Wednesday, December 21, 2005

John Doe -- Repeat Performance

There's a lot of homeless guys begging downtown, especially where I work, because it's the financial district, and that's where the people with money are. Many are obviously suffering from mental illness (the homeless guys -- the people with money can afford medication), having conversations with themselves or people who arent' there. Many seem perfectly normal and amiable men, and if it wasn't for their grimy clothes and skin and unshaved facial har, they'd fit right into life downtown.

Most guys just ask each passerby for money and thrust out a paper cup. Some have cardboard signs declaring themselves homeless, Christian, veterans. All are standing.

All except for one. One guy sits silently, a cup in front of him, in the pose of a Buddhist at prayer. But his hands are not held in some meditative pose -- they are always cradling a full-grown orange tabby cat. He is very thin, with glasses. He's mostly bald with closely shaved head, and he sometimes has large scabs on his scalp. Lately, he's been wearing a cap, which is a good thing. On the side of each of his eyebrows is tattood "5150" in the plain, thin style typical of gang or jailhouse tattoos.

"5150" is a California code relating to the conditions under which someone can be involuntarily confined for psychiatric evaluation. One has to be a danger to oneself, a danger to others, or gravely disabled. My cat guy is probably suffering from a serious psychiatric ailment -- most homeless men are -- but it says something additional about someone that they would have their faced marked permananently this way.

But whatever problems and obstacles this man has aren't evident when he sits and pets his cat and politely thanks people who give him money. He's often on my way to work, and I've taken to thinking of him sometimes more as a Buddhist mendicant than a homeless guy, so singular a figure he is. When I give him a dollar or two, it's more like when someone bums a cigarette. When I used to smoke, I'd welcome the opportunity to give someone a cigarette. It was a little connection with someone else, an opportunity to do a little good deed. And it didn't matter if it was a homeless person or someone obviously well-off -- we had the nicotine bond. I think this guy and I have a bond because I have never been good at sales-- if I were homeless, I'd probably sit there with my cup, waiting for people to put in money while I tried to think about positive stuff. I couldn't ask people for money or hold a sign. And it would be so nice to have a cat in my lap all day.

This morning as we said hello and I gave him a couple dollars, he asked how I was. I told him "Fine, but I am dreading how busy I'll be at work today!" He said, "I'm sorry," and gave me a smile and wished me a Merry Christmas. And only after did I recognize that it could be considered off to complain to a homeless guy about my job or to say anything really personal at all. But I had seen my sitting cat guy and been happy he was there, and spoke with him as I would any other casual aquaintance.

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