Saturday, February 18, 2012

A Heartbreaking Act of Staggering Difficulty

He asked me for money and I said no.

I'm from a place where I'm asked for money sometimes a dozen times in a day by all manner of people raising money for all manner of causes, including but not limited to: drugs, booze, a room for the night, a Greyhound ticket back to [__________], and The Environment ("Do you have moment to talk about The Environment?" "No, no I do not."). Sometimes I'm asked if I have four quarters for a dollar. Sometimes it's just a mumble mumble shuffle shuffle incoherent. Sometimes it's the guy in the suit who got mugged and just needs $25 to get his car out of the St. Mary's parking garage before it closes for the night. This happens to him at least once a week, poor guy.

After years and years of this sort of dialogue my policy became to never give anyone money unless they were playing an instrument or otherwise performing in some way that enriches the urban environment. I acknowledge people minimally with eye contact and a smile, sometimes with a meal purchased or a warm embrace. Compassionate touch is vital to human health and it hurts my heart to think of people going days or weeks without being touched in a loving way. Hugs are valuable currency and I am rich with them.

A long time ago, weeks after moving into the Tenderloin, a ragged looking woman approached me on the street and asked if I would buy her a flask of vodka. The quaking in her frail body was evidence of the DTs and I knew she could die, so we went to the liquor store. Her name was Margie. We stood talking on the corner for a while as she winced down the flask and told me to get a knife to protect myself. It's a mean neighborhood.

He asked me for money and I said no. I had given him small amounts before, always for bus fare or something else legitimate sounding, but I have no idea what the money actually went to fund. Someone once told me that when you give someone money for which you do not expect repayment, it's a gift and it becomes none of your business what they choose to do with it. He promised he would repay me and of course he never did.

He asked me for money for cigarettes and I said, "No, I love you...No, I love you...No, I love you," to each repeated request, his ink blot eyes darker than usual, belying not the slightest hint of meaning. Somewhere in those depths is a man that makes me quake with laughter like Margie with the DTs, like the ground beneath our feet reminding us to stay loose. This shadow person pressed and I pressed back with all the neutrality and love I could muster because that's what he deserves. There's still a good man in there and I'm going to keep whispering, "I love you," until he remembers what it's like to feel love.

He left in a huff, telling me he'd just have to buy a pack of gum, that this was the second best option in his situation. I gave him a hug on his way out and repeated, "I love you." He said nothing. The tears came easily, mixing with the soapy dish water sliding down the drain, brimming over to blinding, knees buckling under body quakes like Margie with the DTs, like the ground beneath our feet reminding us to let off some steam.

The moment recalled another moment a few years ago when I split my own heart open with the words, "We can't be together anymore." As I writhed and grieved in the night, bleeding immediate regret and unimaginable confusion, there was a small, strangely comforting thought, "I'm alive I'm alive I'm alive." There was no denying it.

Margie disappeared from my block for a long time. I didn't see her again until weeks before I left the Tenderloin. She was still frail, still quaking and impossible to forget. If she continues to survive the little daily quakes, she is probably still there living from one cheap flask of vodka to the next. I wonder what would've happened if I had said, "No, I love you" instead. You can't sway the will of an addict bent on using with any amount of love or fear or guilt. People are going to do what they're going to do until they want to do something else. But we can make the choice to look deep into the void of the addiction disease, find whatever shred of humanity is left and repeat, "I love you" until they remember what it's like to feel love.

This is what it means to relate to and act in the best interests of someone's highest self. It takes courage. They may always think of you as the monster that wouldn't lend them $5 for cigarettes in their hour of need. They certainly may not thank you later. In saying "No" you may be breaking your own heart but it must be done. Regardless of how far gone someone is, they always deserve to be treated as the human they still are and not the disease that drowns them.

Don't give the disease what it needs to survive another day, give the human what they need in order to remember what it's like to feel love. And sometimes the most loving word is No.

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