The words came from a grizzled old man in a tan baseball cap, hollering at people through a few crooked yellow teeth. It was a beautiful day out, and I'd gone for a walk on the Commons on my lunch break. The grass was full of people lounging with sunglasses on and backpacks under their heads, or with kids and toys spread around them on blankets; the fountains were on in the Frog Pond, and children leapt through the water.
Until I came across the man I had been thinking how nice it was to be out on a day like this, the weather making everyone a little happier, the people around me getting the same lift I was from the sun and the breeze and the pretty surroundings. I heard the man yelling and my thoughts froze up a little bit, but my feet kept walking. Near me a child asked her mother, "Why is that man yelling?" The mother said comfortingly, "It's all right. He's just talking out loud."
"I'm dead! I'm dead!"
I was maybe twenty feet past him when I stopped, my back to him. The words he was shouting pulled me into a place I didn't want to be in, a dark place with rough walls where the air was dirty and got clogged in your lungs. I stopped because I'd been there before. Oh, I've never been dead. But I know what it is to feel that way. I knew he was shouting at the world that so much of what lived inside him had died that it didn't matter anymore that his body hadn't caught up.
I'm bipolar -- bipolar I, with psychotic features. I don't know if all my readers know that. If you don't you should know it now. I'm crazy, and so was the guy in the park. So I stopped, and looked the other way, and waited to see what I was going to do.
I must have stood there for five minutes, with his shouts of "I'm dead!" ringing out behind me every ten seconds or so. I had been planning on doubling around the park and stopping at McDonald's for a package of apple slices to go with my lunch. I felt in my pocket; one bill. Didn't matter what it was. I couldn't give it to him and still get my apples. And besides, giving him money wouldn't help. He needed a soup kitchen, a place to stay, a hospital. Something.
I looked around. None of those things were around.
I thought about it. If I gave him the money and gave him directions for how to get to a hospital on the T, would he go? Check into the psych ward through the ER? Not likely.
What if I walked him with me to the McDonald's, bought him something to eat? But I couldn't stay with him -- I had to get back to work, and I'd seen too recently what happens to crazy people in reputable establishments.
Part of me -- a big part of me -- wanted to go back and talk to him. And another part of me -- another big part of me -- wanted to walk away. λ's and my financial situation is tight right now; we have to be watching every dollar we spend, and the money in my pocket wasn't mine alone to give. And the guy was scary. He was crazy. He was sitting on a bench shouting at people and he could lash out if I approached him. As I thought about it, I heard him yell the word "Faggot!" I thought it was "I'm a faggot!", actually, but I couldn't be sure. Another time I thought I might have heard "Cunt!", but again, I couldn't be sure. The only words that were coming out clear were the ones he kept repeating: "I'm dead!"
And somehow I turned around and started walking back. Scared, feeling stupid, but feeling impelled. Something about the words touched me in a way I couldn't even fully explain, and still can't. He was dead. He wanted the world to know he was dead. He was breathing, and he was dead. I needed him to come out of that space in his head. I needed him to know he wasn't dead. I needed him to be better.
So I walked up to him. Very cautiously. I said, "Hey, guy, what's going on?"
His face took on a look of alarm. "Hey, no, I'm not --" he said, garbling the words. He thought I was somebody in authority, come to tell him to move along. So much for my being afraid of him -- he was afraid of me, and, I realized, probably with better reason than I had.
"No, it's okay, it's okay," I said, as reassuringly as I could. "I just wanted to ask what's going on."
He stopped shouting immediately. Tilted his head toward me. His whole expression changed. In one second he'd gone from angry and raving to polite and open, putting social manners on as you might adjust your jacket and straighten your tie.
"I'm Joe Haskins,"* he said to me. His speech was twisted and slurred, but there was no smell of alcohol off him, no bottles around him. Whatever was wrong with his speech was part of what was wrong with him. I didn't, and don't, think he was drunk.
"Hi," I said.
"I need you to know something," he told me.
"What's that?" I asked.
He pondered for a long moment. "I'm Joe Haskins," he said.
"Hi," I said again. Then, "It seems like you're having a bad day."
"You know what, little lady?" he said.
"I need to tell you something. I really need you to know this."
"You are..." He paused, thinking about it. "You're my brother. My sister," he added. Still caught on "brother," I didn't respond. "And let me tell you something else. I'd kill for you."
Um, okay. "No, it's okay. I'm glad to meet you." I started to say, "I don't want you to kill anybody for me," but stopped myself. He was not going to kill anybody for me; that wasn't the situation, it had nothing to do with what was going on. I didn't feel like letting him know that my first impulse had been "oh, God, please don't act homicidal."
"I'd..." He lost track of his thoughts again. "I'm Joe Haskins. And you... let me tell you, little sister..."
