I’m standing on the corner of Ventura Blvd and Laurel Canyon Drive, waiting for the lights to change when I look over and see, standing to my right, a gray-haired man dressed in wire rimmed glasses, black track pants, red running shoes, and a black hoodie.
To his right is a woman dressed in green striped pyjama pants, a black hoodie, and black flip-flops, holding a domed cream-topped iced drink from Starbucks.
And then I see, off to the right of all three of us, a metre or two away, in the middle of the footpath, his head drooping forward so far as to make only his chin viewable, a man in a wheelchair.
On his head is a black baseball cap, and he is wearing a heavy black winter coat, dirty green jeans and there’s a back pack hanging from the right handle of his wheelchair.
For a while I watch the man in the wheelchair, unsure of whether to give him some money, but then my attention is drawn to the woman’s creamy drink, and I start wondering whether I might like to go and get one.
Then suddenly, while I’m watching the caramel ooze down the inside of her transparent plastic drink container, the woman turns, walks over to the man in the wheelchair, places some money in his lap, gives his shoulder a rub and then turns back to wait for the lights.
Then, a few moments later the gray-haired man in the hoodie turns and does the same as the woman; walks over to the man in the wheelchair, places some coins in his lap, and then turns back to again wait for the lights.
For a moment I look at the man and the woman, thinking there may be an exchange of words.
But the say nothing to each other, they just continue to wait for the lights.
So then I too I take some change from my pocket, walk over to the man in the wheelchair, place the money in his lap, pat him on the shoulder, and then turn back to wait for the lights.
And then the three of us stand there for a few more moments, staring straight ahead, until the light goes green.
And then the gray-haired man in the hoodie, the woman with her cream-topped iced drink, and me, cross the street.
I’m walking from Oakland to Berkeley, along Telegraph Avenue, when I stop at a pedestrian crossing behind a man who is trying to wheel himself across the road in a wheelchair.
I stand behind him for a few moments and watch as he slides his hands back and forth across the top of the wheels of his chair, whilst at the same time pulling at the road with the soles of his shoes, trying to move himself forward.
Realising he is not going anywhere, I walk around and stand in front of him and ask him if he needs help.
‘Hey,’ I say to the man who has patchy ginger hair and ginger stubble and is wearing a matted blue fleece, filthy and ripped jeans and has the dirtiest fingernails, ‘do you need some help?’
The man looks up at me and I can see from the way he looks at me that he is either drunk or perhaps has some kind of neurological issue.
He is thin and his cheeks look as if they are made of bruised porcelain that has been pushed at hard by an impatient thumb.
‘Help me,’ the man says in a voice that is weak but carries upon it a putrid and unpleasant odour, ‘help me,’
‘Yeh,’ I say, ‘no problem, okay. Pull your feet up and I’ll push you off the road,’
I go back behind him and tell him to watch his feet and that I am going to start pushing.
‘I’m going to push you now, so watch your feet,’ I tell him and I start pushing him toward the other side of the road.
When we get there I lean down to him and say, ‘Okay? Alright now?’
The man, who I can now smell has been drinking, waves his hands about in the air drunkenly and then curls his finger in a way that indicates he wants me to hear him.
I move my face down closer so I can hear him above the traffic.
‘Can you take me to a restaurant?’ he asks me.
‘Um,’ I say, and turn from the man and look for a restaurant, ‘I can take you to get something to eat,’
‘Yes, yes,’ he says, ‘I need help,’
I start looking up and down the street while the man continues to ask me for help.
Then, a young woman pushing a stroller with what look like toddler twins in it, comes toward me.
‘Excuse me,’ I say to the woman, ‘I’ve come across this fellow in the wheelchair and I wonder if you know if there’s anywhere to take him. Like a shelter or anywhere he can get help. He’s asking for help,’
‘Hmmmm,’ says the woman, ‘Um, I don’t know. I think there’s a shelter on Shattuk Avenue…but I don’t think they just take people over night,’
‘Oh,’ I say, ‘….okay then,’
‘Yeh,’ says the woman, ‘You know I’ve seen this guy around, he’s around here a lot. You know, he’s kind of drunk a lot,’
‘Oh,’ I say, ‘okay, well he seems to be hungry and ill as well as drunk, so…thanks anyway,’
Then the woman leaves and an old man comes up and stands beside the man in the wheelchair.
‘Do you know him?’ I say to the old man, ‘do you know what I should do with him?’
The man who is extremely intoxicated and can hardly stand upright, begins talking to the man, calling him brother and telling him he will look after him.
Then, after a few moments, they high-5 each other and the old man walks off.
‘Help me,’ says the man in the wheelchair again, ‘please help me,’
I walk around to the front of the wheelchair again and ask him what help he needs.
He tells me he wants 4 dollars.
