My companions and I were headed for different stations as we rode a crowded train on BART last night.
Less than a minute before we reached my stop, someone behind us spoke loudly enough to get the attention of everyone near him.
He said: "I have nowhere to go. I sleep on the ground not far from the train station. I need a couple dollars for something to eat." I heard but didn't see him. His voice was deep, tired, and clear.
No doubt some of the people reading this story have imagined what it would be like to be forced to say that. To a train-full of strangers. Surely some have even been, like me, under-employed or unemployed and without a cost-of-living income for stretches that lasted long enough to have feared it. Some of them, like me, are highly educated, skilled, hard-working, reliable people who don't abuse drugs or alcohol, are not mentally ill, and have never been in jail.
Earlier in the day I'd found a ten-dollar bill. Right at eye level, it was somehow hanging but not falling, with its long side tucked into a metal crease in a BART ticket-dispenser.
I picked it up and turned around to return it to its owner, but no one was there to give it to. Had I been blessed with a gift from a blessing-prankster gang like the Anonymous Ambassadors 4 Good? Seemed like the only explanation. So I used it to buy a $6.40 train pass, and as I walked down Market Street a few minutes later, I shared some of my leftover luck, quarter by quarter, with street musicians and pan-handlers.
Then I went to learn about BitCash at a BitCoin get-together. Yeah, BitCoin and BitCash. Two of the money alternatives that a lot of us hope have the potential to even-out economic unfairness at least a little bit, so maybe people won't keep finding themselves with nowhere to go and nothing to eat.
Afterward, on my way home on the train, I didn't notice -- as the voice of a man behind me was saying, "I have nowhere to go, I sleep on the ground not far from the train station, I need a couple dollars for something to eat" -- I didn't notice that the train was starting to slow down for my stop.
I did notice that nobody was giving the man any part of a couple dollars. But I thought maybe nobody else found a ten-dollar bill that day. So I got out my wallet. I was going to unzip its coinpurse and take out at least a couple quarters. But the doors of the train opened, and I hurried out of my seat to get off the train, with an unopened wallet in my hand.
As I turned to wave goodbye to my friends, I caught a glimpse of the man who had nowhere to go, who sleeps on the ground, and needs a couple dollars for something to eat.
Just a glimpse. Here's what I think I saw: Someone staring straight ahead as he was being stared at. He may have been partially blind. He was rail-thin, hunching, hungry, and very, very dehydrated. Had not bathed for months, possibly years. Torn clothes caked black and stiff as cardboard with dirt. Tangled matted hair, in long strings, falling over his face. On his neck under his beard, and in places on his face, his skin was so emaciated, it had been bleeding and was oozing and scabbed.
What he needed was not a couple dollars so he could eat. He needed a hospital. Even though he had repeated his request for help many times. Over and over. Again and again. As if spoken to the air: "I need help." "Will you help me?" "Please help." Heard, but unheard. Saying something there should have been no need to say. He was starving, very sick, possibly dying. It was obvious he needed help.
I'm pretty sure a wounded stray beagle in his condition would have been taken someplace for care, if not shelter. But he was a man. A man is not supposed to go astray. He's not supposed to get a heroin or alcohol or crime or confusion or bad-decision habit. He's not supposed to be old, clumsy, forgetful, odd, boring, or unwelcome in the holy workplace. He's not supposed to get lost in the world. He's not supposed to ask for help. He's not supposed to need it.
The doors of the train closed behind me. The man with the bleeding neck disappeared from my life.
If he had arrived to that area of the train and delivered his monolog closer to the previous station, I would have had time. I would have given him a couple quarters. After seeing the source of the voice, I might have given him a dollar or even a five.
I might have said, "I think you need to go to the hospital. I have a car. I will take you. Would you like to go to a hospital?" He might have said yes. He might have stepped off the train with me at my stop. He might have been able to walk down the stairs and across the parking lot to my car. I might have given him some water and food. He might have remained conscious as he sat on a cushioned car seat for the first time in maybe a decade.
He might have been able to walk into a hospital. People at a hospital might have overlooked policies, bent rules, put on gloves, touched him, taken him in, and helped him.
Or they might have turned him away. And I might have used my phone, this powerful thing he can't have one of, to find an animal rescue center. I might have offered to let the man sleep in my car until I could take him there in the morning, and he might have said okay. The saintlike people there, the ones with empathic brains who heal solitary abandoned souls, set broken bones, remove maggots from flesh, and clean blood from fur every day, these fine people might have cleaned this man's wounds, nourished him, and let him rest. I might have found ten-dollars' worth of clean clothes for him at a thrift store. I might have said goodbye, wished him luck, and gone on my way.
He might have set out again with a bit more strength to search for a way to survive...
...in a corpus of millions who spend so much time trying to solve problems just like this one...
...and leave anonymous cash gifts in public places for strangers to find...
...and are terrified not only of living that man's fate, but of even witnessing it...
...and just stare at him as he asks for help.