I am an inveterate walker. Year round, taking time off only for weather of utter vileness I am up and down the hilly streets of our little town. It is good exercise, and a good way to organize one's thoughts.
Of course in an automobile oriented society walking places is a kind of alternative life style and pedestrians are regarded as a curious species.
A good long trek today, upwards of an hour. As I made my way back across a bridge I encountered another pedestrian. He was just standing there, looking out over the briskly swirling waters. He had the look of someone who has lived for about 60 hard years. His face was weathered, what I could see of his dentition suggested errant teeth, not a few having gone AWOL entirely. He was dressed in multiple layers. This is often the Street Person strategy for coping simultaneously with chill and lack of storage space. But to be fair, in this dreary endless winter we are all looking a bit quilted and padded in our apparel.
He had an odd expression on his face. It was in fact an absence of expression. That phrase is easy to say, but in truth we seldom see faces that are entirely devoid of readable emotions. He was looking not down at the water, or even out towards the rapids upstream. He had that "Thousand Mile Stare" that focuses on things the rest of us do not see.
As I approached I realized that our usual social conventions don't cover this situation. Sure, if a guy does not want to make eye contact with you there is no particular obligation to exchange pleasantries. But when you walk past a guy and wonder "Is he going to jump off that bridge?" what exactly are you supposed to do?
He had certainly not done anything that would warrant calling the police. I might for instance have done that if he had been visibly intoxicated.
He had given no indication that he was looking for anyone to come up and ask him how he was doing. In fact there was some subtle defensive shield that discouraged such inquiries, not that this would have deterred any number of good people of my acquaintence.
So I just walked on, stopping a few hundred yards away to look back and see if he was still standing there. He was.
I wondered if I had missed a chance to do some small good deed. But as is so often the case, such deeds are not always evident.
But sometimes they are.
My route home cut through a supermarket parking lot. Walking ahead of me was a kid, maybe 7 or 8 years old. He was toting a white plastic grocery bag that suddenly gave way, releasing a dozen cans of Mountain Dew that went rolling here and there. There was traffic moving through this spot so I had to help him out.
The bag was shot so I suggested he tuck a couple of cans into his coat pockets, a couple more into his pants pockets, see if he could hold onto the rest. He looked a little distressed and indicated that he had to walk "way up the hill" to a yellow house that he pointed out.
We have come to a sad state of affairs where you hesitate to help out a person in need. But I figured this might look a little odd, a strange old guy who walks the streets alone, carrying a bunch of sugary soda pop and heading for the house of a young kid.
Ah, heck, it was only a hundred yards or so.
I carried 5 or 6 cans, the kid had the rest. When I got to where his house was I set my cans - one hissing gently from a pinhole leak - on the steps going upwards and told him to come and retrieve them. I walked on with purposeful stride not wanting to look as if I were lurking or anything.
Having done my small karmic good deed for the day I set my eyes forward again.
And saw the old homeless guy, the potential suicide, ambling down a side street. He still had that inscrutable look on his face, his eyes still gazing far into whatever future or past it is that he sees.