The bus route ends near my home and in doing so, follows a lazy loop, both leaving and rejoining the same street west of the library. To escape the early autumn heat, most people catch the bus regardless of which way it is going. I wondered if it had passed already as I didn't wish to be caught off guard if it stopped on the other side, too far away to catch unawares.
A man stood waiting at the stop on the “going back out” side.
“Has the bus passed yet?” I asked.
He made some hand and arm movements that were hard to interpret.
“It's passed on the other side already?” I asked unsure.
This time his movements were more deliberate....it had not yet arrived. Was he looking at me as I spoke, I wondered?
“Are you deaf,” I queried.
He pointed at his throat.
“You're mute? You can't speak?”
Yes, that was it. Thus began a brief conversation, written upon small crumpled papers, magically produced in an eerie form of prestidigitation. An orange, blunt ended dollar store marker quickly wrote this mans' tale of a series of true life unfortunate events, his gestures punctuating his sentences.
With each question I asked came a sudden exasperated outburst noticeable only by a full body reaction, but totally without sound. We communicated in the only means available to him, each answer written in single, well practiced sentences. The bus passed on it's way out as I asked and he answered.
He did not know how long it had been since he had last worked. He had been a self taught tree surgeon. His voice had been lost while in police custody when someone had punched him in the throat. He had sued but lost. He could not get work now. He had tried to collect aluminum cans for money but this only resulted in his being beaten up and the cans stolen. Someone had tried to kill him recently by hitting him in the head with a bottle. He had no real friends, no one that he could actually trust. He had applied for medicare, but denied once, he did not try again. He had applied for medicaid but gave up after the third try.
I told him about my blog and how I was very determined to try and help people to understand the true story of the poor and homeless. I wished I had had more to offer him than sympathy and advocacy....in those moments my words seemed pitifully small, yet they were all I had to give. I told him I would like to write about his circumstances and was that okay? He said yes. His name was Robert.
The bus came and we got onto it. I saved a spot for him. As we bused the short leg to my stop I inquired, “Do you have family?” He did, but not here. “If they knew where you were, would they help you?” He looked taken aback at this question and paused as if it had never occurred to him. Yes, he seemed to think so. I encouraged him to approach the soup kitchen and see if they could contact someone for him. With that I got up to leave. I hoped he would try to contact his family.
It is impossible to know exactly what any one persons' full story is in the span of a bus ride, but it seemed excruciatingly obvious to me that this man had far exceeded his level of tolerance to his situation. It made me think of the overwhelming intensity of emotion so often associated with Aspergers' Syndrome (a type of high functioning autism). Whether he had such a syndrome or not was moot. He had far exceeded his capacity for what life had given him. Even a totally normal person, in such a position of victimization, trying and failing at every possible option, totally friendless and unable to even cry out when attacked ---let alone tell his story--- would most certainly be rendered broken, and likely permanently so. So reactive had he become, no doubt so fearful and overwhelmed....it seemed impossible to me that he would ever find a job again. Here was a man, who, if nothing else, had been totally disabled by his circumstances.
And all I could do was to write about it.
Todays Lesson: The true alchemists do not change lead into gold; they change the world into words.
William H. Gass, A Temple of Texts
copyright Linda Matthews 10/7/2013
copyright Linda Matthews 10/7/2013