Sunday, February 10, 2013

Just another gawker

I saw her again, of course. Now, I look for her every morning.

Same camouflage jacket, same pink scarf wound around both her neck and her waist. Same dirty gray hair. Same weathered, Robert De Niro face. 

This time she saw me.

That's the thing about crazy people -- sometimes you forget they see you right back.

She sat on the same bench as I did again, just a few feet away. I was pretending to read my book, but really I was slyly watching her. Doing my "Gorillas in the Mist" thing, crouching in the jungle with a notebook, observing a foreign species.

"Don't tell me you guys don't notice stuff. It's very obvious."

She said it without looking at me, but I knew she said it for me. About me, to me.

A few minutes later she got up and stood in the Starbucks line again. This time, she'd scraped up enough coins to buy a bagel. I watched her wait for the bagel to get toasted. 

A severely disabled man, whom I've also seen here a few times before, motored slowly past her in his wheelchair. She said, "Good morning, darling, how are you doing? I'm glad to see you!" It was crazy but it was sincere. It was maternal, like a mom talking to a retarded child.

"Don't tell me you guys don't notice stuff. It's very obvious." 

It reminded me of another time that I felt unnerved when a homeless, schizophrenic person suddenly -- somehow both indirectly and directly -- acknowledged me, called me out, obscurely shamed me. Somehow whisked off my veil of liberal concern to reveal just another gawker. This was back in 2008 when I lived in downtown San Diego and spent many hours of my under-employed days hanging out with and getting to know the local homeless guys. I considered these people my friends. To have one of them regard me with suspicion was jarring. Here's the journal-style entry I wrote about it at the time, in an e-mail to a friend:

10/22/08: An eerie encounter with a homeless, schizophrenic man who wandered into Borders last night wearing bright blue socks and no shoes:

I was sitting at a table in the crowded cafe section, reading book reviews. The man, leathery tan skin and prematurely white hair in a ponytail, took a seat in a nearby armchair and began muttering in an even, hypnotic, Father-Time-wise voice. He stared straight ahead and, I think because there were shelves of fashion magazines to his left, one of his utterings included, "Beauty's only skin-deep, man." Everyone else was ignoring him.

He began muttering observations about the people around us. It was quiet in the cafe area, so we could all make out what he was saying. He was dissing everyone, noting that they were ignoring him. I was the only one looking up occasionally, to acknowledge him and to tactfully observe him in fascination and empathy. We made eye contact a few times, and I thought I was doing a good thing by not ignoring him.

But then he said, in his spooky, barely audible tone: "...And she keeps looking at me like we have a commonality. Do you have a PhD? I don't think so." I guess he thought I was being condescending or maybe even that I was being a sort of rubber-necker. He went on to quietly diss the fact that I was reading a magazine and not a book (dude, it was literary reviews, not Us Weekly!), and even my outfit (I'd bundled up for the cold night, layering a sweater over another top, with a hoodie over that, and he said it was "overkill" -- this from a dude who strolls into Borders in bright blue socks and no shoes).

It might not sound like much, but it was unsettling. I guess I'd had this bleeding-heart/white-suburban-girl idea that I was some friend to homeless people everywhere, their patron saint or something. To be called out for my liberal do-gooder nature, to realize that it can be more patronizing and voyeuristic than I like to admit.... it bothered me. 

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