I’ve gotta stop looking at homeless people. The other evening I got caught up in gazing at a homeless guy with a long, pointed face and thick, dark dreadlocked hair all sticking out over his head, like Medusa’s sleeping snakes. He had olive skin and a bedraggled beard, and he was rugged up in a couple of filthy blankets, standing in the street. He turned, tilting like a fat brown bumblebee, and saw me.
He grinned. I smiled. He came towards me. I, smilingly, walked past, partly lost in one of my random daydreams, or perhaps just blankly heading home with nothing going on behind my eyes.
That’s the beauty of headphones & easy-access volume control. You can amble through a city only half-engaged with it. You can selectively zone out. I had no change in my pockets & I still have that old-fashioned fear of pulling my wallet out in a crowded street, so I zoned out. ‘Sorry, homeless guy, next time,’ I figured.
Next thing I know, the Bumblebee is around and beside me. I smile. He smiles. He shuffles and ambles, dancing — I now realise — dancing alongside me, pointing with delight at my headphones. I smile more, because it’s not every day someone dances you down the street. But, of course, part of me is worried because what happens if a homeless guy follows you home? It’s not like adopting a kitten, though even that would be a responsibility I’m not sure I could address right now.
Bumblebee is still dancing like a ragamuffin jesus at my side, & I’m still grinning but I’m wondering what I do next, when all of a sudden he feigns walking into a nearby street pole. He seems to let out an exaggerated ‘Ooff!’, though I can’t hear it. Then he pretends to nearly fall to the ground. After that he shuffles around me again & I’m craning my neck trying to see where the mime act will end up.
We stop at traffic lights and he’s talking to me with the widest grin yet on his face. I remove a headphone, but I still can’t hear him. His voice is a deep whisper & he’s shaking his head sorrowfully. I *think* he’s saying, “You didn’t see. You didn’t see.” And he’s pointing back at the pole. I think he thinks I’ve missed the whole performance. He’s sorry, either for me or for him, I can’t tell.
I’m not sure what to do next, but luckily the street light changes and I head off. Unluckily, so does he, & this is where I really begin to panic, because pretty soon I’ll be out of the city crowd & close to home, & though I have no fear of violence from the Bumblebee, still I’ve begun to worry about my moral responsibility should he proceed much further, & I’m unhappy with myself for this self-centredness. Suddenly I just want all the problems of the world to go away because poor little *me*, I can’t deal with them after a full day’s work. I want to whine about how life has failed to address everything I need, too, but I can’t find a satisfactory injustice to alight upon.
Uselessly, ineffectually, victim of my own greed, I reach the other side of the street. When I look back I see the Bumblebee has dropped one of his dirty blankets in the middle of the road. Stooping to collect it, he seems suddenly to have forgotten all about me, & has ambled off down the lanes of stopped cars. I find myself hoping he’ll be OK. As if my hope is at all a worthwhile thing.
Two days later I see him standing with a smile & an evident lack of worldly concern in an entirely different street. This time, I don’t look at him (because I’ve still neglected to have change in my pocket) & my suddenly fixated gaze combined with the fact it’s morning (& I hate workday mornings) fills me with sorrow. When I was a kid I used to feel sorry for things — by which I mean largely animals, my pity for people developed much later — & I’d combine this with a regular childish inability to find an effective solution for things. Forlorn puppies at the pet store, lonely cats in other people’s yards. I’m a grown-up now, so where are my solutions? Where is the wisdom I thought I’d have? Where is the certainty & the easy knowing-what-the-right-thing-is-to-do that parents seemed to have? The homeless people I see (and you probably think Sydney is teeming with them, the way I talk, you probably think we have the world’s biggest crisis of homelessness & no, I’m not even going to mention Katrina, how can I possibly have anything to say about Katrina, for *chrissake*, what can I ever effectually say about that?) are challenging me. I keep wondering about things I’ve never quite taken for granted, but never completely found satisfactory answers for, either. The home, the job, the regular life, the credit cards, the ingrained attempts at Maturity, Responsibility, Care, Carefulness… the more I come to enjoy my life somehow the *easier* it seems to walk away from it.
I cannot work out why that is. The more I come into possession of myself, the more dispossessed I feel. So strange.