Friday, January 11, 2008

Rain, Philadelphia

Strange day today.  I don't know what it is about Philadelphia, but somehow the rain here only serves to make the city seem dirtier, instead of cleaner.  Packs the filth down, I guess, and spreads it liberally across every surface.  Made for a depressing day.  After work, I decided to head down to Robin's Bookstore to pick up the third edition of Neil Gaiman's Sandman comic series to cheer myself up.

Outside Robin's there's this strange little alleyway, one of those old cobblestone streets you find all over the city.  As I approached the bookstore, I locked eyes with a homeless man sitting on a grate in the alley, desiccated face and wild white hair, his pants and jacket wet from a day out in the rain.  He was looking in the face of everyone who passed, asking them quietly for a cigarette, regardless of whether or not they showed evidence of having one.  When he asked me, I told him, "No, sorry," and went inside.

The comics at Robin's are right by the door, and since I bought Sandman 2 a few days ago, I knew right where to go.  I was in and out in maybe three minutes, and walked back to the Subway the way I came.  When I reached the alley, I saw the man again, lying face-down on the grate on the other side of the street.  When I looked closer, though, I saw that he wasn't lying down: he was trying to make it onto a curb that was maybe three inches high.  He jerked his hips, and I saw the cane that had previously been hidden amongst his bags now lying under his body.  His legs mangled, spindly and useless.  The seat of his pants soaked through, his butt jutting into the cold air as he tried to pull himself into place with his arms.  A man, older than me, older than my father, exposed and vulnerable as he tried to do this one, small thing.

I stood in the middle of the alley, watching him, lost.  Other people were passing, and a few glanced at him struggling before moving on.  I was rooted.  I wanted to help him, or at least offer my assistance, but I couldn't.  I was scared.  Struck dumb.  Like a fucking child.  Useless.  Even something a simple as pulling himself up was a challenge for this man. Night was falling, the air cooling and the rain intensifying.  I who have been given so much, should be able to do t least one small thing.  I wanted to give him a cigarette, to throw all the money in my pockets at him and run, but even as I thought that, I knew that I wouldn't.  I was too scared.  I couldn't even bring myself to ask him if he needed help.  Basic human compassion. I COULDN'T EVEN GIVE HIM THAT.  I felt impotent, and cowardly and furious at myself for it.

After a few seconds, I became aware that I was staring, and hurried on.  As I walked, I found myself crying, not audibly but silently, just tears.  Even as I cried, I felt myself growing more angry.  What incredible conceit, that I could turn an experience like that into something about me.  Why should I cry at my impotence when the injustice of the situation was a far more important issue?  If I really cared, I would have done something.  Simple as that.  But instead I cried, a little for him, mostly for me.  There's no way to end a post like this.  I hope the man I saw today finds something tonight to help him.  Whatever that is,  I couldn't give it to him.