While eating a burrito, a homeless man walked in and sat next to me, asking me for change for the bus.
"Sorry, I don't have any."
"You don't have to be sorry. I'm sorry for having to ask."
He had recent sores on his face, his hands were swollen, and his nails were craggy and yellow. He had graying, curly hair and eyes hidden behind puffy eyelids. We got to talking about where he came from and where he's been, where I'm from and where I've been. He fell asleep in a snowbank last night, explaining his swollen hands. "It was comfortable!"
He told me that his father used to call him "the wandering Jew". Surprised, I asked him if that meant he was destined to live forever, but he didn't understand the reference. When I asked how he felt about that nickname, he said, "you can't argue with the truth..."
He was too proud to go on welfare, he said, but he asked me where to find a Western Union, apparently in order to pick up some money. I remembered that I had 50¢ in my coat pocket, so I gave it to him, knowing that he would spend it on booze (he was already half in the bag). He thanked me profusely.
He decided to visit Cambridge today, the first time he's left Southie in 15 years. Despite asking for change "for the bus", he said he would walk back to Southie later. He walks everywhere. "Taking the bus makes you fat and old. Walking gives you time to think." Despite this, he looked older than he should've been, and fatter too. Maybe more thoughtful than other street people I've met, but just as lost and addicted.
I gave him the code to get into the bathroom, and when he went in, I gathered my things and left.
Cowardice, really. It took me a moment to engage with him when he first asked me for money, but I cannot just ignore somebody. Seeing his pain, what can I do? Ultimately, not much. My cowardice in leaving, however, comes from knowing that I could've done more. It's going to be 0ºF tonight, yet the "wandering Jew" worries not about his fate.
I didn't ask his name, and he didn't ask mine. Why am I in the position I am, now writing this text in the comfort of a library, in relatively lavish circumstances, while he wanders, penniless and drunk, periodically beaten by other street people? He spends his days riding the subway; I told him I used to spend my days riding the subway. But what a gulf between us today.
I can decide that the only thing I can do is treat him with dignity, to show some amount of kindness. But that is an arbitrary decision. It is like Beop Jeong said, when I see someone living with less than I have, I feel shabby and embarrassed. In the end, I can walk away, avoiding the shabbiness, the responsibility to the suffering. The Wandering Jew cannot escape his burden, his fate, the totality of the causes and conditions throughout time.
"Well, I hope it doesn't get colder than it has been." he said.