Saturday, July 24, 2010

A Surreal Encounter Over Real Food

This evening, I felt the need to simply get out and wander around Santa Monica for an hour. The streets were crowded and in-amongst the hoards of beautiful, well-heeled, tanned and gorgeous residents were a number of homeless, soliciting money, sitting on benches, throwing out arbitrary, insistent requests for loose change. I hadn’t strolled for two blocks until a man accosted me and launched into a roundabout speech, laced with flattery and desperation in an attempt to ask me for ‘anything I could spare’. I declined, as compassionately as I could and walked on.

Real Food Daily was busy, packed with customers and sitting prominently at one of the corners of the communal dining tables was a large, big shouldered man tucking into a vegetarian burrito of one kind or other. He was obviously homeless, he had a box with his possessions sitting on the chair next to him. His nails were long, unkempt and filthy. He was wearing a gown under his clothes that looked like the sort of robe male muslims wear (except for the tell-tale tiny dotted pattern that gave it away as hospital clothing). He smelled a little too. Naturally, the only seat left in the whole restaurant was directly opposite him.

I ordered my food and loitered, not wanting to go anywhere near this guy. I was so conspicuous that a waitress asked me if I needed anything. I answered, mumbling somewhat, “there aren’t any seats available”, realizing how ridiculous this particular lie was as I said it. So I walked over, asked him for permission to sit near him and took my place.

The other actors in this drama were a man and a woman, not quite a couple but acquaintances with enough knowledge of each other to be overtly nice and flattering towards each other. She was an elegant lady, of possibly Japanese or Korean descent and he was an American, a Southern Californian with charm and gentle self-confidence. She, like me, had been avoiding taking a seat and asked him a little more brusquely if he could ‘give them space’ before sitting down. The homeless guy shuffled his seat, got up, sat down and asked me if I needed his seat.

“It’s fine, you’re OK where you are” I said, as gently as I could. He then resumed his meal and there followed the most surreal little scene. As this shambling wreck of a man shuffled through his burrito and salad, the couple were digging into a mutually empowering conversation: the well-known staple on the west coast about ‘spirituality’. They spoke animatedly about the challenges of life, about how they’re dealing with life’s tribulations; about how things are quite tough and how they’re realizing things about themselves to become a better person. Phrases like ‘victim mentality’ were bandied about. The lady mentioned how when she was a student in New York (before she had ever had a rich boyfriend) she had no idea what it was like to eat in fancy restaurants. And all the time, I hear this, I see the homeless man’s mouth tremble as if he was crying, or muttering to himself with small measure of fierceness mingled with shame and desperation.

I cannot fathom how he was feeling at that moment. Perhaps he was conspicuously aware of how out of place he was, even of how disgusting we all found him. The sheer obliviousness of the couple was simply jarring, even to me. Their conversation about ‘spirituality’ left me feeling angry. Is this really spiritual? This self-centered view of the world that proclaims and declares its own strength with little or no compassion for those who have, quite literally, nothing? I simply stayed where I was and didn’t change my seat, even where other tables became open in the restaurant. I wanted simply to remain still, to stay in the company of this man without making him feel any worse. I could see him sullenly clean the food off his plate, hating his existence and offer some small quiet protests to the only person he had to talk to: himself. As I left, I asked him if he would accept the remaining money I had in my wallet, a paltry $3.

As I left, I was struck by the totality of his situation. Of how we complain and bitch and moan about trivialities all the time and how little time we have to show compassion for genuine suffering. I feel that this man is unlikely to survive for much longer and am struck by my powerlessness when faced with situations like this.

As I walked away from the restaurant, back to my car, waves of sadness crashed over me and tears sprang to my eyes. Another cheerful looking homeless guy on a bench said ‘spare some change buddy?’ and I choked up as I said no. The final twist of irony was the concern in his voice as he followed up with “Hey! Are you OK?”.

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