I Don’t Like it When People Yell at Me
The first thing I notice are the big baggy pants that hang loosely off his small, wiry frame as he approaches my window in the thrift store parking lot. We’re out in smoky British Columbia this week visiting family and friends and looking forward to my wife running a half marathon on the weekend. I’m reading a book in the van while my wife snoops around inside. I perform a quick visual inspection of my guest. Teeth, missing or crooked; a nose that looks like it’s been broken one time too many; probably half a year’s worth of dirt under his fingernails. He looks like he’s in his thirties, but he could be younger than that. I know that years hang heavier off those who wander up to strangers in parking lots looking for help.
He’s shy and awkward. He won’t make eye contact. He can’t express himself very well. He stutters and stumbles over his words. He apologizes before he even asks the question that I know he’s come over to ask. He’s trying to get back to his hotel… or the bus station… or… He tried to buy a ticket but he didn’t have enough money and the people at the station started yelling at him. He doesn’t want the cops to come because they’re never very nice to him. He doesn’t have a criminal record, he says. I wonder about that last one. But then I wonder about why I wonder so easily about things like that.
I try to get him to just calm down and tell me what he needs. I try to make eye contact but he just stares at his feet. Is he looking for money? A ride to the bus station? A meal? He rambles on and on, drifting around the periphery of an actual request, but he doesn’t really say. In a rare moment of clarity, he says he hates roaming through parking lots asking strangers for help. He hates it when people get angry with him.
I offer to drive him to where he needs to go but I tell him I don’t really know where I’m going. I’m not from here, I say, and I don’t know my way around this town. He says he can walk to the bus but what he really needs is some bus money. He’s trying to get back to his reserve on northern Vancouver Island. He came here with his cousins and his sister, he says, but they took off one night and he doesn’t know where they went. He’s on his own and he doesn’t like it here in this city. He wants to go home.
“How much would it cost you to get back home?” I ask. He shuffles his feet and says, “Well, I got a few dollars, but I need… It’s just that… I don’t like asking… I don’t like it when people get angry…” I look directly at him. “How much?” He mumbles, “If I had twenty dollars I would have enough to get home.” I think about that for a minute. Twenty bucks. That’s about what it costs our family to get an ice-cream cone on the drive to summer camp. Or a few beers on a patio some pleasant evening. Or a good deal on a few books online. Or a tank and a half of gas on my motorcycle. Or a night out at the movies (if I’m disciplined enough to avoid the snack line). Or any number of things that I don’t have to think too long about before opening my wallet for.
I’m well-acquainted with the imaginative moralistic gymnastics that so naturally precede the dispensation of good will in situations like this. What if they’re lying… what if they’ll use it for this or that destructive habit… What if I’m being “taken advantage of?” This last one has always struck me as among the more ironic questions I could ask. Whatever the outcome encounters like these might produce, the “advantage” arrow is surely always and only pointing in one direction.
I open my wallet and hand over a twenty. Surprisingly, I find myself not really caring what he does with it. It doesn’t really matter to me if right now he’s walking away from the bus station or if he’s buying some cheap booze or shooting up under the bridge or whatever. If my twenty bucks is financing a few moments of chemically-induced respite from an isolated and fearful existence, well, so be it. I suppose I can stomach being “taken advantage of,” if that’s what we’re calling it.
We sit in my van and talk for a while. I ask him his name. “Jeff,” he says. I imagine the long train of events that might have led to Jeff trudging around a hot parking lot all by himself in a strange city, reduced to asking strangers for a few dollars. It’s not difficult to spin a familiar tale of abandonment, addiction, poverty, racism, and dysfunction of all kinds. It’s not hard to imagine that Jeff has experienced more anger than kindness in his handful of decades on the planet. I think about how many times he’s said something like, “I just don’t like it when people get angry and yell at me” over the last fifteen minutes. It makes me want to cry.
I ask him if I can give him a ride to the bus. “I don’t know the city,” I say, “but I can figure it out if you help me.” He smiles. “No, I can just walk. I don’t know the roads for driving but I know where I’m going once I get past that overpass.” We talk briefly about his home on Vancouver Island. He asks me what Alberta is like. Eventually, we get out of the van. “Take care, Jeff,” I say. As if “care,” like “advantage,” was there for the taking.
He walks briskly away in the direction of the bus stop, his baggy pants dragging along under each step of his falling apart shoes. Before he gets too far, though, he stops, then takes a few steps back toward me. He looks me in the eye for the first time. “Hey, what’s your name.” “Its Ryan,” I reply. He comes back, extends a hand for shaking, and says, “Thanks, Ryan. And God bless.” I smile back at him and return the blessing. Maybe, I think to myself, “blessing” is different than “adantage.” It’s there for the taking and for the giving.