I couldn't understand his reply.
"Hey," I said, "I'd like you to feel better today. Can --"
He was already shaking his head vehemently. "No, no, no," he said, angry and sad. "No, no."
"No? That's not going to happen, huh?"
"No, no, no."
"I'll pray for you," I said, not that sure why, except that a lot of the homeless people I see seem to find solace in religious paraphernalia.
He shook his head again, as firmly as before. "No."
I went back to my original plan. "Is there someplace you can go?" I asked. "Someplace you can stay?"
He smiled at me, big. "I own this spot."
"Okay." I had no idea how the lives of the homeless worked, especially not in Boston Common, where their presence seems to be tolerated as a simple fact, as just part of the way things are in the city. I was gathering myself up to ask if he'd ever been to a hospital, and, if so, if he wanted to go, when another guy walked up and gave Joe a half-smoked cigarette. "Hey, Joe, how's it going?" he said.
I turned to the guy. "You know him?" I said.
"I'm his brother," the other guy told me.
"Oh, good," I said, immensely relieved. "Look, is he okay? Is he --"
"Well, not like that, but you know. We're brothers out here."
"Oh," I said, getting it. "You two look out for one another?"
He shrugged. "We do what we can, you know?" He reached out to shake my hand. "Sam."
"Hi, Sam." We shook, and he wandered off for a bit.
"Sister," Joe said suddenly, "I love you."
I smiled, but didn't say it back. How was I supposed to say it back? I liked him, cared about him, but I didn't love him. I have a lot of love in my life, a lot of people who love me and whom I love. It's only now that I'm fully realizing that I don't need the love of strangers -- I don't need them to love me, and I don't need to love them, either. It's only now that I'm fully realizing that Joe needs both.
"I'm really glad I met you, and I hope I see you around again," I said to him. I reached into my pocket for the money. He might have seen me do it, I don't know.
"Can I ask you a question?" he said. I said, "Sure," and he repeated it a few times -- "I gotta ask you a question. Can I ask you something? I just gotta ask. Honestly." Whatever it was, it wasn't too easy for him to say. "Sure," I told him, several more times.
"Do you have any money?"
Funny, since I'd been aiming to give him money all along. He hadn't been begging for it, I should add; he didn't have a cup out, wasn't asking for spare change. I pulled the bill out of my pocket, saw that it was a five rather than the ten I'd thought it was. I was relieved. We can afford five bucks more easily than ten. I pressed it into his palm.
"Little sister... I gotta tell you..." He seemed overwhelmed. The conversation went in some loops, more "I love yous," more affirmations of brotherhood. He stretched out two fingers -- I wasn't sure if it was a peace sign or an attempt to reach out to me. I pressed two fingers to his, like I was in E.T. or something.
He leaned in close. "Do you want it back?"
"No, no," I told him. "I want you to have it."
And he bent his head and started crying. Brittle, choking, broken sobs. The ashes from the cigarette Sam had given him scattered down his shirt front. He grabbed my hand and held it compulsively, shaking, sobbing, the brim of his cap covering his face. He glanced up once. "I'm dying," he told me, and I didn't know whether he meant that he was truly terminally ill -- he didn't look it, but how the hell do I know? -- or just that he could not see any way that a life like the one he was living could go on for much longer. "I'm sorry," I told him, watching my heart crack a bit from a long way off.
"I've got to go," I told him eventually, watching his hand over mine, the gnarled knuckles and yellow nails. "I have a job and I have to get back there or they won't be happy. I hope I'll see you again, okay?"
He looked up, his eyes dry. "I'm Joe Haskins," he said. "What's your name?"
I told him my first name.
"Kylie," he said. "Thank you."
I have not made any of this conversation up. It sounds saccharine, scripted, like an anecdote out of Chicken Soup for the Soul. But it's not. Sometimes I exaggerate stories for effect, mostly when I'm telling a funny story, but not now. I've rendered this as exactly as I can remember it because I need to convey that this was a man who was sane once, who once knew how to interact normally, who knew to say "Thank you" and how to introduce himself politely to a stranger and how to refuse offers of money if the giver can't afford them. If you'd been there you could have seen it in his face, like the flip of a switch when I started speaking to him. If he'd had all his teeth and had been able to speak straight, in that moment, you wouldn't have thought him any different from you and me.
He's certainly not that different from me. A tip of the wheel of fate -- born into a different family, not enough money, lousy luck in finding qualified mental health professionals (and I should add, an ability to find qualified mental health professionals who can save a life like mine from a fate like Joe's is not a foregone conclusion for even a middle-class girl) -- and I could have been exactly like Joe. That's what I see whenever I see a mentally ill homeless person on the street. I see myself hunched over a grocery cart, with wild hair and tattered clothes, loaded down with plastic bags and a battered sleeping roll.
