Wednesday, October 27, 2010


In keeping with my fancy tour of Los Angeles with the 99 cent store yesterday, today I did my laundry during my lunch hour. There’s a place that’s clean and close to where I work, and frees up other time I’d be taking doing it.

To tell the truth, I don’t really mind doing my laundry at a Laundromat. It makes me sit in one place for a block of time, usually where I can read. Today I read all about the sacking of Smolensk in “War and Peace” – beautiful – and then talked to a friend in Boston I’ve not been able to talk with because of the time difference, and various and sundry.

While I was reading about Smolensk being seiged, a woman came up to me and asked if she could trade a dime and three nickels for a quarter. She looked not so great – dirty dyed blond hair, when she smiled she was missing about one and a half teeth and the rest were browning on the side.

I never know what to do. I lived in New York for a long time, and there you begin to get an idea of who is homeless, who is crazy, who is angry, who it’s best to avoid. I always have a basic feeling of guilt. I don’t know what that’s about; I don’t know who this person is or what choices she’s made – it’s probably the wish that I could save someone and quickly realizing it’s not a problem I can solve. Feeling bad, for sure, does nothing. I got into an argument with a date once, who engaged a young man who had been laughing to himself, drinking all the milk from the thermos at Starbucks, and talking about how he just needed a break to be a star. The guy said “people like you are the problem” and that he just needed someone to talk to. I don’t know – living in close quarters you get an idea when someone has larger issues. Just spend some time in a subway car and you’ll see it in how people react when there’s something unsafe on the train. I think it’s a primal, felt response. I know I become guarded, but I'm working on it. Sometimes it's just painful to see someone else in pain. Though I'm sure that's probably projection as well.

I’m not great at ignoring people, though I had to do it in New York. One too many times of having someone follow me down the block calling me “big guy” or “chief” pleading because I met their eye, or told them I couldn’t help them. One friend even pointed out how do you give to one person and not another. You get a little hard-edged. In LA I mostly buy food if I see someone in need, but even then that’s not all the time by any stretch.

I gave the woman a quarter, and told her she could keep her change, it was fine. She wasn’t unstable, or dangerous, just having a very hard time. There wasn’t anything else I could do in that moment. She smiled and thanked me and said it was her last quarter, but her sentence trailed off as I went back to my book. To be sure, I would’ve done the same thing for anyone who asked for a quarter in the Laundromat. The quarter was nothing to me. But for some reason, this felt more complicated than just change.

1 comment:

Elizabeth said...

Sigh. I know exactly what you're writing about -- I wrote something very recently over at Smartly about a similar conflict. What makes things even difficult is having children who ask why I'm not giving to the homeless person or why is that man shouting or is he a hobo who kills people, etc.