I meant emotionally, you dirty bird! Jeez.
Anyway, I had this amazing interaction yesterday. I was getting off the freeway and there was a homeless guy I’d seen before in the same place; his sign said, “VIETNAM VETERAN. NEED WORK. ANYTHING.” I didn’t have any cash so I jammed my hand into my change slot and grabbed a handful and called him over. The light’d turned green, so I was blocking traffic. He limped over on his cane and I said, “Sorry, this is all I have, hope it helps!” He was extremely grateful, like one would think inordinately so. His profusion of gratitude made me feel even worse that I didn’t have food to give him. So after shopping at Trader Joe’s down the street I went to a nearby Chipotle and bought a vegan burrito (brown cilantro-lime rice, black beans, salsa fresca, hella guacamole) and a peach-orange juice. I hurried back to the offramp but he wasn’t there! So I drove around the neighborhood and found him slowly walking down the street. I pulled into an auto body shop’s parking lot and hurried out of the car with the jumbo burrito and glass bottle of juice. “Hey man, remember me? I brought you some food, you hungry?”
Immediately he was taken aback. “Oh yeah, I’d love some food!” He was probably late-50s, with a wicked handlebar mustache (a la 1970s Nick Mason, perhaps a contributing factor to my fondness for him).
“Great!” I said. “It’s a vegan burrito, so no meat or dairy, but trust me—it’ll fill you up, and it’s healthy and delicious!”
He took the offerings like they were bricks of gold. I was startled to see that his ocean-blue eyes were beginning to tear up. This gave me full-body chills, as often happens to me, perhaps oddly, when I have a meaningful interaction with a stranger. “Oh man this is so great, thank you so much.” His voice warbled. I started tearing up a little too. “I’m just tryin to get by, hopefully next month they’re gonna get me a place to stay and take care of me.” He was crying openly now, and even more touchingly, didn’t seem to be embarrassed at all. And for you cynics, I detected no drugs or alcohol in his system. He was just another man, down on his luck, and profoundly touched by what he perceived as tremendous generosity on my part (I don’t see it that way; I just see it as doing some small thing to help a suffering fellow earthling).
I asked him if he meant the V.A. (Veteran’s Administration). He said no, he’s waiting for his disability to clear. “I went to ‘Nam in ’69 and took shrapnel in the leg.” With his metal cane, he tapped at his shin area, emitting a metallic clanking.
“You don’t have to prove it to me, I believe you,” I said with a smile.
“Hey, thank you so much brother, I really appreciate it.” His voice still shook and tears ran down his cheeks and in that moment I felt both touched and extremely sad that this simple, routine gesture on my part was met with such incredible gratitude—because it demonstrated the probable uncommonness of his receiving such gestures. I always try to carry food with me in my car for such occasions. I remember when I lived in San Francisco and took MUNI to work, there was always an older woman standing by the stairs when I would emerge onto the street, and I gave her one of my snack-bananas or oranges every morning.
He shook my hand and then embraced me hard. “God bless you.”
I let that one slide—people like him deserve to have that hope, even if it’s in all probability specious. “Hey, it’s no problem, really.” I was smoking a cigarette, so I asked him if he smoked, if he wanted a couple. He said that would be great. He tucked them into his pocket, gently, a sweet treat to savor later.
I mentioned that I was just coming out of some hard times myself, that I recently got out of prison after two years. “Oh man, that’s terrible,” he said. “I did a year and a half myself a long time ago. Even one day is too long! But I shot a cop, so I was actually lucky.”
My eyes widened. “You shot a cop?”
“Yeah, it was an accident—he kicked the door in on the wrong house and I was sitting on the couch and fired, but it was just buck shot.”
“Well that’s still pretty awesome, most cops are bastards.”
Now it was his turn to be surprised. “Yeah man, they really are! It didn’t used to be so bad, but it’s getting worse and worse.”
“Most of em are thugs, you know, give one person a gun and power over other people and most of them are going to abuse it.”
He hugged me again, sniffling. “Thank you so much, brother, happy holidays and New Year.” His voice trembled violently at this, and I intuited that he had family he wouldn’t be seeing this holiday season, and yet still he wished me—young, privileged white kid—happy holidays. I don’t particularly care about the winter holidays, but it was still so sweet of him. I was tempted to tell him about my fourth novel, Orange Rain, the main character a legless Vietnam vet burning for revenge on those who wreaked havoc on his life, but I thought it would be kinder of me to not make my homeless friend think of those pernicious gut-wrenching memories any more than he already no doubt does.
“Hey,” I said, “it’s my pleasure, dude. Try to stay strong and know that things will get better, okay?”
More fresh tears. This was walloping me emotionally (and him too, apparently). “You too. Thank you so much, man.” He held up the aluminum-foil-wrapped burrito and smiled. “I can’t wait, this is gonna be so great.”
I gave him one final hug, which he gratefully accepted and returned. I said, “Try to stay warm and take care of yourself.”
A tear rolled from his quite-beautiful eyes and down his cheek. “God bless you, young man.”
As he limped off and I climbed into my car, I called out one last thing, something I pretty much never say to anyone: “Thank you for your service!”
“Hey, I was just doin what I had to!” It was clear to me he’d been drafted into that horrible, murderous, unnecessary imperialistic war. He saluted me. I saluted back with a smile, and drove to the next light and stopped at the red to flip a U. Then I saw what, strangely for me, may’ve been the most touching part of the whole interaction.
He was waiting for a green light so he could cross the street. He was down on one knee, both hands gripping the head of his cane, head bowed.
The disabled veteran was thanking his god for me. For my simple gesture. As much as I loathe religion, I couldn’t help but be profoundly touched by this sign of gratitude (even if it was directed at the wrong individual, ha!)—it was symbolic of how much what I did meant to him, even though spending 8 or 10 bucks or whatever was essentially nothing to me. My eyes welled with tears and I smiled in a way that I’ve rarely smiled as of late, as I’ve been struggling with deep depression: the kind of smile that involves not just your lips but your eyes too.
Never think that a small act of kindness on your part can’t have a monumental effect on a person. It was clear to me that I made his night and had a profound, maybe even lasting impact on him. I don’t do these kinds of things to get something in return, but to touch and be touched in this way is phenomenally gratifying. It’s the very reason I decided at twelve years old that I wanted to be a novelist: to touch people emotionally, to get them to feel more strongly, to live more passionately. The dominant culture—industrial civilization—doesn’t want us to feel; it tries ruthlessly to deaden us inside, turn us into unfeeling drones. And it is dreadfully successful at it. Because only a people who are largely dead inside emotionally could go about making the economy function, be good consumers, “good Germans,” as billions of sentient animals are savagely slaughtered for nothing more than pleasing people’s taste buds, as thousands of children starve to death every day while we First Worlders discard literally tons of perfectly good food, as the world burns amidst a mass extinction of animals and plants; only people who are all but dead emotionally could sit idly by, or, if we do resist, we do so weakly, partially, only giving tiny bits of our hearts and lives to the struggle, as these and a million other absolute atrocities occur on a sickeningly pervasive, incessant basis.
So feel more. Give of yourself more. Live with greater passion for the things you love. Because resistance to the genocidal, ecocidal, omnicidal dominant culture begins in our hearts and increases exponentially the more we FEEL and SEE. After that, together, our power to effect change is truly boundless, and limited only by our timidity and ineffectuality and silence.