The man behind me in line at the post office smells bad, like a combination of body odor, motor oil, and stale cigarettes. I try to stand as far away from him as possible without creeping out the guy in front of me. But suddenly the man behind me starts to talk, apparently to me. He makes some comments on having to wait in line and trying to have fun regardless. I smile vaguely and mumble an agreement. But of course he isn't done.
He launches into a seemingly random and convoluted story about how he had to lecture someone -- his son, I think -- on acting like a man. Being a man isn't something that happens right away, not even after you've been in the military, he tells me. But his daughter, she had a four-point-grade-average. And why? Because she worked hard. You gotta study and work hard. And learn to be a man. I'm not gonna do it for you.
The line moves forward, and I'm next. Someone else is talking loudly about a local ski resort, and suddenly the man behind me switches subjects and launches into a treatise on the place. They have free skiing this time of year, he says, to get you hooked so you'll come back and pay later. He says he worked there for five years. I ask him if he skis. He says no, and seems to see the humor in this. I can't help thinking he's making the whole thing up. But when I look online later, I find out that the resort is indeed running a free ski ticket special.
The conversation is confusing and makes me feel embarrassed, but now I'm too invested in it to just turn around and ignore the man. I tell myself that he's probably lonely, possibly homeless, and perhaps delusional. Maybe he doesn't even have a son or daughter. Or maybe he does, and they don't want anything to do with him.
I don't want to talk to him, but I tell myself that he's a person who deserves respect. And what harm can a bit of conversation do? But even as I'm trying to be magnanimous, I notice myself glancing at the faces of the people in line behind him, wondering if they think I'm there with him, or if they pity me for being the sucker who got roped into talking to him. Or even worse, maybe they're thinking how kind I am for taking pity on him. I catch myself caring what these strangers think of me, and I feel ashamed.
The mail clerk calls "Next!" and I walk away from the one-sided conversation, pausing just long enough to let the man finish his sentence. I get swept up in the details of my mail and lose all track of the man. I have no idea what kind of transaction he does or whether he leaves the post office before me.
I leave, thinking about how I tried my best to see this outcast as a real person. But I also know that I did it halfheartedly, with reservation, and a secret sense of accomplishment at being the sort of person who will pay attention to a dirty, rambling man. And then I feel shame at such watery pride. My attempt to be openhearted is a thin gruel that amounts to nothing more than self-righteousness. It's sour and unfulfilling.
I feel even worse a few minutes later during a phone call with a friend when I complain about the wait in the post office and the chatty, smelly man behind me. I treated him like half a man to his face and then scorned him in private.
What kind of a person does that make me?
It makes me the kind of person I dislike. I once lambasted a friend of my parents' who complained about the homeless people panhandling outside of his office. If they really wanted a job, he claimed, they could get one. I was baffled and hurt when my dad agreed with his friend. I reminded him of how many jobs he'd personally lost due to lay-offs and plant closings. There but for the grace of God, I said. I lectured my elders on how good people end up down-and-out due to circumstances that that they couldn't foresee and that we don't know.
These were the same lectures I gave myself ten years ago as a volunteer coordinator for a mobile soup kitchen. The program fed dozens of people each night on the streets of east London. I was fresh out of college, alone in a new country, and floundering in a role that lacked adequate management and supervision. I spent most of my time hiding out in the office, ordering supplies, creating newsletters, and making the monthly volunteer schedules. I went out on the van just a few times during my year with the program. I was afraid to interact with the homeless men and women, afraid to be on the streets at night, afraid that I would look afraid. I let that fear guide me, even though the interactions themselves were never very frightening. But I made myself the wizard behind the curtain, keeping both the volunteers and the clients at arm's length.
I'm uncomfortable around the homeless, the elderly, the disabled, the infirm, the incoherent. This makes me uncomfortable with myself. To make up for it, I acknowledge misfits in the post office. I always try to look homeless people in the eye. When they ask for money, I either give a little something or say, "Sorry, not today." I try to give them a small piece of the respect I've lost for myself, and in that way, try to regain it.