Yesterday I drove to an appointment for a physical therapy session to work on my knee, the one with the torn meniscus. Since I hate parking garages with low, oppressive ceilings, I chose to park a block or so away.
The sky was blue, the sun was out, and I briskly walked to my destination. Restaurants were full of happy people enjoying balmy weather on the last day of spring break.
I crossed the street and noticed a gnome-like, wizened, obviously homeless guy on a bench.
Exactly as if he had been watching and waiting for me, he stood up and blocked my path when I approached. He held out a pen and asked me if he could write his name on my body.
(Yes, for a nanosecond, I imagined he was holding a knife. Adrenalin production ramped up in my body, but it was just a pen.)
I shook my head and firmly replied, “No, you CANNOT!”
He said, “Why not? Because then you’d belong to me.”
This wasn’t a pleasant encounter — his demeanor was filled with contempt. With those few words, the tone he conveyed was sarcastic, sardonic, mocking, even derisive.
I continued to walk, shook my head at the oddness of his words. Many times, I’ve been asked for money by street people, but this was out of the ordinary for sure.
Instead of “homeless”, advocates suggest the use of language like unhoused or unsheltered to describe people “experiencing homelessness” to imply a worldview that sees homelessness as a structural and societal failing, not a personal problem.
Whatever language one uses, we have a large population here, and I think our city has a fairly responsive and compassionate approach to this crisis. Not great, but better than their past one-dimensional militant approach.
About an hour later, I retraced my steps as I made my way back to my car. The little man was still there, perched on the same bench. This time I noticed that his feet didn’t touch the ground, which means he was even shorter than my five feet. I didn’t feel like I needed to take any effort to avoid him.
This bench was positioned in the middle of the sidewalk and near the intersection at the stoplight where I needed to cross the street.
As I walked by, he cackled and stuck his foot out as if to trip me. I circumvented this potential ill-mannered assault as he called out to me with an abundance of animosity, “Hey curly!”.
Of course I didn’t respond and made it safely back to my car, but I was curious about these two slightly peculiar encounters in an otherwise completely normal day.
As I pondered the deeper meaning of what occurred, it reminded me of a Fellini film; the blending of fantasy and baroque images with raw earthiness — opening a portal to what lives beneath the surface of seeming normalcy.
What did the angry man represent? Why me? Why did he say I would be his if he wrote his name on me? There was an essence of something shadowy and devious and outlier about him; a glimpse into a version of a world I don’t inhabit.
How utterly strange and slightly unsettling, like I was actually IN an art film or an alternate reality or another dimension.
The only way I can describe it is how Caryn James in an old newspaper article described a Fellini film…”that moment when you walk headlong into a scene so strange you think you’re hallucinating; then it turns out to be real.
What I know for sure is that it was borderline creepy and I was SO glad to go home. To be home. There’s no place like home.