The Hopeless Population

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Over the years, I have written from time to time about experiences in my beloved Palo Alto. One of the most popular tales had to do with one particular homeless fellow named Zachary, about whom I wrote here as well as here. I had a brief encounter this week which prompted me to do this post.

this is not Zachary, but another homeless fellow downtown

It was nine in the morning, and I was doing typical Tim stuff: having caught up on morning trading tasks, I had driven downtown with my two larger dogs to get my morning chai, and I stopped by Walgreens to pick up a prescription. I left my dogs in the car (setting it to Dog Mode, of course, even though it was a cool morning) and stepped onto the University Avenue sidewalk.

A few paces later, I noticed a fine-looking German Shepherd. I’ve always thought they were terribly handsome animals, even though I’ve never really wanted one (their fur is kind of coarse for my liking, and I tend to like my dogs on the goofy side, whereas Sheps seem sort of serious and focused).

Anyway, since I consider every dog on the planet to be at least a little bit my own, I did my usual dog greeting, which usually is some silly baby-talky stuff, normally flanked by assurances of what a good boy or girl he or she is. The moment I said it, though, the human holding the dog’s leash snarled at me: “Don’t you talk to my dog! This is my service dog!” She was absolutely furious, practically foaming at the mouth. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such an angry face.

I was taken aback, but I instantly recognized this woman. She was one of Palo Alto’s never-changing homeless population, and I had seen her squatting around downtown for years, most often with a cardboard sign stating that she had cancer. I can only assume it’s an especially benign cancer, since the same lady has been downtown for years on end, in no obvious state of physical decline, telegraphing her purported ailment.

again, not the person in discussion, but I have to break text up on occasion

Besides recognizing her, I also remembered something about her: I had given her a $100 bill once. Now, look, I am not a rich guy. I don’t walk around giving hundred dollar bills to strangers. However, on whatever day it was, I was in a generous mood, and I felt like surprising the hell (in a good way) out of someone, so I laid a $100 bill on her.

Now, I didn’t expect anything in return for this, obviously, but at the time, I confess I was a little surprised that she didn’t even register a reaction. I mean, she didn’t have to start jumping up and down, but I at least thought she’d show a little excitement. To be clear, it would be awfully non-Christian to be tapping my foot and waiting for the show to begin, since I paid for some entertainment, but c’mon, this has got to be unusual, so I thought I’d at least get a smile. So, although I should be ashamed of it, it kinda ticked me off. She just silently put the bill in her pocket without acknowledgment.

But that was years ago. And, on the occasions I had seen her since, always with her “Cancer” cardboard sign, I always remembered, sheesh, that was the ingrate that didn’t even acknowledge I had just given her what I’m certain was the biggest bill she had ever received.

Yet what happened just a couple of days ago really pissed me off, because she doubled-down her bad reputation by actually snarling at me angrily for just saying hello to her dog (at a distance of probably 20 feet). My response was the kind of thing I typically tell one of my kids when they’re flipping out: “Oh, settle down!” And I went into Walgreen’s.

But it got me to thinking, because Blind Squirrel asked me about a week ago if I had any update about “Sup” (AKA Zachary, whom I mentioned at the start of this post), and I wrote Blind a brief reply. In a nutshell, what I told him was that, yes, I had seem Zachary a few times, but in my conversations with him, it seemed apparent he hadn’t done anything to turn his life around, in spite of what Slopers tried to do for him. I couldn’t really figure out what had happened with the four-figure contribution that Slopers had put together for the poor chap, but Zachary tends to talk in such a roundabout and long-winded way, it’s hard to dissect what the truth is. But it sounded like maybe it was stolen, or he lost it, or something like that.

I guess in the back of my head I was hoping that our assistance would have somehow been transformative for him. In other words, that I could report back to Slopers that, thanks to them, Zach’s got his own studio apartment, he’s landed a job doing telesales work, and he’s off the public dole. This was all grounded in what I suppose was an innocent assumption on my part that the poor souls I always see on University Avenue are fundamentally good and decent people who are willing to work, but somehow life had dealt them a bad hand and we all have to help them get back on their proverbial feet.

However, at the risk of a hardening heart, my opinion is starting to shift. On the occasions I have chatted with Zachary, in the privacy of my mind, a little voice tells me, “Ya know, Tim, this guy is actually just a fuck-up.” I’m not saying he somehow “deserves” a miserable life, but it’s also plain to me that, once provided with an opportunity to improve his situation, he lacked the character or determination to embrace it and alter the course of his life through sheer willpower.

This growing cynicism was augmented by the recent encounter with the crazy dog woman. After I left Walgreens, I saw the Shepherd’s leash tied to a doorknob (I was going to have a few words with this woman, since frankly I was pretty pissed off). But the woman wasn’t there, and for a fleeting moment I considered just taking the dog’s leash and giving him a better life, since, surprise, surprise, I care way more about dogs than people, and I wanted to give this handsome fellow a better life at my own house. But I didn’t. I just left him alone, feeling sad and angry.

These experiences aren’t doing my soul any good. A dark corner inside me is saying, “F*ck these people!“, which is a shame, because only a few weeks ago I was having a little conversation with myself that if I ever fell into a large amount of money, I’d take great joy out of surreptitiously helping out as many of them as I could. But, having dipped my toe into charitable waters, I keep getting nibbled by gars, and I don’t like what I’ve experienced so far. Maybe there’s actually a reason these people are on University for month after month, and year after year. I am not impressed.

I’m sure this isn’t a flattering self-portrait. However, I suppose it’s appropriate for me to take in a little reality interspersed with my core idealism I have about human nature. Perhaps I am projecting myself too much on everybody else, and it skews my perception. Screaming women and indolent gabbers are making me think I shouldn’t bother.