A tale of old wounds
By Philip Diehl
I was kind of in a hurry. I was at the stop sign at West 8th and Monroe, heading west. I noticed a guy panhandling, across and a little down the street from me. His clothes were brown and faded, drab and filthy. His hair hadn’t been combed recently. His skin was rough, weathered and lined from years of living on the street and he had no backpack, or sleeping bag, or anything. It’s like he was wearing everything he owned in the whole world, except for the small cardboard sign he held that said, “Please help me.” I turned right and passed him, and as I did I thought, “Help him!”
There were cars driving by; none of them were paying any attention to him. Monroe is a two-way street, so he wasn’t on the driver’s side. He looked sort of lost and bewildered — like he didn’t know what to do next, or how to do it. It’s like he didn’t understand the basics. I could feel his pain from as far away as I was.
I drove down the street, turned around and came back. I pulled up next to him, rolled down the window and called to him. I handed him a $5 bill. He didn’t smile, but he looked at me in the eyes and said softly, “Thank you man.” His pale gray eyes told me the sincerity of his words. I held his gaze and said, “Sure,” in return.
As I began to drive off I noticed two young men, aged 15 or so. They waved at me and smiled and laughed as they called to me, “God bless you for helping him! You’re great! He really needs the help. He probably needs a beer really bad.” They laughed some more and snickered. I was confused. There’s a church right across the street, and at first I’d thought that maybe these were a couple of kids from the church, applauding my generosity. I waved at them and smiled and then I realized they weren’t that at all. They were just a couple of young kids who were enjoying themselves at his expense. The homeless guy might be in danger.
I found a parking spot nearby and walked back to the two young guys.
“Hi,” I greeted them. They looked at me nervously. “My name’s Philip,” I continued. They grunted something. “What are your names?” I asked.
“Walt,” one of them offered. The other one said, “I’m Gene.” I shook their hands. “Nice to meet you,” I said. “Yeah,” they said in unison.
They were nice looking kids. Walt had blond hair and blue eyes and was wearing a pair of jeans and a yellow sports shirt under a black and white jacket. Gene had sandy brown hair and hazel eyes. He wore kaki pants, a blue T-shirt and a beige coat. They were both very clean and looked healthy and well-fed. They undoubtedly lived in nice houses in nice neighborhoods and, when they are old enough, will drive nice cars. They’ve probably never been truly hungry a day in their lives and all of their needs had most likely always been met.
I looked at them in the eyes. “I stopped and came back to talk with you guys ’cause I was kind of worried about our friend there.” I motioned toward the panhandler. He was walking slowly away from us in the direction of West 7th. “I had a feeling that you two were going to have some fun with him, and I figure he’s had enough pain in his life. Were you gonna hassle him?” I paused while they both looked down at their feet. “I thought maybe you were thinking about jumping him and taking his money and maybe beat him up. Am I right?”
“Naw man. We weren’t gonna do that! We were just havin’ some fun.” Busted! They were a little embarrassed and a little nervous and a little angry. “C’mon,” one of them said to the other, “let’s go.” They started to slouch away.
“I’d really appreciate it if you’d do me a big favor,” I called after them. They kept walking. “Actually, you’ll be doing yourselves one.”
They stopped and turned around, “What’s that?” Gene asked.
I walked to them, “Listen,” I said, “that guy you were hassling has probably seen more pain in his life than you can possibly imagine. And the two of you were getting ready to add to it.” I paused as they looked down at their feet again.
“Please, look at me. Look in my eyes.” They both did. “There’s an old saying,” I continued as we looked at each other, “‘If you could see the pain your enemy has suffered, you would treat him very gently.’ Think about it. And he’s not even your enemy.” They didn’t say anything, but they kept looking at me.
