20 May 2006

Reflections on The Green Sheet Man Republic

By request from a friend, who wanted to see it posted here...a previous day's unpublished entry.

Back from the multi-city, multi-airport, multi-taxi hell that is modern life these days. And while I miss the hustle and bustle of those cities and bands (great music heard all around from 3 different ones in the last few days), I can say without reservation that I do not miss the taxi rides. I am not a patient nor spend-happy person, and I believe God created the taxi to test my skills at both. And I never win, and further, am never amused.

I also always come back to my little apartment a little more thankful than when I left. It's not that I appreciate life in a smaller environment more, because at times I certainly lament how homogeneous the society is around here, how limited the food and entertainment options are. Compared to what I've seen, we have no traffic, few taxes, decent housing, a fairly literate population base, and relatively little crime. Yet we complain, as all humans do, about all of these and more. We are frivolous and fickle people, and a never satisfied bunch...no wonder we're gluttonous. I am lucky to live in a Southern version of Heaven and I know it; hell, I consider myself lucky to even be alive some days. Yet, I always come back from the Big City somewhat troubled...especially when I see the state of the homeless on our streets. I have returned home this time more melancholy than ever.

The moon, especially when it is shining high up in the sky, is a glorious thing to behold. If you can truly take the time to contemplate how it's been almost 40 years since we landed there, and even more since we used it as a benchmark of American 'success', you understand why navigators and poets and romantics alike (since the beginning of recorded time, really) are forever drawn to its calming aura. And homeless people, too...please don't forget them, as they use it as a guide and inspiration as well. I can say this not only as a person who has worked with the homeless from time to time, but as a veteran of their life, too, as one who lived (luckily) in my truck for a short period a few years back. Here out least, the moon is like a nuturing force: if you could find a place where the cops didn't or rarely patrolled and the moon shone overhead, you thought you had a decent chance to make it to tomorrow. And maybe the next day and the next. And when a truck or the street is your home, 2-3 days in the future is the most you can hope for. That and maybe a shower once in awhile and a hot meal. Basic needs are many, excessive wants are few.

I was lucky in that I had skills and education that gradually helped me find longer and longer term employment, which helped me get enough money together to at least pay for food so I could sleep in a friend's garage. Many did not have such skills nor luck in finding sympathetic friends. (And 'friends' are always willing to take you in for a few days generally, but when they know it may be indefinite and/or without pay, their welcome mats are frequently withdrawn...my experience, anyway.) My case is like many on the American streets: paycheck to paycheck living combined with a medical problem, then the loss of insurance, and then the loss of a paying job. However, of about the 120 or so that I knew locally, I truly believe I was one of the lucky ones. I never developed a substance problem, never prostituted myself, never got arrested, never was abused, and never had children who had to experience that turbulent life with me. And I had my truck, my beloved truck...I am sure it saved my life and my soul from those ravages many times. If I ever got scared or threatened, it was always a home and place of refuge that could cart me away to a safer place. And hopefully a place where I could gaze upon the moon before going to sleep.

So it is with this background that I now march around like 'a regular person' on the streets, with a job, with fairly new clothes, with dedicated friends, with cash and a low-limit credit card in my wallet, and freshly showered. And this week, unfortunately, I was the only one who paid attention to the Man in the Green Sheet. Waiting at a streetlight in the Modern Woman's Hell with Starbucks, Calvin Klein, $400 shoe stores, and countless ads for the next movie blockbusters, there stood a man dressed in a green sheet, unkempt, dirty and clearly starving. As an investment banker-type proudly held his Coach briefcase next to him, Green Sheet Man stood equally proud holding onto his shopping cart filled with newspapers, mud-splattered stuffed animals, and a half-full bottle of water. The 40 or so others waiting at the light pretended to ignore him (and maybe did); I was sitting in a traffic-logged taxi and was transfixed. It was like he wasn't even there. When the lights changed, all parties moved on to their separate destinations: the banker-type to his surely Very Important Meeting, the office girls in their stilletos to the 20% off shoe sale, the college kids to the coffee shop, me in my cab lurching toward a night of entertainment frivolity. And as the driver pulled away, Green Sheet Man was pulling on his overweight shopping cart to parts unknown, barefoot and clearly naked under the sheet.

And I just felt absolutely inhuman after watching that. You can take the small town girl from the town to the Big City, but you can never put the Big City into the small town girl.

Throughout that night, the supposed frivolous entertainment never was. Nothing was ever right, everything and everyone seemed to be having loads of fun, but I was always tense. I couldn't concentrate, mainly because of a lack of sleep and my mind whirring around about how I had blown another opportunity to help someone. Helping people is what I do, for Pete's sake.

"But how?", the devil on my shoulder asked.

"Somehow...anyhow...you know what it's like," said the angel on the other. "You are a fraud, no better than those who turned you away or pretended you didn't matter."

A fraud and a coward. I had become One of Them. Yep, that was that gut-turning feeling deep inside me.

