In fat times, haunted faces of the street are easily sped past, if not altogether ignored. In times like this, though, the faces belong to us, or what might become of us, and collectively hammer home the crass nonsensicality of “There but for the grace of God go I.” For, as the New Depression enters its sixth month, it becomes more and more clear that we are all in this big boat together, despite what Frank Sinatra told me on the car radio Saturday evening:
“A friend in need is a pest.”
Ol’ Blue Eyes happened to say that a few minutes after I got a load of two acquaintances I grew up with, looking as desperate as I have ever seen grown men look.
The first is “Bob,” whom I saw standing at a South Minneapolis bus stop, destination nowhere. I see him about once a month or so, dragging around like a ghost, but this time he looked especially lost. Back in the day, he was a big pot smoker and would extol the virtues of it as a lifestyle/religion to anyone who would listen. My sister dated him for a while.
He’s in his 50s. He’s nearly bald, but his hair hangs on his shoulders like a dirty mop draped over the lid of a fast-food garbage can. His eyes, once alit with the indestructible vision of a go-it-alone iconoclast, are hollow. I’ve been tempted to stop and say something to him when I’ve seen him over the years, but my inner Sinatra takes over sometimes, and besides, I’m pretty sure he doesn’t remember me.
The second is “Sam,” whom I saw around 7 p.m., sitting on 28th and Lyndale, by a cash machine. I saw his band a few times in the ’80s, and he’s generally regarded around town as a “real” punk. About 20 years ago I saw him beating the hell out of a bus stop in Uptown, all by himself, and I remember romantically thinking that he was flying the nihilism flag for all of us. Last time I saw him he was working at a bar and looked like he’d gotten himself together.
This time, as I waited for the light to change, I didn’t recognize him. At least not right away. When I did, I did a double-take. I looked hard, then looked away. He had his head in his hands. He was staring at the sidewalk, looking for answers in his oil-caked hair, which hung down around his gaunt, dirty, out-of-luck face. Put it this way: “Sam” makes the guy who stands on Twin Cities freeway ramps with the “Absolutely Desperate” sign look like a member of Interlachen.
I took a right — destination movie theater — and got the hell out of there. I turned up the radio, and the sweet croon of Bing Crosby filled the car. It was Arne Fogel’s excellent show on KBEM, which I’ve taken to listening to at home or as I drive the city on Saturday evenings. To be sure, there is something eerily poetic and time-warping about listening to the sound of my parents’ music and all its vinyl blips and analog warmth as history repeats itself. I pulled over on Nicollet to take in the scene and, given the ashen looks of the homeless and customer-free hookers, it could have been the thudding ’30s.
Anyway, I’ve got my own problems, so I didn’t pick either of the guys up. But someone does. A Good Samaritan of the streets does. I met him in the middle of the night last month as I was driving down Hennepin. He was in a car with “Love One Another” painted on it, and a phone number: 612-423-9923. I waved him over and asked him what his story is. His name is Allen E. Law. He’s a retired teacher. He drives around at night helping homeless people.
He sleeps in his car, which is packed with most of his belongings. (He has a small apartment that he uses to shower and change clothes in). He gives people like Bob and Sam comfort and food and a lift to a shelter. He gave me a brochure of the work he’s doing and told me that he has to do something, that can’t live with himself knowing that his fellow man is out there, suffering.
That makes one of us.