Thursday, September 17, 2015

Stories and Their Ends

I'm in downtown Houston daily for work. This means regular interaction with homeless people. I don't mind, mostly. I mean, I can be as impatient and hurried as the next person, and a request for money, particularly when I don't have any, is just plain annoying.

But I appreciate their survival tactics. I admire their storytelling. Sometimes, I hear the same story twice (or more) and I've begun to count the change or dollar in my pocket as part of my entertainment budget.

One fellow, who I ran into a couple of times over a year ago, had a bit of a "absent" sound and look about him, but he had a detailed story about being displaced by a storm (even if there hadn't been one in months) and having a child in a hospital, where his wife was at the moment, and that if he had just five more dollars, he could afford a place for he and his wife to spend the night. He sounded tired, beleaguered, and despite what I describe as "absence" in his voice and look, he had this story down pat. I would say that each time I heard it, it was almost word for word in the retelling. I've worked with experienced actors who have done less well with each performance of a play. (Heck, I've been that actor.) So, he impresses me with his ability to give me the same performance twice, his ability to play the part of a beleaguered father, his general "stage presence," if you will. I'm sure he's not finding a place to stay that night with his wife, but I don't mind paying for that performance.

Another guy that I've run into a couple of times, has a different schtick. He usually brushes by in a hurry but greets me as he passes. Of course, I respond, even if it's only a head nod. This is his cue to start the script. "Excuse me sir, but I just want to thank you. You are the first person to so much as acknowledge me in two days. You were obviously raised by fine parents who taught you respect other people."

Thank you, I say, as I get ready for the rest, which has a bit more improvisation to it. The last time was a plea for a dollar so he could catch a bus home. Sure, why not. A compliment not only to me but to my parents is worth a dollar.

I realize these stories are told with a purpose, succinctly, survival. I get lectured now and then by one friend or another about what these men (almost always me) do with this dollar, but I have to say, I don't much care how they spend it. If it's for a drug habit, which is sad and also quite possible, I figure giving them a dollar for a performance is better than them getting desperate and resorting to more dangerous---to themselves or others---means of getting that dollar. I'm pretty sure my withholding of a dollar is not going to make them suddenly go to rehab, either.

All of which is interesting or not. It's so common that it's probably not.

But to wind up, the last time I ran into this latter fellow, a question came to mind. It seems to me that both homeless people and churches are complained about because they ask for money. It's fair to say, I think, that both tell stories in order to get that money.

I know that some stories are told only with an end in mind.

And I'm left with my questions about what survival I'm helping with, what theater I support, what outright lies am I willing to accept in exchange for the money in my pocket.

These questions have been churning---diving underneath, out of sight and mind, rising to remind me they're there---and like churning things do, I'm slightly unsettled by the question.

I have no conclusion to draw except I think it's a good sort of unsettled. I share them to share the unsettling.

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