catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 9, Num 18 :: 2010.10.08 — 2010.10.21


The weight in Willie’s eyes

Sometimes I wonder how much things changed because I looked in his eyes.  Not the ending, but the middle, the point when we connected in a way that I, at least, did not expect.  It wasn’t the first time I saw him, or the first time we talked, but it was the first time we made eye contact.  That basic and intimate act of communication reshaped the guarded distance between us, a distance I suspect we both preferred.  After all, about all we shared was a desire to avoid each other. 

He first showed up in our parking lot, quietly announced by a customer, the message passed on from cashier to manager to me.  A guy outside the store was asking customers for money.  Panhandlers don’t make daily appearances in our neighborhood, but they show up from time to time.  We take a low key approach, quietly ask them what they’re doing, listen to their familiar stories, often offer them the ride or food or diapers they say they need.  On rare occasions they accept, but most conversations circle around to cash.  Finally, we ask them to leave.  Usually they do.  Sometimes they come back.  I’m divided over how to deal with them.  There was a time when I even took smug pleasure watching the discomfort they provoked in the gated-community dwellers who visit our inner city location.  But recently I’m thinking the neighbors I’m called to love include both the panhandlers and the panhandled.  So we apologize to the offended, quietly scatter the offenders and we all move on.

Except for Willie.  Willie doesn’t go away.  Not for long at least.  Willie is tenacious, a trait I usually admire, but wish that panhandlers lacked.  Willie persists.  He’s successful, and not because he spins a heartbreaking story; he just doesn’t give up.  He doesn’t take no for an answer.  He doesn’t take “go” for an answer.  He stares, or glares.  When he does move, it’s only to start again a block or a two away.  Just when you forget about him, he’s back.  Sometimes he’s gone an hour, sometime he’s gone for days. 

Frustrated, we’ve resorted to calling the police as soon as he shows up.  Like urban cavalry, they usually respond quickly, but it doesn’t matter.  Willie smells them coming and is gone, leaving nothing to show the officers but our annoyance.  They promise to keep their eyes open and we all go back to business.  Inevitably, Willie does, too. 

One day, I take a static-filled cell phone call from a shaken customer.  In spite of our poor connection, her distress comes through clearly enough.  She’s just been confronted by a man who approached her car in our parking lot, stuck his head in her window and asked for money.  Did we approve of such behavior?  Of course not, I assure her.  I apologize and thank her for calling.  All the time I’m talking with her, my cell phone buzzes on my belt, demanding my attention.  I do my best to wrap up with our upset customer, repeating apologies and pledging action.  Finally I grab my other call.  It’s my son. “Dad, our buddy is back.  He’s hiding around the corner of the building.  I watched three people give him money.  Do you want me to call the police?”  I’ve had enough, and I tell him no, the police won’t make it in time.  I’m sick of this.  No more mister nice guy, I think and march for the door.

The August heat punches me as I push outside and spot Willie leaning into a car window.  I forget all my manners and start yelling.  “Leave! Get out of here! Now!”  At first he ignores me. I startle our hapless customer in the car more than I do Willie.  But a firm push on his shoulder gets his attention.  He reluctantly pulls his head out of the car and looks blankly at me.  “I’m not hurting anyone,” he mumbles.  I’m in enforcer mode and I stay on him, drawing him away from the car and into the middle of the parking lot.  People stare and I realize the scene I creating, I calm down and lower my voice.            I tell him as long as he’s scaring people, he’s not welcome here.  His face flashes with anger, but he’s done arguing, alarmed I imagine, by the crazy man in front of him.  We both take a breath, sizing each other up.  We are two average guys; he’s dressed too warm for summer, I’m too pale for it.  My eyes are green and shielded by glasses, his are deep brown, confused, hurt, misting with tears.  I expect hardness, but instead I see sorrow.  For a moment, we are out of words. 

He finally breaks our silent truce with a soft, well-rehearsed plea for help.  Cynicism tempers my sympathy, but I’m done berating him.  I sigh and launch into my own canned speech: “If you really need help, ask…just stop harassing my customers.”  We play our roles well; discuss his needs, suggest places to get help. I offer food, but what he wants is money and I refuse.  I don’t think to ask why he insists on cash; I just want him gone.

