Riding the bus with Gary Winslow: Questions

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Let me ask you a question: If you got a pretty good idea that someone is a crackhead, boozer, or drug abuser, and they ask you for money, do you give it to them? Does their plea for monetary assistance pull at your heartstrings or harden your heart? Do you give them money knowing that they’ll probably just “take it to the block” for the vice that got them there in the first place? Living where I live, this ain’t no rare occasion, but I was forced to deal with this question recently. For some reason this particular situation stuck with me …

I was sitting in the back; a situation I had a problem with for a while but have since let go, seeing as almost everybody on the bus is black anyway. I was enjoying my relatively new smartphone, and on comes this man who takes a seat sort of kitty-corner to me. Without even looking, I could feel what was coming next. Sure enough, this dark, weathered man began fixing his mouth to deliver his spiel seeking money. Now when I say dark, I’m not just talking about his skin tone, which, of course, in and of itself is all good. No, I’m talking about a void in his soul like a black hole; I could just feel sickness and desperation emanating from this man.

He began, “’Scuse me, ya’ll, I just got blublublahblipetty bloblo …”

I couldn’t make out his blurred story, but at that moment, truthfully I didn’t really care. I heard a little more that made me start to give the guy credit for at least coming up with a story. I half-tuned in to see what he was talking about. “I’m not homeless, I’m just tryin’ ta get … any help you could give me, I’d greatly appreciate it.” It sounded rehearsed, and I lost interest almost as soon as I began to care. I didn’t get to hear if he was talking about food or if he went the honest route and just asked for beer money (or drugs but nobody asks strangers for drug money, even the most cracked-out crackhead knows that), but he got no response. Everyone was trying to ignore him, so he tried again, “… any help I’d apprecia—”

“I ain’t got nothin’, bruh,” barked one of the passengers, cutting him off harshly. I guess my man’s brutal reply was enough to shoo my man off. He picked himself and his belongings up and dejectedly made his way to the front of the bus. Problem solved right?

Wrong. As the man stumbled to the front like an injured stray dog with his tail between his legs, I began to feel bad for the guy. I tried to go back to my smartphone and just ignore the situation, but as I clicked, swiped, and viewed, I felt a tinge of guilt in the back of my mind for not giving him a little something. True as that may have been, the bus moved along, I kept staring into my smartphone, and everybody else continued to mind their own business.

As we approached the transfer point, that tinge of guilt became a ringing bell that was no longer in the back of my mind. I turned my phone off and reached in my pocket trying to find some change I could spare and pulled out a couple of dimes and some pennies. Frankly, I took my man for a crackhead and was conflicted about giving him anything, but I chose not to judge so harshly for a lousy 24 cents. Since I ride the bus he wasn’t about to get my quarters anyway.

Finally the bus stopped, and I gathered my backpack, noticing a parked Woodward bus at the terminal that luckily didn’t say “Not in service.” I walked toward the front to get off and saw my man sitting in the seat he moved to after getting shot down. I went ahead and lifted my clasped fist and dropped my spare change in his hand trying to be careful not to let our hands touch, which didn’t work anyway, as the tip of my middle two fingers did bump into his tough leathery hands. It’s kinda funny that, even though I was doing a small act of kindness, I did my best to avoid touching his hands like he had the plague. At the moment, I felt kinda bad about it. On second thought, dem hands looked kinda nasty. I was still oscillating between my mixed emotions when I heard him say, “Thank you. God bless you, brutha,” and the mental pendulum in my mind swung toward the positive end of the spectrum. Perhaps I did a good thing; for the moment, that’s how I felt.

Turns out the Woodward bus I saw parked was driving up to its respective stop for pickup, which was perfect; no waiting. I was psyched, ’cause I planned on watching the Patriots and Texans play the Monday night football game, and getting home earlier meant more football. (Turned out to be a blowout anyway). There was another brutha there with a bike, so the two of us stood there and respectfully negotiated on who would put their bike on the two-slotted rack first. We discussed who was getting off first as we told each other our respective destinations, but, after a while, it was like a “who’s on first base” joke. We finally just laughed it off, said to hell with it and just racked ’em up.

Finally I boarded, went to the back again and copped a seat on the opposite side of where I sat on the last bus. Wouldn’t you know it? Homeboy I gave the change to was coming my way. I didn’t think much of it ’til, out of the corner of my eye, I saw him sloppy-stepping his way to the seat across from me and — SPLAT! This fool I just gave money to stepped square on my foot! It only stung for a second but DAMN! That’s the thanks I get? Looks like another example of “no good deed goes unpunished.” I’m gonna have to ask the cosmos about that dad-blamed phenomenon one day.

Anyhow, the guy wasn’t too lost to realize what he had done, and, to his credit, he apologized profusely. Since this transgression was accidental, I had to absolve him by saying, “You alright,” but I kept my eye on his unstable self. I was ready to move quick so as not to feel my toes crunch under them damn sasquatch feet of his again. There was a dude who sat next to him, and, as soon as homeboy got comfortable, the stumbling man started talking away.

Now I wasn’t “ear hustling” their conversation, but with the volume of his voice I couldn’t help but hear a few key words and phrases. They went back and forth till the sober cat asked homeboy, “You file taxes?”

Homeboy said, “ Yeah. I got my twelve reciepts and—”

The dude interrupted, “Come see me I’ll get ya straight.”

“You got a card?”

“Naw, I ain’t got no card, but—“

“I’m’a get me some cards and pass ’em out.”

What? Taxes? Cards? Is this the same dude who asked for change? Apparently this dude was more mainstream than I gave him credit for; though this may sound funny, that’s when I knew he was a crackhead. Some of ya’ll may already know what I’m gettin’ at, but for those of you who don’t, please allow me to explain.

See, in my experience there are two kinds of crackheads: those who’ve been in the streets, and those who fall into the streets. This guy seemed to be the latter. So many crackheads start out as fully functional, hardworking people, then one night they’re partying, try that shit, and there begins the end of their life as they knew it. They become a shell of their former selves but still remember a time when things made more sense, and they try to “maintain.” In other words, they’re “functional” crackheads, but the fact that this guy was to the point of asking for change indicated that he was close to the bottom of that downward spiral.

The gentlemen finished their conversation, and I watched homeboy as he counted his change. Seeing this, I began to wonder how far of a fall from grace this man endured. I envisioned him being a working man with a steady, good-paying job or being a former business owner who at one time provided for his loved ones. All I could see now, however, was a broken-down man counting a short pile of change. It seemed that all he owned now was the change, a couple paper dollars and a deficiency in motor skills. Sooooo sad!

Knowing how much I’ve lost, what has been stolen from me and how deeply in dire straits I’ve been, I know that if not for the grace of God I could’ve been that man. As he fumbled out of his seat and stumbled his way to the rear exit door, I looked into the image of one of my worst nightmares — then thought to myself that, perhaps, in even the smallest way, I contributed to this man’s path of destruction.

And I called myself doin’ somethin’ good …


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