I held their gazes as I continued, “I’m thinking that guy might be a Vietnam vet or a Gulf War vet who has seen horrors and has done things that would make you drop to your knees and curl up in a ball sobbing.” They didn’t say anything, but their eyes got a little bigger. “I’m a vet myself. I’m one of the lucky ones. I was in during Vietnam, but I never went over. I lucked out, and I thank God for that every day. I have a friend. His name is Jim, and he’s like my brother. He was there, and he’s on 100 percent disability and will be for the rest of his life. He can’t work and hold down a job. His wounds are too deep. Maybe that guy can’t either. You wouldn’t believe the pain Jim suffers. Maybe that guy,” I pointed down the street, “has suffered even more.
“One of you said, ‘he really needs a beer.'” They were still looking me in the eye. “Well maybe he does. He and I probably have at least one thing in common. We’re probably both alcoholics. I know I am.” I saw the surprise in their faces, “I’ve been sober for 27 years. That’s almost twice as long as you two have been alive. But I remember the hell like it was yesterday! I’ll never forget that. Ever! I don’t know exactly what he’s been through, but I’ve shared his pain. I’ve been soul-dead. I spent years not being able to look into my own eyes in the mirror. I couldn’t look at anyone else’s either.
“I hated myself so much that all I wanted to do was die. I’m very grateful, now, that I didn’t have the guts to kill myself then. I’ve had more than a few friends who did — just so they could stop the pain. If he needs a beer or two, and I just gave him the money to get one, then so be it. Alcoholism’s a disease. It’s not a choice, and it’s not a moral issue! Maybe, someday, he’ll be lucky enough to stumble into an AA meeting and save his life, like mine was saved, or maybe he’ll just die out here, cold, lonely and hopeless, like my friend Mike did.”
“I’m sorry,” Walt said. “Me too,” added Gene.
“I know. You just didn’t think. You were being thoughtless. You’re young. I’m 65, and in those years I’ve learned a little. I used to know everything, but the older I get the less I seem to know. One thing I know is that karma is real. You don’t want to be creating that kind of karma for yourselves. As they say, “everything that goes around comes around.” The next time you see that guy, or someone like him, you might want to wish him well and say a little prayer for him. Give him a buck or two, if you have it to spare and don’t worry about how he spends it.”
“Yea,” Walt said, “we’ll do that. I’m sorry.” “Me too,” Gene added. “I never thought about any of that stuff you said. Thanks for telling us all of that.” “Yeah,” Walt added. “Thank you man.”
“You bet. And thank you for listening. You didn’t have to do that. I appreciate it.” We shook hands and wished each other well. They walked one way and I walked the other, back to my car, happy that I’d taken the time to talk with Gene and Walt and give them something to think about and remember for the rest of their young lives.
That’s what could have happened, but it didn’t. Walt and Gene aren’t the only thoughtless ones. It all happened, right up to just before the moment that I parked my car. What I actually did was — I drove away. I didn’t even look back. I drove the two miles or so to my warm, snug, cozy home and just before I got there, I realized what I could have done — should have done — didn’t do. By then, it was too late. Whatever happened, happened, between those two young guys and the homeless one. I hope they didn’t hurt him, physically or emotionally.
I hope the homeless guy bought himself some hot food with that $5, but that’s none of my business. If he used it to buy some beer to ease the pain for a few minutes, then he did. I understand that. But it didn’t ease his pain. It just made it a little worse. I know that from my years of experience as a falling down drunk. I just wish we’d all empathize a lot more and really imagine what it would feel like to live in that person’s reality, as he or she stands by the roadside with a crumpled sign asking for a little help from their brothers and sisters. That’s what I wish. And, as a present day Tiny Tim might say, “God/Goddess bless us, every one.”
Philip Diehl is a retired ship-to-shore radiotelegraph operator, and an avid sailor, windsurfer, motorcycle rider, writer and photographer. He and his late wife, Darlyne Diehl, Ph.D., co-authored the book, “Triumph — Travelling Towards Death: Preparing for a New Life,” which is available online at Amazon.com and at Barnes and Noble.