Even though it’s officially autumn, Austin is still summery hot at the end of September. Yesterday afternoon I walked a couple blocks to our corner store/gas station in 90-degree heat. This particular corner of East Austin has quite a few homeless folks who hang out; it’s close to one of the public health clinics and they often gather in the shade of the bus shelter or in front of the store. (When you don’t live anywhere, you tend to have a lot of time on your hands.) I’m used to seeing people in distress up there.
As I walked up to the store through the side parking lot, I saw a thin young man holding a bottle of water and leaning against the wall. He vomited, and I looked away, quickening my pace and doing my best to ignore him. In our rapidly gentrifying neighborhood he could have been a young, professional resident who had drunk a 12-pack of Lone Stars on Saturday night, or a junkie who had done too much smack that afternoon. I couldn’t really tell. (Both those demographics tend to wear rumpled clothes.)
I went into the store, made my purchase, and started the trek back to my house. As I walked by, the man was still crouched down, shoulder against the wall. I was going to give him a wide berth, but decided instead to see if he needed any help.
I approached him and asked him if he was okay. “I’m sick,” he said. “I got some water from the store, and then started throwing up.” He closed his eyes, trying to breathe. Clearly he felt horrible. I don’t know about you, but when I’m feeling ill the last place I want to be is in a nasty parking lot in the mid-day heat, leaning against a wall that has probably been pissed on several times since the last rainstorm.
I continued to stand there, unsure what to do. “Is there anything I can get for you?”
“No,” he said, and turned his face toward the wall.
I stood there silently for another moment. Before I walked off, I stepped in closer, put my hand on his shoulder and said, “I hope you feel better.”
Of course I have no idea what happened to him, if he made it home. Maybe he had nowhere else to go, and was just going to sit there until he felt well enough to move again. I hope, though, that putting my hand on his shoulder gave him a bit of comfort, and let him know that somebody had noticed him and saw him struggling.
I spent a lot of time this summer driving around in triple-digit temperatures and scurrying into air-conditioned spaces once I left my vehicle. The sun is brutal – more than five minutes of exertion mid-day will leave you exhausted. As I drove, I began to pay attention to the many homeless people standing on street corners, literally frying their brains out in the punishing sun, surrounded by concrete and asphalt, breathing exhaust. Since I didn’t have money to give them most of the time, I would often look away with a small smile and fiddle with my car radio, trying to avoid eye contact while still acknowledging them. But perhaps I did have something to give: a handshake. Making a brief physical connection recognizes a person as part of the human family, and not a nuisance to be avoided. While it doesn’t put food in their bellies or a roof over their head, it does give them a bit of actual human contact in an otherwise lonely existence. Tiny instances of joy can make someone's day when they are in a bleak situation.
So many of us feel overwhelmed when it comes to the problems of the world. The mess we are in seems so vast that it’s easier to just shut down and become paralyzed. After all, we don’t have the time or resources to do something about it, let alone figure out where to stick our spoons and start tunneling through the mountain of shit we find ourselves in. Physical contact is a small, tangible way to relieve the suffering of another, albeit momentarily. It’s a way of reaching out and acknowledging that we’re all human, and that each of us lives in the sovereign nation of a physical body, and that we can interact with each other in a way that is trusting, caring, and pleasant (as opposed to yelling at each other from behind our screens).
Reaching out, instead of turning away, is a small step toward healing the pain, great and small, that defines the human condition every bit as much as love. Will it fix everything? Oh hell, no. But it’s free to give, and it’s a small act that can have a huge impact.