Yesterday I was on the street approaching a cafe where some of us meet regularly to discuss social issues. A disheveled young man was sitting on the curb next to the sidewalk just outside the door. He was very clearly in an anxious and agitated state. He moved in a jerky fashion, as if starting off on something definite, but losing sight of the purpose before completing the act. Mostly he sat on the curb rocking forward and back. I noticed him from half a block away and the group I moved with was walking at a leisurely pace, so I had some time to consider the situation. We were going to walk past him to get to the cafe door, and I could see that he was trying to make human contact with every passer-by, and our group would surely not be immune.
So I considered what my course of action should be. My options ranged from ignoring him entirely, obviously the least risky course, to perhaps a noncommittal glance and maybe a nod of the head, on to eye contact and engagement and the follow-on entanglement of contact with an irrational and needy mind. I was looking forward to some meaningful discussions of pressing social issues with my friends, so I really didn’t want to devote the rest of my evening to the tight circles of limited reasoning and narrow topics available to most abandoned street folk. I figured he must be intoxicated, either drunk or huffing on a shared pipe full of synthetic.
The others in my group were following the street dictate of avoiding eye contact with the needy, but I was caught in the noncommittal glance mode. He latched onto that and jumped up as I was just about to pass… I know it is a stupid weakness but I just don’t use the cold shoulder tactic required in such situations. He asked me for a dollar. I said no, thinking of the two lonely soft worn dollar bills that I had been trying to keep in my wallet for the past week.
“Can I have three dollars?” His eyes were clear and did not waver. Drunks and stoners do not usually have the clarity to maintain steady eye contact. I looked away first.
“No,” I said, “I do not have three dollars.” My friends were entering the café and the door was closing behind them. I grabbed the handle reflexively.
“I’m hungry,” he said.
“I can buy you a cup of coffee,” I said weakly, thinking for a moment that drunks and stoners want money for drugs and alcohol, not coffee and food. Drunk and stoned, he would turn away from the offer of a cup of coffee.
But he did not. “Ok,” he said. “Buy me a sandwich?”
I stopped. “No,” I said. “I only have enough for coffee.” I was still holding the door.
“Ok,” he said and walked through the door and into the café. He followed my friends to a booth and slid in beside them. I groaned inwardly. I had just entirely spoiled what would have been an interesting conversation, adding a person to the mix who would inevitably drag us down to street level. I tried to think how to salvage the evening.
“You shouldn’t be in here,” I said to him weakly. “They will call the police.”
But he ignored me. “Can I have a dollar?” he said to the table. My friends all said no.
“Look,” I said, “do you want a dollar? I’ll give you a dollar. But you have to go outside.” I took my wallet out and pulled one of the sad worn bills out, showing it to him. He grabbed for it, but I held it back. “You have to go outside. We don’t want the police to come. Will you go outside?”
“Yeah,” he said and reached for the bill again, but I turned and walked toward the exit.
“Come on,” I said, “I’ll give it to you outside. Ok?” I turned and walked away. Half way to the door I glanced back to see if he was going to follow me. He got up from the booth reluctantly, but then hurried to catch up to me.
“Buy me a sandwich?” he asked as we passed the counter.
“No, I can’t, but here is a dollar.” I showed it to him and stepped outside, and he followed. “What’s your name?” I asked him.
He looked a bit surprised and said “Mike”, as if I should already know that.
“Mike,” I repeated. And then, conversationally, I asked him where his family lived. I stood quite close to him and there was no odor of alcohol on him.
“Colorado,” he said. “Anishinabek.” His motions still seemed jerky and random, quick starts of glances, fingers, hands and arms moving toward nothing, falling back again to his sides without purpose. I gave him the dollar. “Thanks!” he said. “Can you give me two dollars?”
I had been observing him close up, and his clothes were clean if not neat, and much closer to being new than worn out, but rumpled and ill-fitting. His face and hair were clean, so I knew he was not homeless. On the back of his left hand someone had drawn an “X” in black marker, and there were symbols, maybe numbers, in each angle of the “X”. It looked like the signs first responders spray paint on the fronts of flooded houses to let each other know the place has already been searched. The numbers tell what’s inside based on their position in the “X”, how many based on the value of the symbol. So many dead, so many injured, so many needing to be evacuated. On his other wrist was what looked like a hospital admissions ID bracelet, but it was looking like he’d been wearing it for quite a while, maybe even taped back on. I couldn’t make out the writing.
