It was dark, except for the lights on the bridge, last night once we passed through the artisan boutiques in the Ferry building and exited the port-facing doors. The three of us wandered out across the parking lot, stepping around barely illuminated puddles from the rain earlier that day, and hoping to get an unobstructed view of the bridge’s reflection in the bay, though the waves were rough enough that we got only shattered pieces of light, brushed horizontally over the surface like a Monet. Still, we made our way to the unlit end of the pier and took in the view, and that’s about where we were standing when I heard a rustling.
I spun around, squinting at the source of the noise: a blanket-covered figure taking shelter on a nearby bench stirred, and all at once I was filled with the feeling that I was being noticed but benevolently ignored. Probably, it was a homeless person who had found a secluded space to sleep where they figured nobody would bother them. Without letting on, I looked to see if anyone else had noticed that someone was there on the bench. My cousin snapped a few pictures of the bridge. I impulsively stepped into the space between her and the bench, so that if the figure was to suddenly jump out and start yelling, or something like that, I could be the first line of defense, I guess. Nobody else noticed them. After a minute we turned around and went back inside.
It would be imprecise to say that I’m scared of homeless people. I’m uncomfortable, maybe, but there’s a lot of reasons that their existence might, and should, make me uncomfortable. But scared? I’m scared of spiders and needles. Nothing you can do to a needle could make me less scared. But homeless people are just people who don’t have a home, and once you find them a home, then they’re just strangers. Imprecise. And unflattering, like crossing the street to avoid passing by a group of black people when you’re walking home at night. Why do they have to be black? Because that makes it unflattering. Can’t I see this stranger as just a person who is going through a particular circumstance? Can’t I be enlightened like my friend Abhi, who on her birthday asked a homeless man at the beach to share his fire pit with us, offered him food and drinks, included him in her party, and as we left explained to someone that she didn’t think he was leaving the beach not because “I think he’s homeless,” which is a statement of identity, but because “I think he’s sleeping here,” which is simpler and truer?
In that moment when I heard the rustling I was reminded of a night when I was 16 and had snuck out to take a walk to the neighborhood playground around 11 pm. This was something I’d started doing in high school because it excited me and made me feel adventurous. Some nights I would walk to the neighborhood down the road and explore the streets there, which were like a weird mirror dimension version of the suburb I lived in, with the same basic features – maple trees, front yard gardens and driveways with basketball hoops – but in new unexpected configurations. One night I ran as hard as I could down a street in this neighborhood to see if I could outrun the feeling of structure and control, the rut that I felt my high school suburban life was constrained to – which sort of worked for a bit.
On this particular night though, I was walking back from the playground in the dark, rounding the corner of the small building next to the yard, which was actually a set of changing rooms for the neighborhood pool, and right then a group of girls were walking down the sidewalk – a normal thing to do – right in front of the building which I was now emerging out of, from the shadows, like a creature from a horror movie. I froze, not wanting to startle them. This was unfortunate, because they did notice me, and the end result was that from their point of view as they were passing by, a creepy silhouetted boy came around a corner, stopped and stood there, and then just stared at them. I could have said something, like maybe “Hey, don’t be scared,” but I’m not sure that would have been much better than staying quiet, which is what I did, until they turned around and started quickly walking away, clearly shaken.
I think of that night because it proved to me that you can be scared of someone without thinking that they’re doing anything wrong, without assigning fault, and without thinking that they are inherently scary. The situation makes them scary. Like imagine if I had been smoking a cigarette or something. It would have explained my presence and made me seem less like an impersonal force, like there’s this kid who clearly snuck out to smoke so his parents wouldn’t find out. But instead, I was just smoking the cigarette of wanting to explore the neighborhood at night as a way of coping with my inefficacy, which it turns out is a lot like just not having a reason to be outside.
So in that sense, yes I am scared of homeless people, sorry.
After dinner the three of us were walking up Market towards Union Square to see the big Christmas tree when a disheveled man without a shirt on yelled out in a strained voice, peering angrily at an older couple walking a few meters ahead of us. He looked like he hadn’t bathed in several weeks, which made me think he might be homeless. He acted like he was mentally ill, and he might be dangerous. These were all thoughts I had but didn’t voice, because I thought saying them out loud would make me seem judgmental, uncaring, and classist. And because telling someone that they’re scaring you is a lot like asking them to stop being scary, which is not a fair thing to ask from someone in that position, the scary things about them being mostly related to not having a home. So I stayed silent and tried my best to walk around him without triggering him to focus his attention on any of us.
What drives someone to that? Drug use, sometimes. Mental illness, sometimes. Circumstance. The one thing that I always want to convey to homeless people, whether they’re trying to sleep or yelling on the street, is that I wish they had better circumstances. I wish they had support systems like me. If I got into an argument with one I would defer to them so fast it would make your head spin. I would avoid at all cost anything that I feel would lead to conflict. I’d tell them whatever they want to hear in service of ending the conversation. That’s what my primate brain thinks will solve the crisis: let them win the interaction, don’t piss them off. Implicit in this is that they are the ones with the power in the conversation. If one came after me I would run like a scared dog. If one insulted me I’d be happy to absorb it. One time a drunk homeless man came up behind me while I was sitting in a park and pushed down on the top of my head to steady himself. My response was to ignore him and continue my sentence without missing a beat, to the horror of my onlooking friends. Absorb negativity, output positivity. That’s what I think I owe them, but the truth is that’s not treating them like humans either. Humans engage each other.
I sometimes wonder what I would do if the system failed me the way it failed these people. If I couldn’t rely on my family and friends the way I do. If a corporation hadn’t agreed to sponsor my existence by giving me a job. Being slowly stripped of my efficacy and agency, and then denied the reality of this experience. Feeling powerless to change my circumstances. Getting swallowed up by that structure of control I tried to outrun in high school, but this time it’s permanent and also I’m cold and hungry. I wonder how many months I would be content with people just averting their eyes and refusing to engage. How many times I’d be willing to stop in my tracks and let the nice people doing the permitted thing pass by on the sidewalk while I stood there and hoped to not be noticed. How many times I would stay covered on my bench while three strangers snapped pictures of a bridge until, even just to see what happens, I actually do decide to pop up and yell at them. And what that would feel like. Having that power in the moment. The feeling that people won’t ever mess with me again because they’re scared. The Edward-Norton-in-Fight-Club beating myself to a pulp energy which proves that in the physical space we truly occupy, in the real world, in the actual moment, imaginary money and property be damned, my show of force gives me control over my space. And the fact that given how little control I have over my anything, my actions are actually totally justifiable. And how you would cross the street to avoid passing me, even though it’s uncharismatic, because you’d be scared of me too.