There are times when we could all use a little help negotiating through this city and community of ours. And while I hate to admit it, I have been a passive bystander too many times—at best a witness to people in need. I do give change when asked by transients for money—but not always.
I have come to an understanding that people need help in different ways. Our homeless, for example, are just as hungry for conversation and companionships as they are for food. And so it is that I try to give my full attention to complete strangers who come up to me and regale me with their fantastical stories—or accept a stranger’s unique take on the world around them, which at first glance may not make any sense to me or others within close range.
Some encounters with strangers leave me baffled. Last year, for example, I saw a teenager in the late afternoon dressed all in black—black tennis shoes, black jeans, black long-sleeved shirt. His hair was cropped short and he was carrying a girl who was also dressed in black—a black dress and black high-heeled shoes. She was slumped over the teen’s back as he trudged west on the sidewalk along Colorado Boulevard toward Ellenwood Drive. Her feet dangled about a foot off the ground and she appeared to be passed out. It crossed my mind to stop to ask the teenager if he needed help, but I was running late for an appointment, so I drove on. All I have is this memory of a mystery with no beginning and no end.
A few days ago, I was in the parking lot on Colorado Boulevard, waiting for my oldest daughter who had some business in the bank. Lying across from me on the sidewalk, in the shade of a bus bench, was a disheveled woman writing in a notepad. She was stretched out nonchalantly like a child on a living room rug doing homework. As I walked toward her to get a closer look, she lifted her left hand and, without a pause from her writing, asked for a dollar. I gave her the change I had in my pocket and asked her what she was writing.
“I’m writing medium and slow songs,” she said. “And I’m writing them on this paper because I have no sheet music.” She thanked me with a nod and then went back to her compositions. I wondered what melody—if any—was playing in her head, and then realized that the only sounds I could hear in mine came from cars racing down Colorado Boulevard.
On another occasion, I came across a man begging in front of a on Colorado Boulevard. Unlike the composer near the Bank of America, he did not say a word to me as I walked into the convenience store to buy a cup of coffee. Instead, he just sat there, holding one hand out in that universal gesture of beseeching. With his other hand, he held his prosthetic leg.
He reminded me of an older man I once stood behind at a McDonalds in South Los Angeles. He was holding a can of beans. When he got to the counter, he asked the server if they could heat the can up for him. The manager was called and the man told him that he was regular customer but that he had no money for a Big Mac that day. He then took a step backward and lifted the left side of his trousers to reveal a prosthetic leg. “Please,” he cried, “I’m a Vietnam vet.”
I work in downtown Los Angeles at 5th Street and Flower, but I park my car at 1st and Grand Avenue. Most mornings I take the Dash bus to my office a few blocks away. About a year ago, I got on and found a seat at the back of the bus. As we crossed 2nd Street and headed toward the high-rise buildings on Bunker Hill, along Grand Avenue, a man who appeared to be in his 30s shouted, “Oh! Oh!” He twisted in his seat, pushed up against an older woman sitting next to him, tilted his head upward and pressed his hands against the window. “Superman!” he bellowed, “I’m going to see Superman—he’s going to be at the top of that building, up there!” For a few seconds he craned his head, wiggled it one way, then another, and said, “I can’t see him, can anybody see him?”
There was complete silence. Every cell phone conversation in the bus had been suspended and couples had stopped talking to each other. Everyone avoided looking at the man, evidently fearful that even the slightest eye contact would only encourage him to pursue his delusion. I’m not sure what got into me, but I was the only passenger who looked out the window to see where the fellow was pointing. (“He should be up there,” he said, pointing at the Wells Fargo skyscraper.)
As we continued riding south on Grand Avenue toward Fifth Street and the Central Library, the guy slumped down, turned in his seat and said to the passengers, “Did any of you see Superman? I didn’t see him.” He waited for an answer, and after a very long moment he nodded slightly as if he understood that no response was going to be forthcoming. He quietly turned in his seat, bent down, rummaged through his grungy green backpack, took out an aqua blue yo-yo and began flicking it up and down. And then in a quiet voice he said, “Its okay. He must be somewhere else.”
I must admit that I felt disappointed as well. For some reason that morning, I too, wanted to see Superman.