The Man in the Dumpster
“Every man is guilty of the good he did not do.” – Voltaire
I rounded the corner, dressed for work but not completely awake in the morning darkness. It’s a long walk to my car, and I’m once again aggravated that our apartment complex does not having enough parking spaces for its tenants. As always, there’s the anxious mouse-voice in my subconscious murmuring about being late for work, even though I’ve got nearly an hour to make my twenty-minute commute. I’m repeatedly replaying the dim scenes of me grabbing my wallet, pocketing my keys, pulling my lunch out of the fridge, and – most important – making sure I have my Chap-stik. I’ve already patted my pockets down six times in the forty feet that I’ve walked from my front door; I’ve got everything, but I won’t be able to banish that forgetting-something feeling until I’ve arrived at work on time and busied myself. With all this pre-caffeinated fluff going on in my head, I’m surprised I noticed them at all.
As they came into view, I half-way noticed the guy looking over into the dumpster. He tried to step away quickly, so as not to look like he was digging in there. But to be honest with you, at 5 AM and 50-something degrees I didn’t really care if he was or not. There was a woman with him, squatting on the few concrete steps that lead to the parking lot – the one that’s always full when I want to park there. In the brightness of the street light I saw their faces turn towards me. I guess they heard my boots on the sidewalk. I bustled by and turned away towards the other lot where my car is parked, no different than I would have if they weren’t even there. Homeless folks aren’t an odd sight around here, and I think I was more surprised to see somebody outside this early than anything else. I continued down the sidewalk. As I did, I heard a voice that sounded like a tobacco stain call after me.
“Hey, thank you for your service.”
I muttered a “Thanks” over my shoulder, one that I’m certain wasn’t loud enough for him to hear, and I kept walking. Didn’t even look at the guy. But I couldn’t keep what he said from ricocheting around my brain. I was still moving, but my thoughts were snagged there where his words had caught them.
“Thank you”? What is this guy thanking me for? I never know how to respond when regular people say this to me, but a homeless guy? What am I supposed to say to him? “Yeah, buddy, no problem. Glad to see freedom and democracy and all that are working so well for you. No shortage of dumpsters, ay?” Absurd.
Then I think maybe he was being sarcastic. Or maybe ironic. What a great joke, right? Maybe he got off on the preposterousness of the whole thing, ridicule being the only power he thinks he has over those of us with a bed to sleep in.
Or maybe he was just trying to distance himself from his embarrassment at being seen rummaging where the rest of us toss our garbage. Just a feeble attempt to keep some shred of dignity intact, as if to try to say to me “Hey, this is what normal people would say to you. I’m still a normal person, too, see?”
Or maybe he was drunk or high, just far enough out of his mind to not connect what he was saying to the position he was saying it from. Maybe it was just a force of habit, instilled in him by some patriotic parent.
Or worst of all, maybe he actually was grateful. Isn’t that just an awful thought? That this guy, digging in the trash, with literally nothing but the dingy clothes he had on, could be genuinely appreciative of me somehow. The possibility that this might be true left me two kinds of angry and three kinds of sad.
You see, I have a problem with homeless people. Every time I see them, there’s two parts of me that go to rasslin’ with each other. One part of me looks down on them, figuring that their situation was entirely self-induced. They made bad decisions, they get to live with the consequences. They’re probably addicts. If I give them money they’d probably spend it on drugs or alcohol instead of food or clothes. They’re probably lazy. They probably aren’t even trying to find a job, since people just hand them cash for holding a piece of cardboard. They’re probably dishonest, I shouldn’t have anything to do with them because they would probably screw me over and rob me blind the first chance they get. Probably, probably, probably…it’s easy to dismiss them.
The other part of me argues. It never seems to win, but it tries pretty hard: Life can be rough, they might just have had a hard go of things. They might have medical problems they can’t afford. They might have been taken advantage of and screwed over by somebody else. They might be veterans. They might have lost everything through no fault of their own. They might be honest people, willing to work, but no one will hire them because they can’t afford a shave or a haircut and decent clothes for an interview. They might have been homeless since they were a child, never having a chance to get leg up on life. They might be starving. Might, might, might…
All of this ultimately comes down to the only real truth I’ve gathered about this particular slice of people, and that is that I don’t know anything about them. I don’t know what it is to lead their life, I don’t know who I would be if I was holding the cardboard sign. There’s something in my personality that just isn’t satisfied with not knowing, and I can never get past the fact that these are people. What kind of person am I if I just look away and pretend these people and their circumstances don’t exist?
That charitable part of me, you know, it never says “You should give them money.” What it says, with both increasing firmness and frequency, is “You should meet them where they are.” What does that mean? My impulse, the little tug that happens, is this odd desire to talk to them. They’re on the corner, in the concrete median by the stoplight, on the grass by the Wal-Mart entrance – all day, right? They’re not busy. Some strange piece of me thinks it would be fascinating to just sit and be bored and hungry with them. “Hey, if I hold your sign for a while, will you tell me your story?” It might seem selfish, just wanting to talk and listen to them instead of trying to feed them or clothe them or fix all their problems. But I sometimes wonder if that piece of their humanity doesn’t get neglected.
Maybe I’m just a bleeding heart, or perhaps I’m in the process becoming one, because I haven’t worked up the courage to embark on such an escapade yet. But I get the feeling that these ideas aren’t going to leave me alone any time soon.
I was pretty angry with myself for brushing off the guy who thanked me that morning. I was upset that I still wasn’t kind enough to turn around and give him some of the leftovers out of my lunch bag, or run back into my apartment right quick to grab some shirt or pair of shoes that I knew I didn’t really need anyway. Aggravated that the cold, condescending part of me still won out. I could’ve at least stopped and talked to the guy for a minute.
When I got home that day, Katie mentioned that she’d seen two homeless people back there in that parking lot trying all the door handles on the cars. She said she’d tried to get a picture of them for the security guards at our complex, but they were gone before she could. So, I thought to myself, you’d thank me for my service, then turn around and steal anything of value out of my car if I’d forgotten to lock it. What kind of person would do that?
I didn’t know. And I still don’t know. But I still want to know.