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Tuesday, February 24, 2009



I’ve gotten into the habit of describing myself as socially retarded. A few scattered internet friends tell me I need to stop doing that and instead only describe myself in positive terms. It’s got something to do with self fulfilling prophecies and the power of positive thinking – something about changing reality with the power of my mind. But I don’t know…the fact that I hear this kind of thing from internet friends instead of local tangible friends kind of tips the scale back toward social retardation (In truth, I get on very well with people up until the point at which they really start getting to know me).

Anyway, I suffer from a variety of personal insecurities. So when I end up actually wanting to spend my Friday nights attending free screenings of the last episodes of a popular science fiction television show, it concerns me. Even I know this is wrong. If I like the show, and I do, I should flat out own up to the fact that I like it…go watch it and enjoy it and be myself and meet people with the same interests…even if we turn out to be the subject of ridicule for standing in lines that wrap around a block…in icy cold wind, for three quarters of an hour… to watch a T.V. show.

I shouldn’t be so concerned about what other people think…Right?

So last Friday, I walked down and around the block to the end of the geek line and settled in for a long cold-weather ordeal. I was a little bit later than usual getting to the venue and consequently further back in line than I’d ever been before. I have no natural instinct toward gregariousness, so generally, when faced with the prospect of being in a long line, I just stand inconspicuously, facing forward, trying to maintain a personal-space buffer in front and in back, checking my wallet randomly and minding my own business.

Gradually I became aware of a noise that sounded like the wind blowing in and out of a bellows (or maybe an inexpertly played accordion). It turned out to be the guy in front of me who I noticed, as he turned around to face me, was breathing heavily through his mouth. He stood there looking at me with an expectant grin, breathing in and out as if he had finished a half-marathon or perhaps forever given up the idea of blowing his nose. It was awkward. It reminded me of the movie A Christmas Story – the part where Ralphie and Randy are stuck at the end of the line to see Santa, and the kid in goggles just stares at them and says things like, “I like the Wizard of Oz.”

True to type, this guy finally exhales violently, “Only four more episodes!”

I didn’t know what to say – didn’t know what kind of response he expected from me, so I stood there with raised eyebrows and waited for him to do something else. He said it again, “Only four more episodes,” and wheezed excitedly, his slack- jawed smile growing ever broader (at least I think it was a smile), the air whistling in and out.

I smiled back and nodded in what I hoped would be a gesture obvious enough to grant him affirmation without going so far as to agree with him. I pulled out my cell phone and began pretending to text a message, hoping that maybe he would shift his attention to someone else. Instead, he just stood there grinning, sometimes even trying to read the phone’s display even as I began to hunch over it.

Here’s the thing. I think he was lonely, maybe more lonely than me. He was making an effort to talk to me. He was trying. As much as I may understand loneliness, I rarely risk reaching out.

So I tried to talk back. I asked him what he liked about the show. He tried to explain something about intricate or excellent character development, but it seemed he was reaching for vocabulary that he hadn’t ever used before and his resulting exposition ended up being less than convincing - as if he used someone else’s reasons and not his own. It struck me that this was the kind of thing that a person could say about almost any show. There are a number of shows that have good character development, but few of them spend as much time developing the character of multiple beautiful robots as this show does which is probably why I like it (to say nothing of the heavy handed political commentary, the consequences of group survival decisions on individuals, the nature of humanity, and terrific explosions). In fact, one of the show’s recurring themes deals with the idea of inclusiveness, how the last surviving humans must face the prospect of having to join with the robots that persecute them in order to continue to survive – how they need to all get along. All of this is essentially what I said back to him, except I might have gone on to make my comments a little bit pointy – bearing small measures of sarcasm – perhaps even making fun of his answer.

I swear a part of me wanted to be kind – to be inclusive, while another part of me was afraid that if I was, it would only encourage him to talk to me some more.

The world could do with a lot less of my kind of kindness.


While most people my age seem to be putting the finishing touches on their retirement packages, I still haven’t quite figured out how NOT to live from paycheck to paycheck. That means when I encounter those guys at intersections holding the cardboard signs - Anything helps - God bless - I get the uneasy feeling that I’m peering into my own future.

Saturday I woke up early enough to get my truck in to fix a slow flat, or so I thought, but much like the line at the theatre, the repair shop line had begun to accumulate long before the doors opened and even this simple fix was going to take over an hour.
Trying to make the best of it, I walked a mile or two to a fast food restaurant where I knew I could get a cheap value breakfast and read the paper while I waited for my vehicle. It seemed that, in this neighborhood, the dining area did double duty as an old folks meeting area, and half a dozen white haired men sat drinking coffee refills and talking politics. In one corner a middle aged man sat at his table reading an enormous bible – an evangelizer waiting to spring into action like a trap door spider – “Be careful not to make eye contact!” I told myself.

At another table, all by himself, a cadaverous old man in a hood sat bent over a cup of coffee - clutching the cup in both hands - staring down into the steaming liquid - almost as if he was praying to it – or maybe trying to see portents of the future in fake dairy cream clouds.

I found a long table in the corner where I could spread out my newspaper, read and eat all at the same time. Scrambled eggs (presumably), a uniform pastel yellow, quivered between a coin sized slice of processed sausage and a fragile biscuit eager to crumble. I read a headline about the stunning increase in unemployment, watched a molded pat of whipped margarine virtually disappear over a lukewarm pancake, betraying air as its major ingredient, and glanced up to see that ghost of a man clutching his cardboard cup of coffee - his head down - his eyes averted.

It got me thinking. The old man looked forlorn. Did he need help? Is this the kind of situation where a guy like Jesus would walk over and strike up a conversation? I glanced over at evangelism guy, but he was preoccupied with something there on the gigantic pages of his authoritative handbook.

I studied the biscuit and the sausage and considered making a sausage biscuit out of them, but no, what would I do with the packet of strawberry ‘jam’. Maybe the jam would be good on a pancake? Why don’t they put salt and pepper shakers on the tables anymore? While I contemplated these things, the old man began pounding the coffee cup on his table - one…two… three…four…boink - about like that - over and over. He never looked up. He just kept pounding to some internal rhythm.

Finally, one of the other regulars broke off from his conversation and shouted the old man’s name. The old man stopped, glared up for an instant with one rheumy, angry eye, paused for a beat, and then determinedly resumed his drumming.

He’s mental, I thought to myself.

The newspaper warned me not to expect an end to the recession in the near future. I finally decided that the jam should definitely go on the biscuit. As I reached for the little white plastic knife to help me split the biscuit, the old man released his coffee cup, placed one finger against the side of his nose, cupped his other hand under his nose, and blew some vast quantity of snot into his palm which he then quickly licked up.

O.K., I thought. I probably don’t need to eat this biscuit anymore.

It’s kind of a sobering realization to understand that you’re all for helping other people as long as it’s easy.

How do you fix a family, a country or a world if you can’t even approach one old man. How do you fight the easy rationalization that helping some people is just a plain bad investment?

And how do you help people that pointedly tell you that they don’t want help?

1 comment:

  1. Maybe you just help those who want it? And maybe you help yourself at the same time?

    Maybe you just do what you can do and let it be enough.



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