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Unshakable Guilt

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I giggled. I smirked. I thought of many jokes I had heard before and even created a few new ones. I am human, but so was the object of my laughter. He was homeless and shaggy. His hair was a matted, salt and pepper dread mange. His beard made him eligible for a ZZ Top fan club meeting, but I doubt he chose to have it. It, like his head, was colored salt and pepper only with a few other hues mixed in from who knows what.

The only sign of him having a face was this dirty protrusion coming from the center of the mess of hair that could probably count for a nose. Other than that, it just looked much like a dirty, used cotton-swab sitting on a pair of shoulders walking in the Miami afternoon sun.

His walk was more of a broken gate than an actual walk. His shorts allowed anyone watching to plainly see that arthritis had long since left him unable to straighten or bend his knees, leaving him hobbling along the sidewalk. They almost appeared not to be under his control as he passed by clutching an empty plastic 20-ounce water bottle, which appeared to be his sole possession.

As this man walked by, I came out of my office to have a cigarette break because my life is so hard and stressful. I had to stare at first because I was not positive I was looking at a man. He seemed almost like a bear in a dirty windbreaker. He was shaking his head back and forth as he walked towards me. Well, not towards me, but toward my direction.

I could hear muffled talking, which soon cleared up into a lively debate as he came closer. I looked around to see if I missed anyone else with him, but I didn’t. He was one of those homeless people you hear about who are yelling at someone who isn’t there. It was quite a heated debate, although I could not make out any English in his ramblings.

I giggled. I smirked. I thought of many jokes I had heard before and even created a few new ones. I wondered who his carrier was and how his reception was. Mine is quite horrid there. I wondered about some other homeless guy somewhere having the other half of that conversation.

I thought of many jokes in a fraction of a second, and then got smacked in the head by a ton of guilt. This was a human being I was mocking, possibly someone’s father or husband and certainly someone’s child. What separates him from me? Fate?

I know my life and can tell you it is not choices that led him there entirely. I am a member of the “Lucky Sperm Club” and that is a fact. I have a good job because I was given a good job. Yes, I earned keeping it, but I still got my foot in the door because I was lucky. In ten years time, who knows where I will be? Who am I to laugh at some poor, homeless guy simply because he cracked under the strains of life? I doubt I would even last long enough to crack if I were in that situation. I also know I would get any job I had to and maybe that is what separates me from him.

Here I am seven hours later still thinking about it. There is an image burned into my head, but I don’t know if it is of him or of me refusing to look at him as he passed.
Why did I avoid eye contact with this man? Did I fear his plight would leap from him onto me? Was it easier for me to go about my happy day if I did not see him? Is there anything I could have done for him if I had seen him or is this just what we tell ourselves? I will never know because I did nothing as he walked past me except to think of a few jokes I heard about homeless people talking to no one.

If society acts like someone doesn’t exist for a long enough period of time, can that person forget they exist? If so, did I just add to this man’s delusion by not seeing him?

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About Brad Schader

  • Ruvy in Jerusalem

    Unfortunately, the mental hospitals did a major population dump in the late ’70’s anticipating a large number of “group home” settings to take in their patients.

    It didn’t happen.

    The Reagan recession of the early eighties added legitimate folks and families to the lot, and we saw the beginning of an underclass in America. A permanent one.

    I was part of that underclass for a time, combatting the bitterness that overcame me. I managed to get out of that underclass, but have never forgotten the time I spent in it. Now I see that same kind of underclass coming here to Israel, created by the same type of dog-eat-dog economics and selfishness that has gripped America for almost three decades.

    Another sick export from the American paradise…

    Brad, you do not have to be nuts to be homeless, as the homeless fellow in your essay was. Things can happen in your life to leave you stranded with nothing but a car and the sky for an address.

    Something you should always bear in mind.