What I saw that night was a handsome, young man. His smooth, brown skin and limber limbs seemed to defy his oddly clad image and a terrible stench he carried with him. He got on our bus. I had seen him before, but had been too tired to notice much about him. Maybe I could not miss him this time: quiet in voice, but so loud to all my other senses.
On this cold night in a nice Washington, DC neighborhood, he wore a colorful outfit, a blue, Afro wig and carried a big purse that I assumed either contained all his belongings or just the ones he thought he could not do without: a version of his stuff that had no purpose other than the security blanket they provided.
He smelled because he has soiled himself. It was strong. His royal blue pants were darkened by moisture down the middle, up to the waist on front and back, and the insides of the legs.
What was I supposed to think? What did I think?. This is, as you might recognize, one of those instances in which we catch ourselves in the middle of the tug between 1) what we are taught to believe and think when we are confronted by instances of humanity that are a little too strong for the delicate attitudes of our small minds (something like being taught not to stare at people who are “different”); 2) what we really think and feel and how much, that night, I could stand to be confronted by uncommon and, to my tiredly intolerant nose's sense of conformity: challenging and uncommon instances of human phenomenon; and 3) which version of that thinking I would be willing to express and share with him—and with you.
What could I express in that moment: how should I look at him? Do I say something to him? Do I talk about him to the bus driver or other riders? Given this teachable moment, what might I express in the days that follow: What do I say or perceive when I see someone else who might strike me the same way. Have my senses been girded or do I carry the same weak bias to the next encounter? What can I express right now: Do I really want to let YOU know how I felt?
Was it fear, “a simple sense of superiority," the common mixture of both, or something else that made me somehow think it was necessary to speculate happened to bring him to that state. I don't do this speculation for everyone, and chances are I am not doing it for you, right now—or maybe I am and likely have in the past, out of fear, a simple sense of inferiority or a combination of both.
What was it? Mental illness? Drugs? His? Someone else's? Where was he before getting on the bus and what happened that left him with soiled pants? Was this the result of an assault perpetrated by someone who attacked out of their fear at not being able to handle the sight of a brightly clad, blue-haired, beautiful man? Was it due to an assault self-inflicted? Was the assault no assault at all, but the result of a nature that made his brain work differently than the rest of the bus' population—a personality (dis)order that cannot be contained by his clothes, conventional hair or places to eliminate human waste?
Not everything I though was so abstract and prone to create hypotheses. Things like:
- Please don't sit down on that seat. Later, someone will board with weary legs and tired eyes after a long day at work, wanting a moment's respite before reaching her destination, the start of a short walk before she finishes her day by feeding children and putting them to bed. It will ruin her day. (I won't mention here my inconvenienced, curled nose.)
- Please sit down. I know you smell, but it is not your fault and it is the least justice after what you have been through. And maybe I will gather the courage to sit near you—and maybe ask you how you are.
- Please, bus driver. Don't let him on the bus.
I spent enough time thinking and wondering what a good, trying-to-be-moral man was supposed to do. I spent enough time avoiding acting on any thought. I spent enough time trying on the different attitudes, thoughts and intestinal fortitudes. I spent enough time looking and trying not to look.
It didn't matter what I thought. It mattered what I did. It mattered that I knew that most of the things that I thought of doing were of no help. I was left paralyzed, sitting with the awkward discomfort that makes a lot of us (well, me) look away. Or maybe sit up more straight so that we won't be mistaken for another pitiful soul. Or maybe we slouch a bit as to not appear too proud. Maybe we turn to a peer and laugh mockingly—because our embarrassed selves cannot recall just where the proper social and emotional response resides in our bag of empathy and moral fiber.
And when I stopped thinking, stopped worrying about how I was “supposed” to respond, and stopped judging—myself, this man or the society that left him as he is, what was important and what I needed to understand came to me in a simple epiphany: This man was some mother's little baby boy.
What happened to her son? I had a heavy heart, but was spared a small amount of grief to know that this mother was not there to witness the bus scene. But she had to know—know better than I could the reality that brought him to a world for which that night may not have been the only tale that would embarrass me and other frail hearts.
Where was her son? Would he make it home that night? Did he have a home? Was his mother still living? Was she alive to him and he to her? Why did I suddenly feel ashamed to be warm and dry? Why did I suddenly feel cold, even in the relatively mild autumn of the nation's capital: a pathetic, psycho-sympathetic attempt at empathy?
Feeling sorry for him does neither of us no good. I did not—and maybe could not muster the care to find out why he presented himself as he did that night, much less find a solution. Maybe even thinking that there needed to be a big solution (beyond a change of pants) flags an arrogance on my part: maybe his loss of control or dignity was the result of a “good time.” Maybe if I had asked, he would have said something like, Man, it might not look pretty, but it sure was fun!
I don't feel smug thinking that his state was something more than just a misadventure in recreation: Having feces and urine soak your clothing isn't right. Having a bus load of people and hundreds more in the path who do not know how to respond in this situation isn't right. I thought of who I could blame, whose morality I could question and felt my own shame.
I went home, thought of my son, thought of this man's mother and prayed for all of us. I showered off my feelings of guilt. Asked for forgiveness and hoped God would tell the man because I was too bashful to ask the man myself. I hoped not to be challenged by this sight again. (Did I pray for this too? Or did I pray for some super power that would bring me to save this “poor soul?”)
I know some who would have pointed and silently mocked. I know some who would leave him with a pasty smile and a meaningless, out-of-date Bible pamphlet. I know my brother Michael would have tried to bring him home, let him wash and give him a pair of pants. I have no idea which of those three people I was.
This is all too much musing when maybe it is as simple as this: One autumn night in a nice neighborhood in Washington, DC, a young man, with as many problems and virtues as the rest of us, got on a bus, paid his fare, and like the rest of us, got off the bus when it was his turn. And me, I eventually, went to sleep—just like the rest of us.