Monday, March 9, 2009

Working With What One Has

It was one of those good, long weekends where not a lot happens, but enough things happen to make it seem full when you recall it at the end.

It was Friday that saw Rebecca and I walk up to Calhoun Square, to shop for a burr grinder.  My Braun grinder had served faithfully for several years but by design it really was just a chopper and lately its blade had dulled considerably.  I could have it sharpened but then I'd have a sharp chopper, not a coffee grinder at all.  I'll clean it up and donate it and some lucky college student will explore the thrill of the French press, as I did.  (A thrill second only to the sudden realization that one can make all the stuffing or bacon one desires, at any time of day.)

We were breezily chatting about a range of subjects when, as we entered the Square, a homeless man lurched toward us, not to confront but to solicit.  In Minneapolis, the aware observer has ample opportunity to study and categorize the non-verbals of panhandlers, for they are legion.  They range from maimed veterans who can't work to indolent crusty punks who choose not to, from arrogant and hostile high school students to obsequious and booze-steeped transients (who either walked up from New Orleans or just got off the Greyhound from Atlanta, by wide percentage, though this may be seasonal).  I will not comment on ethnic heritage because, although there is a strong correlation, one quality does not link to or necessitate the other.

This man was a tall, shambling man in multiple layers of clothing--reasonable for the weather--and his right hand pulled out of his pocket to display a small, pathos-evoking cardboard sign.  Rebecca was in the process of politely declining to donate and I was in the middle of another sentence when something inside me snapped.

I remembered that card.  It was a smaller model of the one I'd seen before, which stated in shaky Sharpie that the bearer is deaf, please donate, God bless.  (The poor know to use God as a leveraging tool just as well as clean and well-fed religious leaders do; but whereas the powerful implement the threat of damnation, the weak appeal to charity and compassion.)  In less than a moment I assessed the rest of the man: the visored cap seeming to melt down the sides of his head; the wide, hapless eyes and thick, hapless lips pushing out to haltingly frame an unspoken question; the gentle shoving gesture to push the little cardboard sign at us, to press its message into us.

Interrupting myself, I stepped up and yelled--yelled, in a public shopping center--"No, not you!  I remember you!  Stay the fuck away and do not say one fucking word!"  It was no good: he pretended to be deaf right up until the point I walked past and, as per his style, he leaned down to my ear and whispered, "Fuck you, you piece of shit."

That's what he does.  He's done it to me three other times, his script only slightly varied.  He looks so helpless and offers God's blessing for your assistance, then whispers something insulting and obscene in your ear.  He called one of my friends a "fat cow."  When not panhandling in this pathetic manner, he has been seen hanging out at the SuperAmerica gas station on 22nd St. and Lyndale Ave, chatting with his friends.  He's not deaf at all, but he doesn't drop the act no matter how many times you run into him, even when you loudly announce, as I did, that you know who he is and what he does.

Prior to this, I'd seethed on and off about our previous interactions.  The first time, I didn't know who he was at all and his finishing message really surprised me.  The second time, I didn't recognize him and was shocked to receive the full treatment again.  I definitely recognized him the third time--in all these years, he has not changed his clothes--and tried to shout him down but he pretended to be hearing impaired and helpless right up to the point he whispered in my ear.  These encounters would flash in my mind at random points and my body would seize up with rage and upset.  I was quite primed for the next incident and it's a small miracle I didn't assault him right there.  My wife was stunned to hear me lash out at anyone like I did, and further surprised to hear his characteristic parting shot.

But in the hours that followed, I didn't seethe with rage over the encounter.  It took me a long time to cool down from that abrupt explosion of emotion, but the rest of the day made me feel ridiculous.  We went to a pricey home furnishing store to shop for a fancy-dancy burr grinder which would marginally change the flavor of the coffee we brew for ourselves each morning.  Who knows what this shambling, offensive guy had to eat each morning.  We walked home and I changed out of my street clothes and into an outfit more appropriate for working out, and calmed down with an hour of yoga led by Maya, the virtual instructor in My Fitness Coach for the Nintendo Wii.  But this guy, he apparently had no other change of clothes, probably knew nothing of yoga, and likely did not have a Wii or a large TV to go with it.

All he had was his convenient little homemade sign and the sting of whispering something foul into someone's ear.  It's a lot like when a cat expresses its contempt for you by pointing its pink little butthole at you: they're both working with what little they have.  That's the best they can do and they have no alternative technique.  I found it difficult to stoke a lasting righteous indignation when I had so many measurable advantages over him: a beautiful and clever wife, a job I love, an attractive home in a nice neighborhood, and many other things.  All he had was panhandling and an economy of expletives.

I'm not about to give him a couple bucks next time I see him, and it'll be all I can do to refrain from punching him in the throat, but I don't have the long, slow burn of animosity anymore.

Also, I saw Watchmen and liked it a lot, then helped my wife clean up the house for the "Tea & See" she hosted for my sister's newborn boy.  During the latter, I took out my brother-in-law to check out the spoon bridge in the Sculpture Garden, now that the cherry's been removed for touching up, then to a nice fusion restaurant, and rounded out the afternoon with whimsy shopping at my favorite Vietnamese market, Duc Loi.  Other things happened this weekend, but they're largely overshadowed by this other thing on my mind.

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