Think of all the luck you’ve got, know that it’s not for naught. You were beaming once before, but it’s not like that anymore…What is this down side that you speak of? What is this feeling you’re so sure of? – The High Strung
From Monday through Thursday, you will find me clad in business casual attire throughout the day. Essentially, all that means is “no jeans, no T-shirts, no sneakers”, so you would think that I wouldn’t find it so difficult to dress myself each morning. It’s not the buttons or zippers or clasps that I find so challenging, but that final glance in the bathroom mirror that invariably informs me, “You are a dork.” This realization is quickly followed by another voice of daily self-deprecation that says, “You are a fraud.”
I am a short, skinny guy with long, un-styled hair. Approximately once a year, I cut my hair down to a “respectable” length and start the whole process over. My non-work/wedding/funeral wardrobe consists of countless oversized T-shirts emblazoned with semi-legible Ramones and Dead Kennedys decals, XL flannel shirts with holes in the sleeves, jeans with holes in the knees, and a few hats that come in handy when I’m too lazy to run a brush through my hair (which happens more often than you might think). When I arrive home each evening and change into these nonchalant and nondescript duds, I feel comfortable, maybe even like I’m rocking my own style (as devoid of what most people consider “style” as it may be). But the button-down shirts, black leather shoes and dress pants that comprise my office ensemble look as eager to fly off of my body as I look awkwardly uncomfortable having them on my body. These clothes don’t like me and I don’t like them…and it shows. I look like a contestant on Extreme Makeover: Get The Hobo A Job Edition. People like me are not meant to dress like professionals. But when we have to, the whole presentation ends up looking utterly ridiculous and sort of pathetic. No one is going to mistake me for a high-powered executive, and I completely understand when a client walks into the office and assumes I work in the mail room.
There are a couple of things that can be gleaned by reading between the lines of the preceding paragraphs: 1) I have a job; 2) I have a place to live. Those two acknowledgments of fulfilled basic needs confirm that I am more fortunate than the majority of people on Earth. And if you are reading this, so are you (unless, of course, you wandered into the public library to rinse off in the bathroom and decided to hop onto one of their computers and surf the web for a spell before heading back out to the street in search of food…in which case, holy shit, thank you for choosing my web page!).
If that last sentence sounded flippantly ambivalent to the plight of the homeless and less fortunate, good. Because that feeling in your gut is what this post is all about and it only took me 3 ½ paragraphs to start getting to the point. Having resided here in the Duke City for just over a decade, I have designated a handful of individuals my “favorite neighbors”. One of them is my neighbor in the truest sense of the word: he lives in an apartment in the same complex as I do and I often see him chain-smoking out on his front stoop. He looks to be in his early sixties, has long greasy hair, age lines cutting through his unshaven countenance like dusty arroyos. He looks strikingly similar to the guy depicted on the cover of Jetrho Tull’s Aqualung. Someone is obviously taking care of this man because he appears to suffer from a host of mental illnesses and he seems debilitatingly suspicious of people…except for me. Our little friendship began one day when I was strolling past his smokin’ perch and he made a clear effort to silence the voices in his head that escape through his mouth in an unbroken stream of disjointed speech so that he could ask me a coherent question: “Got a smoke?” I handed him a Marlboro, lit it for him, told him to have a great day and went on my way. Since that day, whenever he sees me, he lifts one unwashed hand high above his head, swinging it to and fro until he’s satisfied that I’ve acknowledged his greeting. This warms my heart. In fact, it’s flattering. Other than the friendly (I assume) ghosts in his brain, this is a guy who clearly does not like to interact with anyone. And at this point, I doubt if he remembers the initial cigarette donation that prompted our meeting. I think what he remembers is that I talk to him like a human being who is worthy of respect. That his presence doesn’t make me nervous like others I’ve seen clutching their children a little closer as they pass him by. What he probably doesn’t realize is this: I kind of admire the guy.
Another of my favorite neighbors is a woman I occasionally see pushing a shopping cart along 4th Street. I would guess that she is in her seventies and has one of those faces that’s so age-weathered it seems to have collapsed partially into itself. She wears a pink winter hat with a dirty pom-pom, striped light blue pajama bottoms, and what appear to be the warmest (and filthiest) fuzzy slippers in the world. Whenever I see her, the grocery cart behind which she labors is full to the brim with all manner of haphazard items she’s scored along the way, held in place by carefully situated pieces of cardboard, a reserve of which she has meticulously stacked and twined on the cart’s lower shelf (you know…where you’d put the huge bag of dog food in the supermarket). But her magnetism is in her facial expression. I don’t know how to describe the physical details of a face that simultaneously projects independence, confidence, “Yeah, I know, but I don’t give a fuck, thank you”, and perhaps most surprisingly, contentedness. I’m not sure if she has a home. I’m not sure if she has family or friends. But I am quite sure she is a badass. And as such, the last thing she probably needs is my or anyone else’s pity.
On the other side of town where I used to live, there is an old man that seems to have been walking his dog for the past decade non-stop. I still have reason to drive over to that neighborhood with a fair amount of frequency and no matter what time of the day or night it is, I can be rest assured that he’ll be out walking his dog. He’s an old guy and he wears an old guy hat and carries an old guy cane. He doesn’t look very happy but I say this primarily because I’ve never seen him smile. Quite possibly, he just doesn’t like the looks of me. Or his smile nerves are damaged. Either way, you can’t blame the guy. I used to feel pity whenever I drove past him, hobbling slowly up and down the sidewalk with his jet black pot-bellied Labrador in tow. But one day, as I was indulging in a bit of this luckier-than-thou condescension in my mind, the thought struck me that perhaps I just need to stop making assumptions. What used to seem to me like a sad, lonely, grumpy old man and his mangy dog may be spotted by someone else who won’t see any of that, but instead will smile at the fact that two best friends are enjoying a stroll together. And that’s how I learned to stop pitying people about whose lives I know absolutely nothing.
Compassion and pity are entirely different things. Were any of my favorite neighbors to need tangible help that I could reasonably provide, I wouldn’t hesitate to lend a hand. Ideally, this is how all of us should feel about everyone. I know that was an extremely idealistic thing to say, which is why I started the sentence with the word “ideally”. Compassion is universally applicable, while pity is always relative. Although I no longer pity any of the local folks described above, there was a time when that was the primary emotion their appearance aroused in me. There are probably people who see me out and about each day and pity me for my rumpled Target clearance department wardrobe, battered and bumper-stickered Honda Civic, and studio apartment decorated like a stoner college student’s dorm room. That’s okay. I’m not offended. Because I choose to live the way I do and I am an overachiever when it comes to underachieving (and thumbing my nose at fashion). Quite possibly, that’s all people like the ones I wrote about here are doing: choosing to live their lives in a manner that may not seem appealing to us, but might just afford them all the freedom and peace they desire. If I’m correct about that, perhaps I am more deserving of their pity than they of mine. Those filthy fuzzy slippers look really warm, after all.