It was suffocatingly hot and muggy outside, even for an old Florida boy like me. Probably one of those days when it’s exceptionally shitty to be homeless.
I was walking the sidewalk from my bank to the bookstore, when I heard a man’s loud voice immediately behind me, cursing furiously and aggressively.
Instinctively, I turned around and asked, “Are you okay, man?”
Or was it instinctive? Come to think of it, I must have made a choice.
I was experiencing two opposing instincts, so to speak. My first was a physical reaction; the back of my neck stiffened and my spine tensed, and my first impulse was to quietly allow this maniac to pass me (he was quickly “gaining on me” which I perceived by the increasing volume of his voice) without looking at him, without engaging his misery, his wrath, his potential violence.
But the other instinct was just to be human. So I turned and faced the guy and asked if he was okay.
He responded, frenzy-eyed, “NO, I AM NOT FUCKING OKAY!!!”
His cheeks and clothes were mottled with dirt. He was a walking lightning bolt of rage.
“I’m sorry,” I breathed.
His eyes burned into mine. “YOU SHOULD BE SORRY!! IT’S ALL YOUR FAULT!!”
I felt an involuntary pull upward at the left corner of my mouth – a tiny, quickly suppressed smile, which probably showed in my eyes as well. I didn’t have time to analyze anything. There was nothing in my head saying, “That’s funny.” But something about him screaming at me that his troubles were all my fault felt humorous, as though he were kidding, as anyone I know in my “normal life” would have been kidding if they said such a thing.
And maybe my subconscious mind suspected that some part of him knew his accusation was absurd. (But was it absurd? Maybe that’s an open question. Are we not all responsible for each other? Why did I just deposit hundreds of dollars’ worth of checks into my bank account, and why was I leisurely contemplating the idea of buying myself a sweet snack there on the avenue, while this guy right in front of me was filthy and homeless on a sweltering day? Did his predicament really have nothing to do with me, other than the fact that we were now sharing the same sidewalk?)
In the instant that our eyes met, I felt an “uh-oh,” because I sensed he perceived my momentary amusement, and he really was pretty scary, and I’m no fighter, and if my repressed little smile turned out to be the trigger, the straw that broke his camel’s back, well …
But thankfully he just kept moving.
And since I had been heading in the same direction, I walked on behind him, with half-formed thoughts like, Should I just wait and let him get farther ahead? Am I pushing my luck right now?
Abruptly, he whipped his head back around toward me and snapped, “You’re forgiven!”
“Thank you!” I said to the back of his head, because he hadn’t even looked back at me for more than a split-split second.
Then he turned briskly left onto a side street, still radiating immense anger but at least no longer shouting.