Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Brand New Horizon

(in which we discuss the finer points of city living)

A few weeks ago, I got stopped by a homeless guy on the street.  I still felt new to the city: I knew the routes to and from all the necessary places, but they didn’t feel like habit yet.  And the nighttime walk home from work still looked like the opening scene in a horror movie.

In short, the homeless guy unsettled me.

Most of the time, I can duck around just about anybody and get away without real interaction.  I think a lifetime of shyness has prepped me pretty well for walking through a city; my immediate response to any reaching out is to shrink and squirm away.  But I was distracted that day.  I had a build-up of texts and emails on my phone, and I was still within sight of work, so I hadn’t yet built up the wall of resistance.  Anyway, he took me by surprise, and before I knew it, we were in some deviated form of conversation.

He started off with a “hey, can’t you help me out.”  I think I responded with a deer-in-the-headlights look.

He proceeded to tell me that I look like a Barbie doll, to hug me without my permission, and to ask if I could give him some sanitary napkins.  I answered, in an especially girly voice, that I didn’t have any, and ran away.

I had to throw the shirt straight in the laundry, of course.  I’m not saying all homeless guys are dirty, but I think if they’re asking for sanitary napkins, you can probably assume.  Besides, who knows who that guy has hugged?

I thought about it the whole way home.  I tried to think my way through it, so I could shrug it off me like a sweater and forget it ever happened.  I ended up wondering most about the Barbie thing.  I don’t look remotely like a Barbie, so it puzzled me.  Maybe he thought all young women look like Barbies, or maybe all white girls?  Or maybe someone had told him that was the best way to give a lady a compliment.  Or, maybe, he really thought I looked like one.  I usually clip my hair up so that some of it kind of bounces over the side, and I don’t know--that could look like a Barbie thing?  The bouncing bit?

Or maybe I should stop trying to analyze the verbal stylings of a man asking for sanitary napkins.

Anyway, when I got back to my apartment, I just thought, “Hey, welcome to the city, kid.”

The homeless here are ubiquitous.  I don’t know if Seattle has an especially high population of homeless, or if I notice it because the city is so beautiful and full of trees and you can always see the water, or if I notice it because I grew up in the suburbs and I really don’t know what city life is like.  But much like the napkin man, that fact of it took me by surprise.

I guess I’m used to it now.  I’ve got my bob-and-weave style down.  I know the way home and I don’t care about taking it at night.  Sometimes when I walk the overpass, I just stand there a while.  Twenty feet to my left is a mini-park, and most nights, someone sleeps there.  The homeless go to bed early.  By my standards, anyway.

Sometimes I play a game.  I don’t know if the game is evidence of my slack morality and poor character, or if it’s just a self-protective reflex against a horror I have no power to change.  I call it “Homeless or Hipster?”  It’s pretty self-evident: I see someone who looks unwashed, unshaven, carrying a bag or two, sitting on the ground.  I take a guess.  If eventually I see a Starbucks cup or a sketch in progress, then hipster it is.  If one of the bags is a trash bag, then it’s homeless.  Sometimes I never reach a definitive conclusion.

When I think back on the napkin man, it brings up a few tangential thoughts.  I don’t like to be hugged by people.  There are exceptions, but in general, I’m not a hugger.  Of course, being hugged by a homeless man is a little worse than being hugged by a clean, employed acquaintance, but I would request neither.  Unfortunately for me, a lot of girls like to hug.  When I was a kid, girls liked hugging, and squealing, and makeup, and Leonardo DiCaprio.  I was kind of into black eyeliner, but the rest of these were lost on me.  Still, I was acutely aware of how well, or not well, I fit with other girls, so I learned to adapt.  I don’t shrink away from the hug.  I let it happen, and I don’t even wince.  I do tend to over-pat though.  Excessive back-patting is now my thing.  I think it’s my involuntary method of distancing myself from the hug.  You can get the girl out of awkward, but...

One of my housemates in college was sitting in our living room one day, reading about prisoners on death row.  They’re all in isolation, and they’re there for years.  The isolation drives them a little insane, in the strangest ways.  Apparently more than a few of them start acting out with the intention of getting the guards to beat them up.  It’s been so long since they’ve been touched by another human being that even this rough treatment is preferable to nothing.

I can’t help but connect the story of the prisoners to the napkin man.  I don’t have any words to give the connection, but it’s there.  I suppose it’s another self-protective reflex that we ignore it.  But sometimes I wish we wouldn’t.  I don’t know what we’d do if we didn’t.  I don’t know what there is to do.  And I guess most other people don’t either.  So we back-pat a little excessively, give a heavy sigh and a shrug, and go about our days.

The shyness has served me well.  I know just how to lock down any connection, any unwanted emotion, and shove it in a box somewhere.  I’m never touched by anything unwanted for too long.  Already, the napkin man has faded from unpleasantness.

I don’t know what disservice I do myself with this.  I don’t really have the time to figure it out.  Who ever does?


  1. Sara! I work with homeless folks every day, and it's been really interesting to see how my growing confidence among this population at work translates into my attitudes when I see people on the street. On the one hand, the guests at the place I work aren't just dirty, scary, homeless dudes anymore: I know their names, their stories, their personalities and quirks. We have conversations. They tell jokes. They have pets, or kids, maybe diabetes. I love my job, and I genuinely like these people.

    So my work has done a lot to familiarize and humanize this population for me. But then, on the other hand, it's also caused me to kind of struggle with interactions outside of the workplace. Like, I never really know what to do when I pass guests on the streets. My contract is very strict about limiting the types of interactions we have with these people: we are NOT friends, and I am only supposed to interact with them in a staff-client capacity. So if I see people that I know while I'm walking around downtown, I sort of freeze up. Should I treat them like I do at work? Should I stop for a conversation, develop our relationship? I don't have any authority out here though. Outside of my workplace, we are equals, right, and the power dynamic is weird? What if they don't want to talk to me? Too many questions. For better or worse, I usually just end up ignoring people.

    So I dunno if all this really relates to your post in more than a topical way. It's mostly just self-centered rambling. But I guess it comes down to boundaries, man. Makin' them and breakin' them. Ugh.

  2. Emma, you make me happy when skies are gray. Seriously, I'm really glad you responded, since of all the people I know, you are probably the one I should be talking to.

    I guess it is about boundaries. And self-preservation, too. But I don't know, I do the brush-off thing, and I feel so bad about it, even though I don't really have another choice. Ah. I just don't know.

    We should chat sometime about this in person, man-friend.