‘I am taking you to Wholefoods,’ I tell him, ‘I’ll get you a sandwich and a drink,’
‘I like egg salad,’ he tells me, and I walk back behind his chair and start to push him.
‘Okay,’ I say, ‘I’ll get you an egg salad sandwich from Wholefoods,’
Telegraph avenue is on a slight incline so by the time I get to Wholefoods I am sweating in my arm pits and on my forehead.
‘Stop,’ says the man, ‘give me 4 dollars,’
‘No,’ I say to him, ‘I am going to buy you an egg sandwich,’
‘No, I want 5 dollars,’ he tells me and I tell him no.
‘I am getting you a sandwich,’ I tell him, because I don’t want him to buy alcohol.
‘Okay then,’ he says, as I begin to push him to the doorway of Wholefoods, ‘a sandwich,’
Then, just as we get on to the path that crosses the Wholefoods carpark, the man asks me to stop.
‘Wait,’ he says, ‘push me in here,’
I push him in behind what looks like a closed flower stand and the man, still sitting in his wheelchair, starts to take out his penis.
I turn away and watch the people coming across the Wholefoods carpark in the dusk.
They’re all dressed nicely and are carrying sacks of organic food and getting into nice cars and I can feel that I am beginning to get annoyed.
When I hear the man say ‘ready’, I pull him out from behind the flower stand and push him to the doorway of Wholefoods.
‘Okay, wait here’ I say, ‘I’ll get you an egg salad sandwich…and a drink?’
‘Yes,’ he says, ‘lovely,’
In the Wholefoods I am standing with my back to the salad bar, choosing a sandwich, and I am listening to people talking on mobiles, talking about the salad, talking about quinoa and tabbouleh and everyone looks tidy and the shop sparkles like a Christmas evening and everyone looks clean while I feel myself getting angry.
After I find the egg salad sandwich I go over to the drink section and and look for some kind of drink for the man.
There is a girl there from Wholefoods, and she is pretty and young and blond and she is stocking the shelf with organic fruit juice and I say excuse me and I tell her about the man.
‘Oh, yeh,’ she says, ‘I know that guy. He’s usually drunk,’
‘Um, okay,’ I say, frowning at her, ‘regardless of him being drunk, he’s going to be hungry, too, so does Wholefoods have some kind of program where they could give leftover food to homeless people, like him. Like, you know, at the end of the day, like now, do you have anything that you could give him to take away, like some bread or something, things that haven’t sold? Something you could package up and let him take away with him for later?’
‘Um,’ says the girl, ‘hang on a second and I’ll go and ask,’
I choose the drink and then go and stand behind the girl while she talks to the guy behind the pizza counter who is looking at her with his mouth hanging open.
Then I watch as he goes to speak to someone who is adding topping to pizza, and then as he comes back and looks down at the pizza and then as he shakes his head and then as the girl turns and walks back to me.
‘Um, I guess,’ she says, shaking her head, ‘that it would have to be a no. I guess,’
‘Okay,’ I say, ‘thanks,’
But it really isn’t okay and by the time I get to the counter to pay, I am hateful.
‘Here we are,’ I say, and put the drink and sandwich in his lap.
And then the man looks up at me and says thank you.
And then he holds up both of his hands, the same hands he has previously used to take his penis out and piss behind the flower stand.
But I lean down and let him take my hand in his hands, anyway, and he shakes it and says thank you to me.
And then I stand back up again and, very loudly, I tell the man in the wheelchair to take care of himself.
‘Because, you know,’ I say, even louder and more hateful still, so that the security guard and the people coming in and out of the Wholefoods with their organic food can hear, ‘I get the feeling that no one else in this country will.’
He has blond hair, like Lego child hair, and is wearing something like a blue school uniform and drinking something red through a straw from a big plastic see-through cup.
‘Hmmm,’ I say to him, ‘that looks nice,’
‘Yeh’, he says, ‘and I am going to a birthday party,’
‘Wow,’ I say to him, ‘how exciting is that!’
Then, a blond bearded long haired man in a wheelchair, with a big gift wrapped box in his lap says, ‘Yeh, we’re going to Sunshine’s party, she’s turning 1.’
‘Woah,’ I say, ‘that’s a big present for a 1 year old,’
‘Yeh,’ says the little boy, ‘but we can’t tell you what’s in it because it’s a surprise,’
And he gives me one back.
Then I give him a thumb sideways, and he gives me one back.
‘How sweet,’ I say, ‘that might be the cutest child on the planet,’
‘Yeh,’ says Krista, ‘and one time, he dropped his wallet on the bus, while riding with his little boy and so he wheeled as fast as he could to the next to bus stop to get his wallet back but by the time he got there someone had already stolen the wallet,’
‘No fucking way!’ I say.
‘Arse cancer,’ I say, thinking of the worst possible thing that could happen to anyone, ‘yes, arse cancer.’