Friday, January 11, 2008

Strangers To Kindness

I run at night because the night is quiet.


Minds in a restless day-state are more-or-less fast asleep dreaming of their stresses for the next day's foray into being a
careerist. I run at night because my own day-state sometimes leaves me frantic and unable to make much for 'following one's breath' either. I am no better than the rest. I do not claim to be. But I am unique in that I seem to be the only one who runs at night. Late night anyway.

My routine begins with warding either Anubis or Marley, our black feline companions, away from the front door as I exit. Marley occasionally makes a mad
-dash for freedom if the doorway is left open for too long, but doesn't get much past the first garden twig; she gets caught up submissively in a world of so many new and wondrous scents it renders her inept of all movement. Nostrils flaring, eyes eclipsed-full moons, heaving happy chest. An easy catch.

Anubis, on the other hand, is so daft a light breeze confuses her. I never worry about her doing anything too brash. Brashness requires at least a smidge of intellect. She does, however, jump up-and-down at the window after I leave, just like a little dog, feigning curiosity: "Where'd Ee go!? Where'd Ee go!? Where's Ee go!? (pant-pant-pant!)" Sometimes her little buck teeth hit the floor if she loses her balance in mid-acrobatic leap. Doink!

When all is clear I firmly seal the door behind me and begin to stretch out using the front yard walkway area and fence gate.

Right leg up and bend. Hold. And down.

Left Leg up and bend. Hold. And down.

Legs akimbo. Elbows touch the cement. Hold here. And up.

Hands and legs in 'arrest me' position. Hold. Deep breaths follow.

A few more variations of these then it's off towards a newly invigorated sense of physical well being... in theory.

Duval Street is a perfect two mile ribbon down to the University. And back ... that makes four. On a night like tonight, the air is crisp, the stars are more bright than they deserve to be (given that we live in a semi-major metropolitan area), and it is dry out like late winter leaves. These and pecan husks crumple under my feet as I run. No one would ever mistake me for an assassin or a sniper; nature's detritus betrays me every time.


I am running at a faster clip now-a-days and that gives me slightly less time to think.

Just past 51st Street I'm passing Flightpath Coffeehouse and already anticipating tomorrow mornings espresso fix. By 45th Street, and if the light is green, I have a steady rhythm and the days events begin to unfold.

...What did I do well, what could I have done more efficiently, how can I make this project come together fluidly, who do I need to contact by no later than mid-afternoon the next day, what files can I throw out or recycle for use later...

... hmmm, did I take the recycling out, damnit, tomorrow's recycling day ...

... oh, crap!

... the light is yellow, run faster ...

... made it, now where was I ...?


The college-aged man in brown pants and white indie-rock 'T' shirt jumps back off of the sidewalk as I'm about to bowl him over. He's been talking to someone kneeling on the cement path. A woman. Maybe in her early twenty-somethings. A friend? His date? Someone who's hurt herself?

No. Judging by the non-verbal language...

...a stranger.

She has two large, weather-worn plastic bags next to her. This is where she has decided on spending the night.

"No, no! It's okay. My fault." I urge. The man jumps back onto the walkway as I make a wide detour onto the grass.

There's a party going on at one of the houses close by. A half dozen or so people are milling about, conversing, drinking... doing what normal people do late at night when they're not sleeping.

No matter; I'm off again in no time thinking not much more of the encounter other than, "I think I've seen that woman somewhere before..."

And then quickly back to...

...was the proper session folder in the FTP transfer or not, it's going to take another seven hours to move all those files if I didn't remember to put the right session in there, and so on and so on...

By 38th Street I've just passed the sunflower yellow house that Heather and I have been aching to have a look inside of:

"3905 Duval Street.

For Sale.

Inquiries Please Call..."

Must remember to grab a flier on my way back...

Over a slight rise, down a respectable slope, onto the edge of campus in about a quarter mile, then, by using the Double Dave's Pizzaworks parking lot as my turn-around, I can start to head back again.

That "respectable slope" is now a full bore HILL!

To 38th. Then 3905. No flier bin. No fliers. No dice. Oh, well, we'll just have to schedule an appointment to see it on Friday evening.


41st Street. If I took a right turn here I'd be at the local H*E*B supermarket just 'round the bend a bit!

