Imagine for a moment that you are sitting on a stopped Metro train in an underground tunnel. The train is holding momentarily, and you are minding your own business. Suddenly, an African-American man wearing a black-and-white striped polo shirt and jeans walks by. He is mostly clean, bespectacled and has the beginnings of a scruffy beard.
As he stalks up and down the full length of the train, he is yelling, "Can anybody help me, please? Can anybody help me, please? Can anybody help me with anything, please? Please, can anybody help me?"
How would you react? What would you do? The first time this happened to me, I felt sad for this man. I had nothing to give him and I was on a Metro train for about ten minutes with him screaming that over and over again. That was last month sometime. He was back again today.
This time, things were a little different. It was crowded on the train. This is the morning commute on Thursday, after all. When the man started his chant, a little girl was nervous. She looked to be about eight and she wore thin glasses and her hair was neatly braided with clips at the ends. Whenever the man yelled, she would flinch and try to be as far away from him as possible. Everyone hears the man screaming, and everyone sits still.
Then, the man changes up his chant. He approaches a woman and asks, "Can you help me, please?" This was different. It wasn't targeted at just anybody anymore. It was personal. She asks (stuttering, mind you) what he needs, and he says that he is homeless and hungry. His tone is not kind and the woman sounds scared. That little girl I mentioned before? She's nearly standing right on top of me, and she's even more afraid than the woman.
Enter the one person who is willing to confront this man. She is also African-American and she has natural hair and a rather smart mouth. She tells the man (in far softer words) to sit down and shut up before she lays him out on the train. They battle back and forth. He complains about needing food, she tells him that no one on the train is his parent and that he needs to grow up. She is the little girl's mother, and she is no joke.
Throughout this entire debacle, the other commuters smile. They laugh at the mother's sharp comebacks. I'm actually surprised everyone didn't burst into applause when the train finally reached the next station and the homeless man left. Then, with a sort of reverence, everyone thanked the woman as they got off the train. They wished her a good day. They smiled at her (knowingly).
As one of the silent commuters, I have to say that I understand the reactions of both parties. The homeless man had a certain inflection to his voice that was reminiscent of a child with a learning disability. Given that most of the homeless people in DC came from asylums and such, I wouldn't be surprised if he had some kind of handicap. The mother, on the other hand, was protecting people from what that man could do—particularly her daughter. Yet it makes one wonder just why we react the way we do. Why didn't I stand up to that man? Why didn't the many people around me? What stopped us?
I can't speak for them, but I can speak for me. I think that there is a part of me that knows I had nothing to offer that man. I couldn't look at him and say, "Sir, I have food you can have. I have money. I can help you." I only had my lunch (which is a ham & cheese sandwich, chips, and applesauce). I had no cash, and I couldn't refer him to a shelter. In other words, I couldn't help him. That is a very painful and very humbling thing to realize. Yes, that mother could run him away with her comments, but she couldn't help him either.
Do any of you have any stories about encounters with homeless people? Any suggestions? Let me know with your comments.