Homeless people are inherently scary. Most folks go out of their way to avoid them. They are dirty, smelly and look like they would stab a fork in your liver for a fistful of change. They favor the earth tones probably because they are so filthy. A homeless person in pastels might not be so scary.
There weren’t very many homeless people in New Jersey growing up. In fact, I can’t really remember seeing any until we took a family trip to New York. Some homeless guy tried to wash our windshield with some newspaper and my dad waved him away angrily and turned on his windshield wipers.
I didn’t really get that he didn’t have a home. But he did look scary.
When I went to school at Berkeley I got a full frontal of the homeless community. There were homeless people everywhere. I don’t know if they were drawn to Berkeley by the mild weather or the upper tier graduate school, but you’re practically walking on top of them there.
I learned pretty quickly how to deal with them. Sorry, I’d say. “Sorry for what?” one homeless person asked me. “If you’re so sorry, give me a dollar.” I stopped saying ‘sorry’ after that.
I chose to ignore them instead. I put on a steely expression, stared straight ahead and kept walking. This proved to be more effective.
There was one homeless man we called “Shirtless Guy.” He walked around, as you might have guessed, without a shirt. He was built like a lumberjack and did pushups and pullups wherever he could. If there was a spokesman for homeless people fitness, it was this guy. Shirtless Guy also had a habit of screaming and yelling for what appeared to be no reason. That’s why I guess some people called him “Screaming Guy.” One of my friends ended up actually talking to him. Turns out he was a pretty mellow guy (apart from the yelling) and was an encyclopedia of baseball knowledge. There was no real point in telling you about that. I just thought it was kind of interesting.
When I moved to LA, I got a job near Skid Row when it was still Skid Row and not overpriced yuppie lofts. I was walking to my car after work one day when a homeless man asked me for money. For some reason I said, “Sorry, not today” instead of my usual ignore approach.
“Oh, so that’s how it is. You think you’re better than me?” Uh oh. I kept walking and tried to ignore him as he followed me to my car, saying stuff like that to me the whole time. Nothing ended up happening, but I was wondering if I was going to have to use the folding knife I had under my car seat.
Nowadays, I don’t see them all too often. Only when I venture downtown, to the beach or by the metro stop near my work. But today I was riding through a kind of a random part of town. It was near the freeway but mostly residential townhouses. I saw a homeless woman, 60’s, in a wheel chair, just kind of sitting in the middle of the sidewalk. As I rode by, we made eye contact and she asked, “Water?”
I was late to work already. But she just looked so tired and we weren’t really that close to any stores, especially for an old woman in a wheelchair. I knew there was a gas station just up the street so I rode there and bought a liter of water.
I know people always say don’t give handouts to homeless people, donate to a shelter. But what would have a shelter have done for a thirsty woman in a wheelchair in some random neighborhood in LA?
I rode back and pulled up next to her. I caught a whiff of that distinct homeless person smell: sweat, BO and urine. She was covered in dirt and her skin sagged sadly. “You wanted some water?” She grinned a toothless grin. “Thank you. Can you open it for me?” That’s when I saw her right hand was curled into an useless knot. After I opened the bottle, she took a long, heavy pull from it like she hadn’t drank anything in awhile. “Would you mind?” She wanted me to recap it which I did. Then she stashed on the side of her wheelchair and I rode off.