That’s when I spot the police car.  I wave him over and with my hand lightly on Willie’s shoulder we walk to meet it.  The officer offers a tired grin and addresses Willie by name.  A lecture ensues, apparently the fourth one of the day; the cop’s chased him from three other locations already.  “Willie, you just need to leave, I don’t want to see you anymore.  Pretty soon you’ll end up in Kalamazoo again.  You don’t want that, do you?”  I wonder if Kalamazoo refers to the state mental facility.  Willie just shakes his head slowly, apologizes, turns to leave.  The officer wants to know if we’re good here; I don’t want to press charges, do I?  I take the hint and say no.  The officer’s friendly but annoyed attitude toward Willie softens me more.  Willie slips away while the officer and I talk for a few more minutes.  Willie is well known to the force.  “He just got out of Kalamazoo Hospital.  He doesn’t want help, we take him to the mission and he just leaves.  He wants money, that’s all.  I can take him in if you want, but he’ll just get out and be back.”  Nobody seems to know what to do with Willie.

I retreat to the store, the officer assuring me he’ll stay for a while.  Our staff gathers around and we chuckle, at me mostly. We shake our heads over Willie.  The more I tell the story, the more uncomfortable I become.  I’m not proud of the way I treated him.  Something nags at the edges of me, but I’m late for an appointment and push it aside.  As I pull away from the store, I glimpse Willie.  Half a block away, he stands as sure as a crossing guard, approaching cars as they turn slowly to navigate the crowded intersection.  I sigh.  It’s been no more than twenty minutes since he walked away. 

That night I look into his face again, except now I’m lying in my bed, his eyes haunting my slumber-drugged mind.  I shift between dreams and thought, watching Willie’s liquid brown eyes stare, gentle and deeply sad.  I fix on them.  My earlier unease returns, chasing any lingering sleep away.  I begin to re-examine the scene in the parking lot, letting it play in my mind like an episode of Cops.  I cringe at the red face I wear as I shout at Willie.  In this version he stands docile, his silence a reprimand.  I hang on details, the door swinging open, the dark red of his shirt, the words we exchange.   Replay. Replay. Replay. 

It’s quiet, my wife’s peaceful breathing the only sound except the creaking of the bed as I toss, searching for comfort.  Finally, I exhaust myself and begin to drift off.  Those distressing eyes still float above me, but my mind quiets.  I hear a voice whisper some familiar words …whatever you do to the least of these

I don’t know what to do about Willie.  I rehearse different scenarios in my mind, planning for his inevitable return.  Aware of the way daylight bleaches the sharp-hued resolutions I make on sleepless beds, I wonder if I will act differently.  Past attempts to extend help ended ugly, reinforcing the stereotypes I want to disprove.  It’s easy to remember the cop’s suggestion that Willie doesn’t want help.   Maybe the right help hasn’t been extended.  Either way, both truths leave the same question unanswered.  What will I do the next time we meet?  Finally, I let myself off easy.   When we meet again, I promise to look him in the eyes and repeat to myself the words that echoed through my sleep-sloshed mind.  I worry even that will be a promise too large to carry.

A few weeks later, long enough for my resolve to slip but not so long that I forget, Willie returns.  This time I approach him guarded but calm.  I force a smile and what I hope is an easy-toned greeting.  This time Willie is already on defense.  He glares and shrugs, mutters he not doing anything, just talking to people.  We make eye contact all right, but his eyes boil, not a hint of the sorrow I saw last time.  He tells me he has rights, he’s not bothering anyone.  I’m quick to point out his error, I start talking in terms of my — he’s harassing my customers, standing on my property, messing with my day.  The word help, either as an offer or a request, is never exchanged.  We stare each other down, our past experience stretches between us sharp as razor wire.  Willie turns and saunters away.  I stand and watch his back, angry at him and myself.  The shame of our prior encounter returns.  Still, I sleep fine that night.  Willie’s eyes fail to appear floating above my bed, scriptures don’t accuse. 

Two years have passed and Willie hasn’t returned.  Other panhandlers still occasionally stake out our parking lot.  We treat them with a measure of dignity, listen to their stories, offer what we can.  We give a few rides and buy a meal or two.  Occasionally, we even make eye contact.

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