"What's wrong?" Vince asked.
"I'm just not used to this place in the daytime. I'm not used to...to the people."
"Ignore 'em. That's what they do to you, isn't it?"
"What?" he said. "People ignore bums whenever they can. You think I didn't see that bag who wouldn't walk past us? But I would think you'd be able to tune her out the way she tuned you out."
"It doesn't happen like that. She didn't tune me out. She's probably still thinking about me."
"Aren't you flattering yourself a bit?"
"It's true. People feel guilty. They think they should help me - they feel obligated to do something."
"But you make your own way."
"So, why do you give a shit what other people think?"
"Because," I said, "there's no way around it. Their thoughts may stay with them for an hour, a day or may leave them as soon as they pass me, but they always occur. If you look in the people's eyes, you can see it. Sometimes I feel as if I have a whole store of averted eyes in my mind which I could bring out and look at like the world's largest collection of marbles. And they're all the same. Behind each set is the same feeling of guilt. The truth is, I don't care if people pretend to ignore me. And I don't care what they think of me. I just care that they think of me."
Vince cocked his head. The sunlight reflected in his gel, giving his hair the appearance of ice-filled cracks in asphalt. He took a bite from his sandwich and, after chewing, said:
"There's not a lot you can do about it, is there, Birdman? It kind of comes with the territory."
"Yeah, I guess it does."
"Well, you're smart. You'll figure some way out."
"It hasn't happened yet. Not in ten years."
"That how long you been out here?"
He looked at me, up and down. His eyes scraped against my unshaven chin. They watered at the smell of the two mismatched shirts I wore. Over every inch of my body, his eyes roamed, probing like fingers reading Braille. They wondered about the blisters on my feet, how often I ate, what bathrooms I used, and what I did when a bathroom wasn't available. Vince looked at me as no one ever had - not with sympathy, but with genuine interest.
This was frightening and consoling at the same time. I imagined it was not unlike what the young boys on the street felt when the vans came around. Every winter night, city-funded vans cruise the streets in hopes of picking up homeless people and bringing them to the shelters. Some go, but many refuse out of fear. The young kids are the most scared. They know that no matter how cold it might be outside, and how hungry they may be, they're safer on the street than in some shelter where they might be raped or killed. It's not an irrational fear; it happens to the kids. They're defenseless against the bigger, stronger men. I've seen them refuse the van drivers with tears frozen in their eyes. They want to go; they want to believe they will be safe. But despite the guarantee that the pain of freezing and starving will stop, the possibility of a worse pain is enough to make them turn the vans away.
As I bit into the sandwich, I squirmed under Vince's gaze and saw many conflicts arising behind my own eyes. The most prevalent was the same that the young kids felt - the battle between the possible and the guarantee. I tried to fight it, but felt myself slipping. For reasons I wasn't yet aware of, Vince was tempting me and he was backing up his propositions with real guarantees. As I took another bite, I felt myself starting to give in to the guarantees, regardless of the promise I had made to myself ten years ago. I was astonished at my sudden irrational lack of will. I was astonished, too, at how good a turkey sandwich could taste.
Copyright 2001 Andrew K. Stone. All rights reserved. This book, or parts thereof, may not be printed in any form without permission. For permission to reprint this excerpt, please contact www.sotherebooks.com.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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