Three bums

If you live in an American city, you can tell who's homeless at a glance and be right 95% of the time.

At Seattle's grimiest bus stop, a guy had the look, and he was talking to another guy who had the look — clothes that had obviously been worn, worn a lot, since the last time they'd been clean. The men, too, looked very worn.

Me and the first bum happened to make eye contact as I walked toward the bus stop, and we held it for more than a second. There's a rule, of course, that if you hold eye contact past one second, you have to nod or say something, else you come off as trouble.

So I said a casual, "Hey." It was after work, and after being around people for eight hours, "Hey" was the best I could offer.

"Hey," said the second bum, and "How you doing?" said the first.

To this my standard reply is always, "Adequate." If necessary, my usual follow-up is, "Could be better, could be worse." It's the bare minimum of a joke, and usually makes people smile, or groan if they've heard me say it before.

This bum smiled, and then started telling me his troubles, which I hadn't wanted to hear. His troubles were succinct, though. "I'm looking for a guy I know," he said to me, "but I haven't been able to find him. It's been like two days, and he's not at any of the places where he always is."

Well, that sucks, but I'm not one of the Hardy Boys, can't solve a mystery at the bus stop. I didn't say that, though. It wasn't a moment for a wisecrack, so I didn't say anything.

The guy's friend said, "I'm looking for him too, but he's nowhere."

The first bum said, "We went to the police, and it's like they don't even care."

And suddenly I had something to say. "Like?" I said, and shook my head. "No, it's not 'like' the cops don't care. The cops don't care, and that's that."

"Oh, man, exactly," said Bum #1. "They see me, they see 'homeless', and they don't care."

"They might care if you were rich," I said.

"Yeah, I'll work on that," he said, half-smiling.

A #36 bus rolled up, and Bum #2 said, "Our bus."

Bum #1 offered me a knuckle bump, so we bumped, and he stepped into the bus through the back door, sidestepping the fare. Bum #2 gave me a knuckle bump too, and followed his buddy onto the bus.

"I hope you find your friend," I shouted before the bus doors closed, and both bums waved at me.

What a sad and serious conversation out of nowhere, and I thought about it on my ride home.

Put yourself in their shoes that were falling apart: You're living below the bottom of society, every day. If you're lucky you have a few friends, but then one of them doesn't show up at the soup kitchen or wherever.

How would you even begin to get anyone to give a damn about a missing bum? Nobody cares about the down and out when they're there, walking around. Good luck getting someone to care when a bum isn't there.

♦ ♦ ♦

And that was the good bum experience I wanted to write about. Couple of days later, there was a bum experience that wasn't so good.

It was morning, when there aren't as many homeless folks walking around, and I didn't see this guy coming. A scratchy voice behind me said, "Hey, mister."

About twenty people were waiting at the bus stop, but there was no mistaking that the voice was talking to me. I turned to see who it was and what's the pitch. "I only have two dollars," Bum #3 said, "and I am so hungry. Can you help me today?"

"No, man," I said. "I can't help you," which was a lie. I am still doing the five dollar thing, and almost always carry a loose fivespot in my pocket for exactly such situations. That morning like most, a five dollar bill was in my pocket.

The man asking, though, was repulsive. There was a ring of white goop like goggles around his eyes, and a bigger oval the same viscous white stuff around his mouth. It made me think, rabies, but nobody gets rabies any more, right?

Next I noticed the thick but loose snot running like a faucet from his nose, and grey things crawling in his greasy brownish hair.

Lastly, his breath hit me, and it wasn't the stink of death; it was the stink of death a week ago. And I was wearing a mask, so being able to smell his breath from a yard away was remarkable in itself.

He obviously had a medical condition, or several, all serious, and maybe contagious. The five bucks in my pocket was forgotten, along with any other thought of human kindness.

That man probably needed help more than anyone I've given money to, but I couldn't bring myself to help him because he so desperately needed help. My instant response was to say no and turn away.

And there was ample time to reconsider, while he was asking for cash from other people at the bus stop, but nothing changed in me. Hell, no. I'd said no, and no means no.

He looked like leprosy, like a horror movie, and I'm not immune to making snap judgments based on appearance. Also not immune to leprosy.

Trying to be decent is a project for me — it's the opposite of my nature, and takes an effort. Mostly I'm doing it for my wife.

I'm willing to give five bucks, to help a stranger and try to fool myself into thinking I'm a decent man, but I'm not willing to put my life on the line.



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