Sunday, February 17, 2013

This Thing That Happened Last Night

I read Mary Dorial Russel's Doc recently.  It's just a wonderful book, filled with moments both large and small that stick with you.  That's how I know it's a good book.  I internalized it.

You probably knew this, but I didn't: Doc Holliday was a dentist, and, according to this book,  quite a good, dedicated dentist. There's a part where Doc mulls on the dental pain that one might not even be aware of that can be relieved.  Pain can be accommodated for so long that it become as commonplace and ignorable as breathing. It is an astonishing relief when you are relieved of the lizard-brain pain.

There was a knock on my door last night about 8:30 or so.  I thought it was the local neighborhood kid who seems to think we're living in an 80's sitcom and pops by between 8 and 9 million times a day for the most random of reasons.  But instead it was a 40ish African-American guy who had his driver's license and cell phone in hand.

You develop an instinct when you live in the city for a while.  You get pretty good at recognizing who is going to be dangerous and who is going to be merely annoying.  This cell phone/driver's license combo is a gimme:  annoying.  He was fixing to ask me for money.  Ugh.

I have no major beef with giving money to people asking for it.  A couple of bucks our of my pocket is no big deal and I don't care if you're going to buy drugs with it.  It is, to borrow a phrase from my dear departed dad, a profoundly red-ass world. Who am I to begrudge someone a pop?  But, it's a little different when you come to my house.  One must, after all, protect the homestead.  One does not want to encourage strangers to come a'knocking.

So, when he held out his hand, I pointedly ignored it, put on my coldest voice and said, "I don't know you and you're making me a little nervous here standing at my door."  And then this look of anguished frustration passed over his face and he said, "I just live behind you."  Now, if it were the 'burbs I'd imagine I'd feel like a jerk for not recognizing someone who lived behind me, but, shit, a LOT of people live behind me.   There's a lot of behind behind me.

But he looked like he might have been familiar so I decided to let him tell me what's what.  I shook his hand, kept my suspicious face on,  and let him begin.  He has a three year old who has ... some disease I didn't quite pick up because I was pretty sure he was lying still and fake kid diseases are the shittiest lies. He told me he was going to Walgreen's to get something for his son and he needed $15 dollars.

I know, it sounds like such bullshit right?  But I've left out a lot.   He spoke for a while and I found myself starting to believe him. My city vibes were picking up desperation, but not wheedling, jonesing desperation.   I have lived here twenty-five years.  My city vibes are good, they are unaffected by guilt of either the Catholic or White variety. He was legit embarrassed about asking me for money.  I felt sorry for him.  But I hadn't completely shucked my city armor and my pat response to queries of this nature came out automatically: "I'm so sorry, but I don't have ANY cash."

He looked disappointed, distraught and sad.   But he smiled and said, "Well, thanks anyway."

And then something snapped, and I decided to believe him.  "Wait!" I said. I checked in my wallet,  found $12 and gave it to him.

You guys, the look of relief on his face was amazing.  He looked relieved to have gotten that money and maybe even more relieved that someone believed him.  He held out his arms to me,  we hugged and he smiled again.  "Now I just have to scrounge up three more," he said.  But I raided the magic change bowl in the kitchen and and gave him 12 quarters.  We hugged again and he left.

And still, as I write this, I know that it sounds like such bullshit.  It sounds like he took my $15 and bought something illicit, that I'm just another Nice White Lady (tm) trying to shore up my charitable bona fides.  But it wasn't bullshit.  It was a real.  I still believe that he really needed $15.

And I am relieved of a pain I'd accommodated so long I was unaware of it.  Suspicion and doubt and self-protection wear you down after a while.  It felt good to help someone out.  It felt good to trust someone for no reason other than that they really need someone to believe them.  I felt lighter when I came back inside,  relieved of a burden I didn't know I was carrying.

In the cold light of morning, I recognize that he could have just been very good at scamming Nice Whie Ladies (tm).  But I don't think so.  I think I helped someone who needed it and I am glad to have laid aside my armor of self-protection for a few minutes.  I felt lighter last night. I feel lighter today.

And I'll leave you now with the cautionary part of this: it is perhaps not wise to open your door to strangers.   A healthy skepticism is an important part of surviving in the world.  But, letting self-protection and fear overtake you can also lead to tragic results.  Find the middle-ground.