The Master of Discernment

I am the definition of the middle-class white male. I drive an 8-year-old Prius, have a well-funded 401K, own two suits, one black and one blue (navy), and wear a clean crew cut that I get trimmed every three weeks. My only real novelty is a tattoo on the inside of my left wrist. It’s not a large tattoo, and it’s easy to conceal with any long sleeve shirt. I look like a piece of white bread with the crust cut off, an inviting look that is irresistible to peddlers, panhandlers, pariahs and paupers.

Shopping centers, gas stations, restaurants, movie theaters what do they all have in common? All are prime targets for swindlers, perfect places to part you from money. Bookstores are the worst, they are oddball magnets, a haven for the strange and busted up.

The other day I stopped into Barnes and Nobles between sales calls. I like to drop into bookstores midday. It’s quiet, and there are less crazy people to deal with. I am not so fortunate this day. I post up in the back corner of the store scanning books on design and composition when I notice an erratic zigzagging, a man is bouncing like a pinball between book displays. I dare not make eye contact as I suspect he is searching for his next victim. To engage is to open myself to the sob story. Every vagrant has one, sometimes it’s true; usually, it is not. I learned this years ago living in Los Angeles.

When In L.A.

I moved to LA to be in the movies. The ink wasn’t dry on my theater degree, and I was ready to paint with my emotional instrument. Acting insiders and academics think of emotion as a spectrum of colors.The actor is the painter and fills the canvas with the vibrant colors of emotion. I was intoxicated with adolescent delusions of grandeur. In my view, the world needed to experience my artistry and Hollywood was the best place to showcase my talents. 

I moved with my best friend, and his girlfriend, now wife. We settled on downtown as it met our key criteria of affordability.Downtown was a refuge, an on again off again shanty town for the afflicted. During the day buildings were full of workers, at night workers left and tents lined the streets. It was grimy, it smelled of sun-baked urine, and was a filthy mess. This image cemented when I saw a man empty a trash bag into a sewer drain. Urban renewal had not arrived, at any moment you could round a corner and find a homeless man (or woman) mid squat making business, and a couple of times I did. The foul smells and sights all mixed to create the sensation of living in a third world country or a combat zone. This was not the LA the media portrayed.

I was one of four white people outside of Gray, his girlfriend and my landlord that I remember ever seeing on our block. The neighborhood was largely working class, Latino families where Spanish was the only language outside of some broken English. I did not speak Spanish, and I could not have had a background more varied. I grew up in the suburbs in Raleigh, North Carolina, L.A. was the first large city I had lived in.

For the first few months, I depended on my southern hospitality to disarm the sideways glances. I offered a smile and “hello” to everyone I met. It’s how I was raised, and it’s what my mother would expect of me. I could still hear her voice urging me to smile, after all, I may be the only smile a person sees in their day. I wore a smile until it hurt, my smiles were seldom received it back, at least not by people I would want to talk to. My gentility drew the attention of individuals who had an agenda. The agenda was to take my money, that’s what 3 years of braces and a friendly smile will do.

The Homeless Man & The Bike

At my most simple moment, I gave a homeless guy a bike. I met Chris at the train depot at 7th and Metro, the last stop on the Blue Line ending in downtown LA. I exited from the train stop and headed to the check to cash place across the street. I frequented these as poor money management led to sizeable overdraft balances with the bank. As I was preparing to cross the street, Chris stopped me. He was wearing a distressed military jacket and tattered skater jeans. Military clothing is dead give away on the economic status of a stranger, most homeless wear some article of it. Chris asked me for a dollar. I told him I didn’t have any cash. He said he just got out of rehab and was trying to get a job as a courier. His story sounded legit, once you once you got past the sour stench of Peach Schnapps that lingered on his breath. He was clear about this being his favorite drink and his status as a recovering alcoholic.

Those two words seem, to me, a contradiction. If you are an alcoholic and are still recovering aren’t you simply an alcoholic? Recovering or relapsed it didn’t matter, I could make an impact and helping him would make me feel good — I appreciated his honesty. I knew friends who went on week-long mission trips to Haiti who got this same service high. I would be his Mother Theresa, Chris would be my Calcutta. I would get results, notch my belt and get holy. He would get a like-new bike and his dream job.

Having no car, I brought the bike down on the bus. I gave it to Chris and pointed to the front tire, it was flat. He graciously took the bike, reminding me how it was going to help him get on his feet. I was beaming like a proud father as I watched him walk off with the bike. He seemed happy, so did the eight other homeless guys that swarmed around him as he walked away.

Weeks went by, I expected to see Chris again at the stop. For two months he had been there every day at the same time. I never saw him or that $450 aluminum alloy Trek bike again. It had not crossed my mind that he may have moved on to greener pastures. In my view, he had pawned it for booze or worse. I felt used, he had stolen the bike I received for my 18th birthday/graduation gift. I could have sold it to make rent, as the meager $8.50 / hour I made working my Barnes and Nobles Cafe job wasn’t cutting it.

