name? That figures.
Perhaps a day or two later, one of my coworkers comes in the back room to see if I’ll let this one guy outside use my lighter, because no one else will.
I go outside to find its Wes. He’s alive. It wasn’t him who died. The relief is short lived.
He looks, well, bad.
He’s wearing the same red hoodie as last time I saw him. He looks like a tall skeleton coated in tattooed, Caucasian-colored shrink wrap. His eyes shine like glass. The whites of the sclera have gone pink. He’s constantly in motion, like a thoroughly-caffeinated drunk, like an enthusiastic, wildly gesticulating Jack Sparrow.
I ask him if he’s high. He insists he is not. He’s having a mental breakdown, he tells me. Out of the corner of his eyes, he keeps seeing people who aren’t there. Keeps hearing conversations that no one is having. The other night, he blacked out, lost himself, became someone else. He suddenly came to later to find his girlfriend crying. He remembers nothing. Nothing at all.
Dissociation. A dissociative identity taking control due to too much stress for his personality to handle. Is that what he is experiencing?
Is that what I have experienced?
I see him again a few days later. His girlfriend broke up with him. According to her, she was afraid one night when he blacked out that he might rape her, which seemed to confuse and hurt him. He was raped as a child, he told her; he would never do that to anybody.
“Yeah,” she told him, “but you weren’t there.”
What do I tell him?