Here comes Mother's Cafe & Garden (it's all vegetarian fare and they recently built on a new dining addition after a fire last summer). La Dolce Vita & Hyde Park Grille on my left, Pronto Food Mart & Gas station on my right, the Lynx Apartments, the...

"Hey! Are you the runner? The running man?"


It's the kneeling woman. The stranger. Across the street now. I've made it this far back already ... and she's calling out to me.

"You're that runner from earlier, right?"

I am compelled by forces unknown to jog across the street to her. My mutinying legs assuming a conscious role now and coercing me to acknowledge, "Yes, I'm that "runner guy"."

(Ever tell your body to do one thing (as in continue heading in the direction you were already headed in!), and then it just suddenly refuses to cooperate? This was happening right then. But, as I'm not a coward, nor would I refuse help to anyone in need, it didn't quite irk me the way it might have back in 7th Grade like when one of those freakishly large football jocks would, point at you out of the cosmic lottery, and command,"Hey, Asshole! Get over here! Now!" And, irregardless of would.)

"What's up? Are you hurt?"

"No. I'm not hurt."

I can take all of her in now.

Where as before she was cast in shadows and merely some omit-able anonymity, some other being aided by a friendly companion; therefore, she was safe, I figured, so I could, in good conscience, move forward. In that afterwards she could be relegated to a plaything of the imagination. Not fully formed. Still a storyline with words to fill in the blanks at my leisure ... but certainly not yet flesh and blood.

But now?

Now ~ I'm committed.

She offers up a puzzle piece when I arrive,"Hi, thanks for coming over. I'm kind of stuck out here. But let me just say right off: I'm not homeless, but I am without a home right now ... but definitely not homeless. And I'm not a freak. You know how some people say they are not homeless but are and are, like, total freaks? I'm not one of those people. I'm not crazy."

"Ah," it dawned on me,"I thought I'd seen you before." I had. I had seen her walking around the neighborhood and recently, too. "Are you a student?"

Here she begins to remind me of the sum of many anybodies.

She has shoulder length billowing, brown hair like my old work colleague, Anna S., she has a straight, delicately curved nose, like my friend, Merry M., she has pleasantly smooth cheek bones like my pal, Jenn G. Her clothing, her manner of dress, are what some might describe as "granola": a white Mexican-weave hooded jacket and brown corduroy dress with the occasional tiny beige, or yellowish, flower randomly stitched into it.

She is your friend, your neighbor, your house-mate, your girlfriend, your everyday noticeable young thing without a care in the world.

Only this one has been wounded. Maybe, irreparably.

"No, I'm not a student, but I'm from Austin. I've lived here all my life. Then somebody came along... and he made me homeless."

The way she invokes this word "he" just breaks me,"My, God, what happened?"

(Who was her "he". Or, what was her "He"? What "he" just shows up and then inexplicably and monstrously makes somebody homeless?)

"It's a long story. Nevermind." She looks suddenly afraid and, emotionally, begins to fold up like a fan, her face a paint-by-numbers tell-all of fucked-up (don't make me recount all of those ghastly details!), horror-show memories.

"Do you need some money?" This was not the typically pithy and patronizing free-pass sort of a question that you might think it was; when I ask her this I am insinuating that it be enough cash for food, clothing, maybe even a night's stay somewhere. Not spare-change (I have nothing on me at the moment anyway; I don't normally run with my wallet or cash...).

Also, let it be clear, I am no "Do-Gooder" (someone who takes in every stray, that is) nor am I a push-over.

But something is resonating with me here...

"No, I don't want any money." Gently rebuffed, sincerely spoken in reply, "I don't need money."

"How can I help you then?"

"You see I just need a place to crash for one night. One night and then I'll go to P.S. 8 (ed. - Hope Lutheran School nearby, I assumed at the time, that must run a shelter...) in the morning. I just cannot go there at night."




They call these places "shelters".

When I'm considering her request I hesitate, because its complicated (those of one generation before me will damn me; those of my own will mostly accept as common sense).

When I was younger the option of taking in another person was de facto; it could just happen without consequence. And it did. Particularly while traveling in Europe when I had the option of freely paying for some down on their luck wayfarer's expenses. Or, happily taking them in when I had a place to offer. And there were many. Not just skint travelers but lost ones... but, now, you don't make decisions like this without your Partner. You have a pedigree of distrust built in after so many years, as well. You are the "Don't Trust Anyone Over Thirty" crowd to boot: I have family matters, valuables (not just things, but projects I have worked on for years. The loss of those in any manner would be devastating...), and foresight enough to know that "one night" eventually turns into, "Listen. I think you really ought to leave now."

