Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Same Planet—Different World

I found myself waiting at a train & bus station recently for a little longer than I normally do. The human interaction among the people waiting there was intriguing. And I should add, educational.

One older gentleman wore shabby, dirty clothes and slowly made his way through the small crowd asking for money. Most people ignored him or shook their heads. He passed a young lady who wore stylish clothing and yapped loudly on her phone. When he asked her, she looked at him like he was a disgusting parasite.

"Get the hell away from me. I hate you *$#%@ homeless bums begging all the time." She turned away from him and continued her phone conversation. She made sure her friend—and everyone else there—knew how much the @%^$# homeless guy bugged her.

The man quietly commented that he was just trying to get by and she didn't need to be so rude to him. He then asked me for some help to get bus money. I gave him a couple dollars in hopes he would stay for a minute and talk with me. He thanked me and asked God to bless me, then commented again on the rudeness of his previous client. He went into an interesting speech that I'm sure he'd practiced.

"You know, I don't like panhandling, but I don't have much of a choice. I'm between jobs and doing the best I can. You know, if they banned panhandling back in the thirties during the Great Depression, a lot of people would have starved to death. Then a lot of us probably wouldn't even be here now, you know."

I agreed with him. "We're all on this planet together. I guess we need to watch out for each other now and again."

He gave me a knuckle punch and left, and I noticed he wasn't heading for a bus stop.

Another man stepped over and spoke to me. "I've seen that guy here almost every day, but I've never seen him take a bus."

I figured that was probably the case. "Well, maybe he just needs a drink."

We started a conversation. He'd grown up in the area not far from the train station. It was amazing how much things had changed since he was little. I told him how I'd taken the bus when I was younger and it was only ten cents back then. I also related how I rode the bus to Deseret Gym.

As soon as he heard that, it was like we were sudden kindred spirits. "I used to go there all the time. We could walk to it from my house. They had handball and racquetball and swimming and basketball. That was our hangout spot. It's a shame they tore it down. Now you can't find anything like that for anywhere near the price."

Then a seagull flew over and he ducked. "Watch out—Mormon Dive Bombers."

That was a phrase I hadn't heard in a while. You probably only know what it means if you're from northern Utah.

I asked if he worked in the area, but no, he was between jobs himself. I'd been out of work at one point in my own life, so I could relate with him. He boarded the next bus and I continued my wait.

Two young ladies walked up and sat on the bench. Both were in high heels, tight jeans, revealing tops, and lots of makeup, piercings, and tattoos. They started talking about the men they'd just been with and the odd things they'd done. I decided it might not be in my best interest to have a conversation with them, although I might have learned something new.

Another young man came by, probably in his mid-twenties. He wore a long, dirty coat and an old hat. He had a different method of asking for help.

"Spare change or dollar bills. Spare change or dollar bills." That's all he said as he meandered through the crowd. I didn't notice anyone give him anything.

Another older man put on some blue rubber evidence gloves and sifted through the garbage can. I found that interesting. Was he looking for food? If so, would the gloves protect him from anything he ingested? He didn't find anything, but was happy when a lady offered him a drag from her cigarette. Then he took the gloves off and walked around the station, politely asking for any help.

A young man sitting nearby and dressed in a tight white teeshirt and dirty work jeans saw this new panhandler. "Hey, you got arms, you got legs, go get a job." He spoke with a heavy accent and was obviously an immigrant, and probably a hard-working one.

A well-dressed lady holding a large binder and standing next to him spoke. "You don't need to say that to him."

The young guy laughed. "These people all get money from the government, then they still come out here and ask for more. I work. I pay taxes. Then the government gives the money to these people."

The lady shook her head. "I work with homeless people all the time, and I don't think it works that way."

The guy was unfazed. "He can get a job. I got a job and I ain't even white."

My bus came next, so I boarded it and rode off to my destination.

We're all on the same planet, but we all come from different worlds.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Drinking Cokes Like an Adult

When I was thirteen, my friend Brent and I thought that since we were so old, we needed to find a way to prove our adult-readiness. We discussed various methods to accomplish this. One was hitchhiking to the west coast where we could swim in the ocean. We decided against that because we'd heard of giant squids there. Another idea was to trek through the high mountains near our house and kill an elk by hand. But we got grossed out thinking about trying to gut it with our Boy Scout pocket knives.

In the end, we decided the best plan was to take a bus from our home out in the suburbs all the way downtown, then see if we could make it back out alive. There used to be a recreation center in the city called Deseret Gym with a pool, handball courts, weight rooms, and other fun and sometimes painful activities. That seemed like a perfect destination.

So we gathered up all the money we could—about four dollars—packaged up all the sports equipment we had—a handball and our swimming suits—and boarded the number 36 bus to the city. The bus was only ten cents and admission to the gym was only about one dollar, as I recall. That left us plenty of money to rent lockers for our stuff and maybe even buy a drink.

We got to the city without incident and walked up Main Street to the gym. We bought a pass, rented a locker, and started our day with handball. I'd never played that sport before, but Brent was an expert, having played with his brother once. We ran around the little room, bumped into each other, tripped a lot, and were very glad the surrounding walls kept the ball from escaping. It didn't take long for us to go look for another activity.

We tried joining a basketball game, but most of the kids were older than us and spent their evenings in a type of gang warfare the locals called Church Ball. That was an activity where they'd chase an orange sphere around a court in a church while yelling, swearing, punching, and fouling. Then they'd return to the same church on Sundays and learn how to be Christlike.

Brent and I didn't last too long with the Church Ball veterans, so we tried demonstrating our might by lifting weights. It was mostly very old men in the weight room—they were all at least thirty—and they could lift weights much heavier than we could, so we gave that up. Besides, the equipment was a little frightening.

We decided to buy a drink then went swimming. That seemed like a safe activity. My regular swimming suit was really dorky-looking, so I had brought a pair of white gym shorts instead. I jumped into the cold water, immediately climbed right back out, and discovered a problem with my gym shorts idea—they became quite transparent as soon as they got wet. I hadn't thought that through too well. I jumped back into the freezing water and stayed there as long as I could.

We eventually decided to call it quits and head back home. As we were changing, we had a new realization even more chilling than the see-through shorts. We'd used the rental locker so many times—at ten cents a pop—we'd depleted all our money and didn't have twenty cents left to ride the bus home. We scrounged around the locker room looking for any fallen change, but couldn't even find one thin dime. We were in trouble. Maybe we should have tried our luck with the giant squids instead.

We went outside and walked down Main Street. It shouldn't take more than two or three hours to get home, we figured. About four blocks later, we realized that bus drivers knew the route home but we didn't. We needed a better plan. My mom worked downtown and I briefly thought of finding her office and asking for two dimes. But our whole purpose was to prove our adult-ness. We stopped near a small grocery store to rest, and after some discussion, came up with a fantastic plan.

The grocery store was one of those tiny family shops you don't see too often anymore. An older man sat on a stool behind the counter reading a newspaper. I casually went inside and talked to him about bus schedules and other important things, while Brent meandered over to the soda pop cooler. When he thought I'd sufficiently distracted the shopkeeper, Brent slipped two bottles of Coke into his gym bag, then strolled back outside.

I thanked the man for his help and joined Brent. We ran down the street until we found a pay phone, and used the change return slot to open the Cokes. We then strutted around an empty lot, drinking the Coke and toasting our brilliant plan. As soon as we finished, we went back into the same grocery store, returned the empty bottles, and got back two dimes.

Then, our money in hand, we boarded the next number 36 and headed back to the suburbs. Not even an adult could have come up with an excellent plan like that!