I hardened myself, I learned that if you show kindness, you invite manipulation. My hospitality went on an indefinite hiatus. When I got my first iPhone, it gave me an ideal tool to shut myself off to any unwanted solicitation. Headphones in, head down, and a fleet foot this tells the would-be intruder all he needs to know, the bank’s closed. My mantra? Don’t look up, don’t engage, never smile.

Avoid At All Costs

I can almost feel the heat off of the man’s breath, he feels closer than my shadow. He is in my space, but I resist the urge to glance over. Rather, I pull the book closer to my face and make a quarter turn to the right. I regret not having grabbed a large hardback, as a trade back makes for poor cover. I begin a futile maneuver to create distance. A slight sway to the right followed by three mini steps, slight sway to the right, three mini steps, stop. At a safe distance, I sneak an upward glance to get my bearings.

The maneuver has taken me off course. The display reads, “Romance.” The shelves are full of books with buxom women draped over chiseled men. I divert my gaze back to the book trying to think of an escape. I can’t get to my phone to take a fake call, lowering my hands would open me up for a strike. No use, I am cornered. To the right sex education to the left a predator standing over his prey.

He speaks, “You looking for a book?” A sarcastic voice in my head says, “No I am looking for the paper towels.” What comes out is a terse, “No, just browsing.” Nothing is odd about a thirty-four-year-old man browsing for a Celtic romance novel. A period piece I can hunker down with next to the evening fire while Barry gives me a back massage. To this point, I still have no idea of who assails me. I decide to take inventory.

In front of me stands a man wearing a brown puffer, military fatigues, and a beanie. He is not the run of the mill Barnes and Nobles employee, there are none of the usual cues. He does not wear Doc Martens, has no visible piercings, and wears no quirky shirt, something like, “Love Thy Selfie.” Over his left shoulder drapes a yard-waste-sized garbage bag, it makes a profound indentation in his shoulder. He shifts the bag from left shoulder to right to manage the weight. As he slings the bag over his right shoulder the contents push against the thin plastic stretching the membrane. Is that a human hand? My mind is full of horrible thoughts, what atrocities are in the bag? What are his motives and why has he settled on me?

My thoughts skew senile, perhaps he is a collector, one piece shy of completing the set. That would explain why he avoids the mother of two, the hipster, and the geriatric on the scooter. Maybe I am the one rare piece, the rare coin, for a moment I feel proud. As a child my mom always told me I was different. As I age, I have come to the realization that this meant I lack the discipline to excel at the standard grade school pursuits, things like basic algebra, sports ball of any kind, or the soprano saxophone. Either way, if he is a serial killer/collector, then perhaps my death will be immortalized as a sub note on his Wikipedia page. Somewhere under “victims.”

As I continue my morbid thoughts, the man interrupts. He launches into his story (the pitch). He just moved to the area five months ago and worked on a construction site until the accident. The accident involved him tripping on a nondescript lump of equipment left lying around the job site, this fall crippled his left leg and has put him out of work. I glance at his leg, it doesn’t look injured. Where are the crutches, the leg brace, there is no hobble. I am tempted to cross-examine by asking him to lift his pants leg. This lacks good form, and I instead ask what he needs.

He tells me he is behind on his rent and any bit of money helps. It is a big request, one that I can’t meet. I say I don’t have any cash on me (I doubt he takes Apple Pay). “How about a croissant at the cafe?”, I offer as a next best alternative. It seems like a good idea, it’s National Croissant week at Starbucks. National Croissant week is not a widely celebrated holiday, I am positive it is another bonus star holiday Starbuck’s invented to get me to spend more money. He says back to me, “No thank you, I don’t like croissants.” I stand frozen to my spot not sure what to say next. If I open my mouth odd rambling will come out that will only make the situation worse. Another 15 seconds or so pass before he concedes. “Alright well, thanks anyway. God bless you.”, He says and walks away. I watch him walk away paralyzed by my sense of awkwardness. I could have helped but made a conscious choice to abstain. I am not proud and justify my selfish behavior by telling myself I was discerning, and he would have abused by generosity.

The Master of Discernment

Discernment is a cradle of neuroses. I battle with me who knows the good I should do and me that fears manipulation. I need to peer into the motive and decipher the outcome. I have neat classifications I use to determine how I deal with people. These give me the illusion of being a prophet. You look a certain way, you will act a certain way. If you look homeless you will do homeless things, I give you five dollars you will drink it away. A wasted five dollars.

The difference between a man on the street fallen on hard luck and me is thin. My difficult days in my twenties where I struggled to make rent, put food on the table and survive serve as a sober reminder. I am never secure, circumstances are beyond my control. A chain reaction of misfortune can bring my comfort castle crashing to ruin. The awkwardness is worth enduring to see me. I am working to find the smile my mom once taught me to give, no strings attached just grace.