Later in the evening, as frivolity turned to absurdity, I gave into trying to help a friend accomplish a goal she held dear (to get a memento of the show we attended), as she clearly had more fun than I did because of my uneasiness and preoccupation. Yet, I guess I held back in helping her as much as I could because it just didn't matter to me that much right then. I was hearing various nonsense about the lifestyles of the rich and famous, all the while wondering how Green Sheet Man existed in the City without shoes. And my dear friend the Moon was clearly visible in the late night sky...at least in the wealthier side of town. I wished I had my truck to go find him and a cheap pair of shoes so at least his feet wouldn't get cold. After sleeping outdoors for a while, truck or no truck, you're always cold. It's a cold that gets down deep in your bones and you can never quite shake it...even in the hottest of summers you still feel it, like a ghost intermingling with your blood. I don't know if it's called Hunger or Pain or Desperation, but you die with it.

After I returned my friend to the modern-day comforts of an over-priced hotel, I was hungry and still spiritually unwell. Despite the late hour, I wandered for what seemed like hours and admired my friend the Moon, who glowed a welcome amber. I eventually found myself at a 24-hour convenience store that apparently specialized in every muffin variety and lottery ticket in a 4 state area. The clerk, who seemed somewhat surprised at me being there for whatever reason, was a nice Pakistani man who kept reminding me the muffins on display were the previous morning's, but still very good. I made my selections and stood in line. The man before me was short about five cents and he was bargaining. The clerk would have none of it. While they squabbled, I took out what was due and put it on the counter. They both stopped and looked at me like I had sprouted an extra head.

"It's only a few cents," I said. "I can afford a few cents."

With some hesitation, the clerk counted the change and my added amount, declared the man's half-wrap sandwich free and clear, and slammed the cash drawer shut. The man left, and typical of this world I guess, forgot to say thanks to either of us. Not that either of us expected a thank you, but it would be reassuring to know those two words are not just spoken in the rural areas of this country anymore.

The clerk returned to his former sunnier disposition with me and seemed happy I took him up on his suggestion of the muffins. I decided to enjoy one then and there, and am happy to report the blueberry one I sampled was fantastic...far better than anything made back home here. Ahh, yes, the Big City pleasures.

I was half-talking to the clerk as I stood in the doorway, looking at the mostly quiet street outside. With still much time before departure and no real place to go until then, I was debating whether another muffin was in order for the hours ahead. My thoughts were broken from the sound of trash can lids hitting the sidewalk across the street. I looked and saw 2 women searching for food from a Chinese restaurant bin, one more frantically than the other.

"Pay them no mind," warned the clerk behind me. "They're looking for change. They bring what they can find in here and change it out at dawn." He finished ringing up another customer, then came over to me at the front entrance. "Don't give them any money when you leave. They will try and rob you."

They may have been looking for money, but I also could not help but notice that they were eating half-eaten egg rolls, too. And the frantic one was fishing out as many of the unopened fortune cookies she could find and putting it in a garbage bag she had co-opted into a purse.

"They come in here at dawn, every morning, you say?"

"Yes, almost every day," was the reply. "Well, almost dawn. We have lots of customers, so don't want them in here after 5, really. They steal the fruit and ask for change, so I have to watch them."

I ignored his comments, not so much because I hated his description of the women, but because it was nothing new to me. I'd heard it several times in different ways several years before...but it was just said about me instead. I never stole food, but I did collect aluminum cans at night when I was short of money for the next meal, such as it was. Breaking away from Memory Lane for the moment, I checked my finances and, after allowing the outrageous cab fare to the airport, I bought three of his best muffins. He gave them to me; I gave them back.

"Keep them for when they come in later," I said.

He looked confused. "But they will expect this every day, then. No," he said, as he pushed them back at me. "You take with you. Very good muffins, you know."

I pushed them back again. "No," I said firmly. "For them. Tell them someone bought them, and then didn't like them, so you can't put them back. If they're hungry...", and I knew they were after all, "...if they're hungry, they'll take them and understand it's only once." Only once, damn it. Only once.

I held up a dollar to him. "I can pay you only this to make sure it gets done. It's all I have after cab fare..."

He held up his hand. "No, it will be done. Keep your money."

I thanked him and then stood at the doorway again, finishing my muffin before I left to go explore some more. I watched the women across the street count their fortune cookie bounty, thought about interrupting them to tell them about the muffins, but decided against it when I realized they were arguing. That's the thing about living on the street a bit, you gotta stand up and defend what's yours...no matter if it's newspapers, unopened fortune cookies, or shoes. Maybe Green Sheet Man, no matter where he is now, maybe he's found some shoes. I can only hope.

I was throwing away my wrapper and leaving when the clerk hollered at me from his register. "You know, once those people live like that, on the street like that, they are crazy. Always crazy. And use, never give back. Watch yourself when you leave, they'll know you're not a regular. But I will give them the muffins. But they don't know how to live. You do know that, right?" he asked.

"No, no, I didn't." And I walked away.

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