Californian Encounter


Sept 10, 6:25 AM

I had just sat down on the metro when I got a whiff of the biting smell of urine.
“Where are you going?”
I looked up and saw what many people in America would point to when asked to show the problem with the country. The man in front of me was black, homeless, and quite deranged. He carried three plastic bags of belongings. One contained just empty plastic bottles.

“Where are you going?” he asked again.
“Union Station,” I said. “To catch the bus to San Francisco.” I’ve had idle chit-chat with the homeless of LA before, and it was always a much more pleasant affair than expected, so I never really felt the need to lie to them out of some ploy to protect myself.

“Can I come?” he followed up. It didn’t seem like he was joking.
“I, uh. I don’t know. Do you have a ticket?” I laughed. I tried to make him laugh it off too.
“No. Can you buy me a ticket?”
“I don’t think so sir. I, don’t think I can do that.”

I was used to the chit-chat of those who knew what reasonable requests were, and what a person not wanting to be bothered looked like.
“Please.” He bent down, and as he his face came to about twelve centimeters from mine, spittles hit my face. I was surprised at how calm I was. “Can you help me?”
“Umm. I don’t think so sir.”

He started holding onto my shoulder with some force. My shoulder tensed up. “You shall give to him freely, and your heart shall not be grudging when you give to him.” He was quoting at me, but there was more accusation in his eyes than begging. I got up and went to a seat one cart over. He followed along. “Because for this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake.”
A tall, bald white guy with glasses looked like he was trying to alert some people – was there train security?

“I’m sorry sir, but I don’t think I can help you in any way.” I really didn’t. “I’m just travelling here.”
“I’m just travelling too.”
“I’m sorry, sir.” We finally arrived at Union Station.

“God bless you!” I called out to him. I don’t know why, but religious wishes of goodwill were the only helpful thing I had to offer.
As we walked off the train, the angry bald guy went up to a police officer.
“That guy was harassing this guy.” He pointed at me. I stopped. Talking to an officer would hopefully discourage him from thinking about following me.
“Which one?”
This,” he pointed, “fucking, black guy.” He was heading for escalator.
The officer turned to me and asked what he did.
“Just asking for money I guess.”
“Would you like us to do anything about it?”
I remembered the spittle on my face and wiped it off with my shirt.
“No, I don’t think so.”

Standing at the top of the escalator, he was looking away. I wondered what all those plastic bottles were worth when returned, or if there was a system for it.
I exhaled for a good fifteen seconds when he didn’t follow me out of the station.

Sept 10, 4:30 PM

“Are you afraid of black guys?” came a voice from behind me.
I remembered that morning and thought ‘Sometimes, I guess.’
I turned around and saw a guy in his forties or fifties approaching me with a smile.
“I…” Was this a bad way to say this? “I don’t think so.”

When he arrived, he let his shoulders drop as he exhaled. His lower lip came up in the way it does before one has to share bad news. He seemed tired of having to do this. But also like it had been rehearsed.
“Look, life is hard out here for us sinners. I just woke up. My wife and I we just woke up in the tent, and we are hungry. I don’t want to buy drugs or alcohol, I’m just hungry. My wife is hungry.”

I believed him. Although I knew he could easily be lying. I didn’t particularly mind if he was.
“Yeah, I’m actually not from around here.” What a pivot.
“Where are you from?”
“From Slovakia. Bratislava. It’s in Central Europe.” Silence. “Anyway, you know, it’s my first time on the West Coast. And the, you know, the homelessness is crazy out here.”
“Exactly. This is the richest country in the world, and look how they treat their homeless.”
“Yeah, it’s crazy.”

I realised most people would have cut off this conversation a long time ago. I would have probably waved him away back home without a second thought. I was looking for interesting free things to do in California, much like the homeless. We coincided a lot.

“Back home I’ve never seen anything like this. Tents on city streets, you know?”
“Yes exactly, and you know. My wife and I are hungry. We just woke up.” I already started reaching for my wallet. I felt pretty good about being so generous that I was going to give him five dollars. “And I need nine dollars, thirty cents.”
“How much?” Oh no, if I only gave him 5 now, I would not feel the happiest. For just 4.30 more I could real good about myself.
“I need nine dollars, thirty cents for two soups and a box of tampons.” A caring husband. I would feel so good about myself.
“A ten dollar bill would be perfect.” I felt like when my mother told me to do the dishes, as I was on my way to do just that. I was going to do that anyway.

We introduced ourselves. I forgot his name as soon as we said ‘God Bless!’.

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