Last week I was confronted by one of the glaring inconsistencies of Southern California. It was a perfect winter day, bright, blue, and without a hint of clouds. It was the kind of day that prompts Mid-western dreams of moving west for waves and warmth. It was also a day for being moved by Melpomene, the muse of tragedy.
The inconsistency of which I speak is the in your face homelessness that permeates the façade of the California dream. Never seen on postcards, or Chamber of Commerce brochures, the homeless are an ever present reminder that within the dream is a nightmare of life on the edge of oblivion, made worse by cheap liquor, cold cement, and the slow fade into malnutrition and non-personhood.
After parking my Aprilia, I headed for work, only to be acknowledged by an unfamiliar transient. He seemed to recognize me, which was odd but hardly remarkable, I nodded and kept walking. One of the rules downtown is not to alienate the homeless anymore than they have already alienated themselves. To do so could spell trouble for any merchant not wanting to provoke retaliations from the "street."
Sitting with the grizzled new face was an unfamiliar street punk. Nothing new really, just a new addition, and as a writer I keep mental notes of such things. As I entered my place of employment, I mentioned to my coworkers it seemed we had a new crop of transients hanging out on the sidewalk. This is not my usual form of small talk, but it pays to be aware of changes in your working environment. Imagine my shock when I was informed that was not a new face, but a familiar one swollen beyond recognition.
The person I could only recognize once told of his identity was Michael, horribly swollen from what was more than likely cirrhosis of the liver. Michael is not a transient, and he is hardly homeless. The place he calls home is the not so mean streets of Encinitas. By choice or by accident, it is no longer an issue. He is permanent fixture of the community.
Michael helps out at the shop, odd jobs for petty cash. Most importantly he helps keeps the crazy at bay. Everyone likes Michael.
One of my co-workers, a veteran, was visibly upset. Michael needed help, and he was going to take him down to the veterans' hospital. " Fine" I said, "be back at one." He left and was back twenty minutes later. "He refuses to go." Of course he refused to go. Here was a man whose whole life was about bad choices in response to bad choices.
None of us were surprised. Concerned? Yes. Saddened? Big time. Helpless? Absolutely. Michael had choices. His friends had none but to watch him tremor in the afternoon sun barely coherent in the death grip of alcoholism.
As the day passed to darkness all of us kept a watchful eye. Finally, when inaction was no longer bearable, another coworker, tears streaming down her face called 911. They had to do something. They came. Said yes, Michael should go with them for much needed care, and of course Michael refused. So the firefighters left, knowing as all professionals know some people will not be helped. A sweater was brought for Michael, as well as a bottle of water. And then he was alone in his misery.
As I left that evening I passed Michael, exactly as we acknowledged each other on my way to work, me busy with life, him slowly dying. This time however I found words for the proud man tremoring on E Street. As I passed I could only say, "Take care of yourself."
I'm sure he was too weak to catch the irony in those words of kindness.
I was to numb to offer anything else.