Joe was beginning to let go of me when another guy showed up. "Hey, Joe," he said. He looked at me questioningly.
"You two know each other?"
"Know each other? I'm his father," the new guy said, settling down. "Jack Haskins the Fourth. Nice to meet you." I waved. "No, it's true, I really am," he said. I nodded. Meanwhile, another guy came up from the left. "Hey, guys." He reached out to shake my hand. "Paul Dowd. I'm his cousin."
"Okay. You guys will all look out for each other, right?" I addressed Paul, who seemed as sane and pulled-together as anyone else you'd happen to meet. "He'll be all right? Joe?"
Paul nodded. "Oh sure. Sometimes he just gets liquored up and he gets to feeling sorry for himself. He'll be fine."
"Thanks," I said. I addressed myself to Joe. "Bye now. Maybe I'll see you around again."
I don't remember what his reply was. I was already walking back to my job.
Walking back I thought about a lot of things. I knew, after the conversation, that if I'd tried to save Joe by bringing him to a hospital or a shelter or a soup kitchen or anywhere else, it wouldn't have mattered. He had his bench, his bench that he owned as far as he or anyone else was concerned. He had his family. I took a great deal of comfort from the family he had around him, his brother and his father and his cousin. As I'd left there had been a woman in a wheelchair coming over to join the group, a woman with an oxygen tube running through her nose. She had a family too. I had never known that. I had always thought homeless people lived entirely alone, cut off from the rest of the world. Now I know that at least in Boston Common, they have their own world. My assumption that the world of non-indigent, bustling, "normal" nine-to-fivers was the only world had turned out to be incorrect. Homeless people may be exiled from "polite" society, but some of them, at least, build their own societies to support their own lives.
And I thought about how I had always been scared of giving too much of myself to homeless people -- giving money whenever I saw them, even talking to them and putting that emotional investment into it -- because I thought they would take and take and take until I didn't know how to stop myself from bleeding dry. I thought of how little Joe had needed. His manner had changed the moment I'd spoken a kind word to him. It was very clear that no one had spoken kindly to him for a very long time. And maybe his short-term memory is shot and that's why he can't remember the last time someone was kind, but I don't think so. I think people are scared and uncomfortable and they don't think they can help and so they walk on by. And he kept shouting, kept shouting, "I'm dead".
And I don't know how long he'll remember me or whether he'll remember me at all, but I don't care. And I know he'll almost certainly use that five bucks I gave him for alcohol and I don't care about that either. The five bucks was not about getting him to a better place. Unless a miracle happens, he will never be in a better place than he is in now. He's settled, with a bench he calls his own and an adopted family around him, and change is too hard and too scary to even attempt when you have any kind of security at all. Five bucks was never going to change anything material, but when I gave it to him what it meant was that I cared, and my God but did he need that.
I am not telling this story to be boastful. I walk past dozens of homeless people a day and do nothing. I will come out and say something I didn't think I was going to confess publicly, that if he had been a black guy instead of a white guy I would not have felt comfortable approaching him, and I would have done nothing. I am not laying claim to sainthood. The only reason I did what I did was because I empathized with him because I am myself mentally ill.
But I needed to write the story for LJ, because I needed to tell people that there is a person in there and that person is as familiar as you or I. Not just "as human as you or I" -- I mean, duh. But as familiar. At some point when he was younger he had no idea he was going to end up where he is now, and neither did anyone around him. If things had been a little different he would have a life like yours or mine. And all of that was right under the surface. I mean, right under the surface.
There are plenty of mentally ill people who are violent and scary, and approaching them wouldn't have this effect -- I doubt most of them would lash out at someone who approached them kindly, or they'd be in jail already (prisons are full of untreated mentally ill people, and the court systems are not terribly lenient when it comes to homeless indigents who attack everyday upstanding citizens), but some would no doubt continue to yell aggressively. I'm not sure how it was that I evaluated Joe as someone who wouldn't do that. It wasn't just a guess and it was more than a hunch, but I couldn't explain it, so I can't pass on any advice, either. Other people will have to judge for themselves whether it feels safe to show kindness to people like Joe when they encounter them.
But I needed to have it known. Joe really, really, really needed someone to be kind to him, and it was so easy to show him that. Really. All the time I spent agonizing and pondering, I figured it would be this big damn deal to try and talk to this guy without getting hit or robbed or pleaded with endlessly, and the only thing he wanted was for someone to act like he was not a piece of shit they needed to scrape off their shoe.
I just needed to say it. I hope somebody who reads this will be in a situation at some point where they feel comfortable reaching out to someone who needs it.
I don't think I'll pray for Joe, because he told me not to. I'll keep thinking of him though. Maybe in some way it's the same thing.
*Not his real name.