The Homeless vs. The Nebbish

It’s not often that one gets a chance to move from one side of the country to the other, so I vowed to make the most of it. No one knows me in LA, no one knows my personality, no one has any expectations, so why not better myself while I’m here? No more awkward introversion, no more obsessing over whether I’m being interesting when I meet someone, and if I could stop doing that thing where I spend 15 minutes a day thinking about my fingernails, that would be great too. This is a chance for a whole new me!

Only there’s this: it turns out I am the way I am because I’m uncomfortable being any other way, and my discomfort rather overwhelms and smothers any desire to be a bubbly and well-adjusted person. But I did manage one mark of notable progress: now when my eyes meet that of someone on the street, I smile or nod.

I feel compelled, and slightly despondent, to note that this may not be a change at all but a matter of circumstances. In New Jersey or New York, if you nod at every person you pass, you’ll quickly end up with a sore neck and a collection of suspicious looks (at best). In Los Angeles County, while every “nice day” is subsequently followed by another “nice day,” no one walks anywhere unless they have a dog, or several dogs, or couldn’t find a parking spot within a quarter mile of where they’re going. Passing a person on a sidewalk out here is like passing someone in the desert: it’s so rare an occurrence you practically want to grab them, hug them, see that they’re real, impart to them your life story, and, if it’s a particularly sunny and delusional sort of day, try to drink them.


I was walking back from my local 24-hour drug store at night; in my plastic bag a can of meat that I’d soon regret buying, and a bottle of wine that helped with the meat. Halfway back to my apartment, I spied a real live actual person: a homeless man. One of the nicer things about LA, perhaps the only nice thing, is that the homeless people don’t freeze to death. This one was nonetheless wearing endless layers of frayed, filthy clothing, sitting guard by his shopping cart of priceless trinkets and invaluable nonsense, listening to music through a portable CD player with headphones. I too was wearing headphones, and I thought perhaps this bound us to some mad, music-loving insomniac camaraderie. These streets are ours, my friend! But before any of that occurred to me, I nodded, quite instinctively. If I’d thought about it more I’m sure I would have nodded anyway. This was a man before me, the only one I’d encountered or would encounter on my brief excursion, a living, breathing human with all varieties of feelings and smells. Why not acknowledge him? Why not treat him as I would anyone else?

The answer came in his response: “What the hell do you want!” It wasn’t the loveable consternation of an overworked, cigar-smoking New York newspaper editor with an ulcer and too many kids at home. No, this was the dirt-rub crazy kind of irritation. The curdled kind. Unhinged, manic, violent. The “if I had a knife right now…” kind.

I managed to repress my fear enough to maintain my speed, fixing my posture to give the illusion of self-confidence and turning off my CD player so that I might better hear footsteps behind me. I was pretty sure I could outrun him. Thankfully, it didn’t come to that. He muttered something else that I couldn’t make out but refused to leave his post by the shopping cart.

The streets weren’t ours. They were his, and I had intruded. As long as no one makes eye contact, no one nods or says hi, no one acknowledges his being, Mr. Homeless is able to dehumanize himself, forget his situation, exist not just in a bubble, but in a separate reality, avoiding comparisons with the real world and thus evading acceptance of his failure. For a moment, I broke through, and the stark beauty and affluence of our reality hit him square in the soul, and who can blame him for reacting poorly? Maybe I should have showed him my meat can.

A few nights later, I went to a Laundromat. As I got out of my car, a man approached me.

“You here for the Laundromat?” he asked.

“Yeah.”

“You leave a skirt in the yellow washer?”

“No.”

“Okay.”

He then proceeded to the bushes at the edge of the parking lot where he relieved himself.

I headed in and started loading the washer, all the while thinking I needed to find a new Laundromat, one with more hygienic employees, when the same man, now empty of urine, started shouting, “Anybody work here!” quite frantically, which was sort of a relief because he wasn’t an employee, and sort of not, because anyone that frantic had to have discovered a bomb in one of the dryers, and I started regretting never having designed a will, and – in a great display of irrationality – wondering if I’d left the iron plugged in.

There was no bomb. One of the washers was overflowing and spilling water all over where this guy was standing. It was then that I got a good look at him. He wore a wool skirt, a solid-colored button-down, a modest gold crucifix necklace, and plastic bags instead of socks. With all the skewed movements of a junkie, he was clearly homeless, though he seemed a bit more interested in our reality than Mr. Homeless the First a few nights earlier.

After shouting a bit more, he asked everyone individually if they worked there, except me, presumably because he saw me outside earlier. When he couldn’t find an employee, he grabbed all the newspapers sitting on the uncomfortable bench – first asking me if there were any sections I wanted to read – and put them down on the wet spots.

Later, he tried helping a woman who was struggling with a recalcitrant change machine, suggesting that she cover the slot with her hand after inserting the bill so as to block out the light, which apparently has something to do with something. She thought maybe this wasn’t such a good idea – it was a ten – and when he tried to do it for her, she snatched the bill back and stomped off.

Half an hour later he intoned some friendly words to me that I couldn’t make out. I smiled and nodded and didn’t ask him to repeat himself and regretted this for days. Here was this unfortunate man trying so desperately to interact with our reality, with any reality, and no one in the damn place would let him, me included.

Today I’m an extra on the set of a TV pilot called Miss Guided. The work is easy and ever so slightly glamorous, so it attracts lazy people and stupid people and jackasses. Also some of the most delightful and talented folk you’ll ever meet, but also jackasses. And the girl next to me, clad in typical goth clothing, is rambling on about how homeless people make $80,000 a year (on average! I don’t ask if that’s mean or median) and many of them are in fact not homeless, but are genius rich lazy panhandlers who have the system beat and have us fooled. She’s talking to someone else. The guy on the other side of her. He tries to introduce her to the concept of logic, and she keeps repeating “I’m surprised you haven’t heard this. Everyone I know has heard this,” as if she’s explaining that when you drop an apple it will hit the earth. She goes on, and gets into how her “daddy” pays for everything and she doesn’t need to work but being an extra is fun and she’s 24 and has never had a real job and never went to college even though it would be free, and I resist the temptation to clarify for her every aspect of her ignorance and stupidity, and I don’t know why I resist. Why do I resist?

I see her again later: she’s still yapping to the same poor fellow, still finding a way to be smug about her ignorance, this time saying that 9/11 might have been an inside job but no one can know for sure because there’s no evidence whatsoever (apparently the absence of acquired knowledge means the absence of facts in general) and again I don’t say anything, and instead think about my fingernails which are a little uneven and seem to be growing faster than they used to.

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2 Responses to “The Homeless vs. The Nebbish”

  1. YLlama Says:

    Meat can.

  2. FelixP Says:

    Wherever you go, there you are.

    I really didn’t see much difference between the homeless of NYC and those of LA. There are some fun space cadets on Sunset and Hollywood Blvds.

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