“Have you been in hospital?” I asked him. He shrugged my question away. “Have you been smoking synthetic today?” His eyes were amused by the question, and for a tiny second seemed to be askance, as if he were telling me I should know better. But he smiled.
“No,” he said, simple and direct.
I started to move back toward the café door….
“Wait,” he said, and his eyes locked on mine. I noticed again that they were clear and steady. “Do you like me?”
It didn’t seem like an offer, and his eyes were open and round as those of a child, waiting, uncertain, hopeful. “Sure, Mike, you are an ok guy. I can see that in you. Just a little messed up on the outside.”
He seemed satisfied by that. I went back in the café and he did not follow me. I re-joined my friends at the booth. Some explanation seemed to be required. “He isn’t drunk,” I said. “He doesn’t smell of alcohol. He told me he hasn’t been smoking synthetic, and I believe him.” My friends made some non-committal noises.
“What if,” I said, “What if….he isn’t using. He just is that way, every day, all the time? What if he has brain damage or a disability? What then?” No one even made a mumble.
After a few uncomfortable moments, the group member who is most organized and who usually tries to keep us on the conversational track cleared her throat and said “We were talking about what’s coming up in the next few weeks. It’s holidays and everyone is busy. Tuesday is the Honor the Earth dinner at UMD, and Thursday is the Commission meeting, Friday we have the Taco sale, Saturday is the holiday show. You guys can come hang with us at the show if you want, I am making soup and Richard is on setup and cleanup, so we will be busy, but there will be live music, and the art show in the gallery, and good food. It should be a good time.”
One of the other members of the group asked about the holiday show and our organized member was answering him, when Mike came back in through the door from the street. My heart sank, sure he would be right on us, but instead he stopped at the counter and spoke with the attendant. There was a bit of exchange and Mike turned around and entered another booth. But in a moment he was at the counter again picking up condiments and re-arranging the menus and take-home fliers. The conversation at our table went on about schedule details, then turned to pipelines and big holes in the ground and piles of waste rock alongside them, and what happens to our water when the holding ponds overflow.
I saw the counter man give Mike a small wrapped package, and Mike opened it and dumped the contents of a condiment bottle on whatever was in it. The counter man said something to him which I could not hear, and then to my relief Mike left the store with his prize. He was back a moment later. He said something to the counter guy who was wiping the shelves behind the counter with a rag. The counter guy ignored him. Then Mike went to the booth where he had been sitting, but did not find what he wanted, and in a moment he was at my elbow, shoving into the booth to sit down. He had a wad of napkins in his hand and was rubbing his mouth and tongue and making troubled faces. The napkins were stained orange-brown with some kind of sauce, and the stains were also on Mikes face around his mouth, and on his hands. “Hurt,” he said with intensity and strain in his voice. “Hurt.”
None of us knew what to say. He dabbed at his face some more and then dropped the wad of napkins on the table. “Can I have some water?” He pointed at my water glass and I pushed it toward him. He grabbed it with both hands and dumped the water into his mouth while gulping. When he set the glass back down on the table it was nearly empty, and he pushed it back next to my coffee cup again. Then he grabbed a packet of sugar from the bowl on the table and ripped it in half, dumping the contents, partly into his mouth but mostly onto the table and the booth and himself.
I watched him calmly while he did this, and then he noticed that one of our members had a half-eaten sandwich on a plate. “Can I have some?” he said to her.
“No” she said.
“Can I have some? Can I have some? Please?”
“No,” she repeated.
Mike pointed to some scraps that had fallen out of the sandwich and onto her plate. “Can I have that?”
She did not reply but took another bite. Mike began to bark like a dog. “Woof” he said. “Woof woof woof.
In exasperation she gave him the scrap. He accepted it happily and gobbled it down. “Can I have more? More?”
“No,” she said, forcefully this time.
“Can I have a sandwich?” She ignored him. “Can I have a sandwich?” But his resolve was weakening.
“She won’t give you any,” I said. “She is very stubborn.”
“Stubborn,” he said without malice. Then he got up and walked away along the counter and out the door to the street.
We talked some more about coming events and a little about tactics, and Mike did not return. The counter man continued cleaning up and it was evident that he wanted to close. Eventually I finished my coffee and everyone else was done, so we concluded our conversations and then got up and left the building. Outside, we stood on the sidewalk and talked for a while longer. Mike was nowhere in sight. On the curb where he had been sitting when I first saw him was a Styrofoam take-out box, open, containing what looked like a half-eaten Ruben sandwich. Maybe someone he had talked to earlier had left it for him. What if, I thought as we said our good byes. What if.