Saturday, August 4, 2007

Encounters



Recently, The Los Angeles Times edition datelined May 28, 2007 detailed the growing competition among homeless people and scavengers who fan out across the city on trash day to raid resident recycle bins for plastic bottles and cans.

In my neighborhood, the scavengers work block by block in a grid pattern. I put out my trash bins, and within minutes, someone is going through them searching for recyclables to take to the local supermarket parking lot to redeem for cash. This does not bother me, although I have heard that some residents take offense. Hey, as long as the stuff gets recycled, I do not care who turns it in, and if someone needs the money bad enough to search through neighborhood trash cans, I say have at it.

My only gripe is that often they scatter trash in the streets, or they do not close the lid of the bin when finished leading to further scavenging by animals such as rats, opossums, cats, and dogs. If the trash is not scattered all over the street when the human scavengers are finished, it will be once the animals get involved.

So the other afternoon when I heard noises out on my driveway, I looked out my front window to see an extremely dirty and disheveled man rummaging through my trash bins. I watched him extract multiple plastic water bottles. He closed the lid when finished, and I figured all was well. My wife walked into the room and asked me what I was looking at, and after I explained, she took my spot at the window and continued watching. I had lost interest.

The man moved to a car parked at the curb. Being that the street is only a few feet from my front door, my wife was wary. The man combed his greasy hair in the car’s tinted windows and made an attempt to straighten his wrinkled, dirty clothes. He then moved from the street to the sidewalk directly in front of my door and began to unzip his pants to urinate. I heard my wife gasp, and when I asked what was wrong, she told me. I sprang to the door and walked out on the stoop to confront the man.

“Move it,” I warned him, “or I’ll call the police.”

The man had not even completely unzipped yet. “Go ahead,” he replied. “Call ‘em.” But he was turning away as he said it, grabbing his shopping cart loaded with the bottles and cans and moving off down the street.

I can handle someone stealing my trash. I mean arguably, taking what someone has discarded is not stealing. But urinating on my doorstep was just not going to happen.

In fact, I have had several encounters with homeless people in the neighborhood where they have acted belligerently toward me, or even to each other. Usually, the encounters involve alcohol consumption or drug use and inevitably, the police are slow to respond, or they do not respond altogether. I hate the faint smell of urine after they leave, as well as the liquor bottles and beer cans they leave behind.

Once, I was standing in my driveway when a man approached me to ask what I was looking at, and if I was looking at him, he told me, I should stop at once before he cleaned my clock. The man was so intoxicated that he wavered back and forth on his feet like a news reporter in the face of a hurricane.

I am never at a loss for words when in a confrontation, but this time, I surprised myself. “I’m not looking at anything,” I mumbled. “I’m just waiting for a plumber to arrive.”

The short, drunk bum said he would let me off with a warning this time.

When I told my neighbor about the encounter, he laughed. “I’m surprised you did not let him have it.”

Something about these people makes me cautious. Is it that I feel sorry for their plight—to live on the streets and comb trash for recyclables to turn in for a few dollars? Am I afraid of their instability due to drugs or alcohol? Bottom line is, I just do not like confronting them, and I only want them to pick up after themselves and not damage my property by spraying my door with urine.

I clearly remember the first time I ever encountered someone who was homeless. The town I lived in had one man everyone knew was homeless. He traveled the streets with a walker and a suitcase, and I had often seen him pouring over a book in the library, or asleep with his head hanging over the table. He was white, with a ruddy complexion and swollen, ulcerated legs. I saw him bandage his legs often at the local park.

I had driven to the library on a warm summer night to drop off some overdue books in the book drop. I was feeling the easy freedom of a high school student who had just gotten his driver’s license. I parked my father’s pickup truck facing the open field behind the library and quickly went up to the main doors to slide the books into the slot. The library itself was dark, the parking lot empty. When I got back into the truck, I started the engine and turned on the headlights. Directly in front of me, the homeless man stood up in his white nightshirt and long underwear. He was disheveled and sleepy, and I had undoubtedly disturbed his sleeping area in the vacant lot.

I got out of the car and we stared at each other across the hood of the truck. Not a word was exchanged. I jumped back into the cab, backed out of the space, and drove off. I had seen the man so many times wandering about the mall and shops along the main boulevard. It had never occurred to me that he had to sleep somewhere.

There is a certain unpredictability about people in such dire straits. We want to help them, may be even reach out to them, but we are also jaded. Are these people really homeless? Are they using the money I give them to buy drugs and booze? Are they dangerous?

There are no clear cut answers, but what we do know is that these people live on the fringe of society, often victims of abuse or assault, and are desperate enough to go through the trash to find something to eat. In the end, what is most evident is that they are human beings who must live like animals.

On the day I ran off the man who raided my trash and attempted to water my front door step, I went to the supermarket with my wife to pick up a few things. Since I was not feeling well, I decided to stay in the car and wait for her. I saw a black man with a shopping cart filled with personal possessions approach the store and take up a position right next to me. He was clean and well-groomed, but there was something about him that gave off the vibe of someone who did not have much in this life. He did not make eye contact with me. In the gathering darkness, he raised his beautiful baritone voice and began to sing. “Somewhere, over the rainbow, way up high…”

The other shoppers in the parking lot stopped to listen. He sang the entire song. It was a typical summer night with a slight breeze and a purple and blue sky. His voice flowed over me and echoed off the walls. No one moved until he was finished with the song. Then people approached him and silently dropped dollar bills and change in a cup at his feet.

“God bless you,” he said softly to each person.

After he collected from everyone, he pushed his cart on toward the edge of the parking lot, humming softly to himself.

Fear is a difficult thing to overcome. Innocent encounters can turn dangerous in seconds. In this life, it is very hard not to be suspicious and wary when encountering people. It is amazing, however, how such fears and suspicions can be overcome by a sweet song on a summer night.