They didn’t know what it was like. They looked at him and saw a piece of shit. Lazy, shiftless, free-loading. Worse was the housewife who looked at him with pity like he was some mangy stray while handing him a couple of wadded bills, careful to avoid contact. Like she might catch it. Or the ‘Nam vet who turned dead eyes on him and said with a voice like a slap, Get a job, son.
They didn’t know what it was like to return home at night to a dreary bed-sit and scrape beans out of a can, and count the spare change knowing it wasn’t going to be enough to survive on tomorrow.
They didn’t know what it was like to lie to his mother when she called every Sunday afternoon, tell her that the job was great, the mental illness was great, the wife was great, the house was great, yes, still driving the same great car and going to the same great rib joint on Saturday night.
They didn’t know what it was like to feel the heel of existence pressed between your shoulder blades as you regained consciousness every morning. Knowing it would be another day of approaching strangers and asking, always asking.
They assumed he drank or shot or snorted or gambled it. The truth was, it took every cent he could scrape together to buy the medications that kept his depression at bay, his anxiety leveled, the voices in his head down to a whisper. It took every penny to keep prescriptions renewed and filled and bus fare to the doctor’s office so he could give his last dime to furnish their lovely waiting room.
He often stood outside the Save-A-Lot and waited for elderly ladies and harried mothers to come out with their arms full. He put on his best smile, the one he once used to greet customers from behind the service desk at the U.S. Cellular store. He’d step forward and ask, “May I help you with your bags?” More often than not he was met with a dismissive wave or curt ‘no thanks.’ But once in awhile, someone would smile back. Would hand over their burdens. Would tip him after he’d loaded their car.
That’s how he met Carolina. She was always in a hurry, always had a baby on her hip and a toddler’s hand in hers, and about a hundred bags to fit like a tetras puzzle into the back of her Caravan. But she saw him the first time, and she smiled openly, a warm smile, like he was her equal. No one smiled at him like that any more. They used to. But circumstance had made him something less than they were.
Every Wednesday he met her, and he worked her haul into her van, and he called her babies by name and swapped pleasantries with her, and she would dig in her purse and empty her wallet into his hand. Sometimes it was just a five or a ten, but today, she handed him $20.
He shook his head and tried to give it back. “It’s too much,” he said.
She covered his hand with hers and pushed it gently into his chest while Calvin, the little one, shrieked like a wild thing from his car-seated confinement. “Tell me you can’t use it, John,” she said with a gentle smile.
He couldn’t tell her that. “I’ll repay you.”
She smiled again. “If you like. But it’s not necessary. See you next week?”
She drove away and he fought to compose himself. It wasn’t the money that got him. It was the kindness. Carolina made him wonder when the world had turned so cruel, when human beings had gone from kind and civil to snarling, back-biting hyenas stalking the sidewalks and aisle-ways, ready to turn on one another at the slightest provocation.
He resumed his post, feeling both better and worse about himself. At least he was still a kind person, in spite of the cynicism that festered in his soul. Perhaps being a productive member of society had nothing to do with ‘making your own way’ but more to do with the energy you put back out there.
No, they didn’t know what it was like, most of them. But he knew something they didn’t. He knew that every person is one catastrophe, one job, one illness, one economic collapse away from pounding the sidewalk every day to meet their daily needs. He knew it would break most of them. Not him though. He wasn’t here forever. He would find his way out. And when he did, he would use that telephone number that had been tucked behind Carolina’s bill.
The doors growled and squeaked open, and a graying gentleman with sparkling eyes met his gaze.
He smiled and stepped forward. “May I take your bags, sir?”