It's complicated.

It's difficult.

I'm still troubled by Life v4.0...

"OK. I understand. I'm on my way back to my place. It's about a mile down the road. I'll see what I can do." I promise her.


"Really. Hang in there, okay?"

"I'll try."

Once again nature's chorus strikes up along side me...



I am at a stage in my life that I think better of being duplicitous, or lying, to anyone anymore. If you say something ... simply mean it. Day light hours grow shorter.
Life becomes less of an excuse as you watch your peers, friends, colleagues begin to fade or just outright disappear.

I am not lying to this woman. I intend to make good on my promise; life is too short to do otherwise.

I am developing my plan in earnest as I cover this last mile back home: what do I have to help this person return her to at least a somewhat recognizable state of dignity? Most of us just want that, honestly, if you think about it. Throw me in prison for a lifetime and all I would ask for in return would be this one little shred of humanity: Dignity.

I have many things I can offer: clothing, blankets, foodstuffs, things that I no longer use or need but that would serve someone else quite well ... as if I were giving to Good Will - only to direct effect!

I begin to create an extensive mental list.

And as I approach 53rd Street (aka - home-base) ... it is getting late. As in: forget about it late.

But I convince myself to stay the course; it's the right thing to do, right?

At home.


Collecting self.



Heather is long asleep.

OK, enough thought ... Go!

First to raid the closets.

Gathering things. A red, white, and brown South American weave blanket. A brown, floppy-eared ski-hat. Blue knit gloves. A warm, maroon pullover. Warmth is good. It's cold out there despite it being the Southwest. Yes, winter in Texas is cold for the Uninitiated!

Now into the kitchen.

Empty bottle: fill it with fresh filtered water.

A deliciously fragrant, ripe Fuji Apple.

And the coup-de-grace: whipping up a crunchy, organic peanut butter and strawberry jam triple decker sandwich with Ezekial cinnamon & raison-style bread! All packed in resealable plastic bags with hefty napkins!


Let's do this!

I'm driving my runner's route back this time around. Passing 51st and again reliving thoughts of espresso tomorrow morning at Flightpath, halting only briefly at the 45th Street intersection for a now only blinking red-light at this hour, and finally cruising ever so slowly down the pavement so I don't miss ... so I don't miss?

What was her name?

I don't even know her name.

But there she is dutifully kneeling exactly where I had last left her. Head bowed. Defeated. Lost in whatever thoughts are conjured up in such a hapless state. Headlights illuminate the unplugged, electric ragdoll pose.

Pulling over,
windows automatically roll down from this heated, leather interior car. Privilege.

"Hey! It's me again."

"Who! What do you want?" she is startled.

"It's OK; it's me 'Runner Guy'."

"Wow. I didn't really expect you to come back. I thought you were just being nice ... thank you."

"No, why would I do something like that?" I am unloading the goods from the passenger side door now.

"Everyone else does." (I bet.)

"I'm not everyone else."

And I begin to present my offerings.

"Here." Bottled water at her side.

"Oh! Is that vodka!?" She says in disgust.

"No! My, God, no. It's filtered water." I correct.

"I'm sorry I can't take this. It will make me want to pee and I have no where to go."

"Are you sure?" I'm confused, "OK, here."

I begin to place the South American weave blanket by her place.

"Oh, my God! Where did you get that!?" Again an unexpected reaction: shock, dismay, anger, "That's exactly the same blanket that I had stolen from me at the shelter."

"It's all good. You can have this one to replace it then. It's just like the old one..."

"No, I can't take this. It's freaking me out!"

"All right...", head cocked, brows furrowed, my batting average is not going too well here, "I made you a sandwich."

"No. Uh-Uh. It probably has peanut butter in it." She wrinkles her nose in distaste.

"Huh? Right. You probably have a nut allergy. I should have thought about that." She is silent but keeps her face scrunched up like I've just offered her castor oil, or poisonous toxic sludge.

"What about this apple?"

"No. I don't like fruit. I can't take this."



"Gloves, pull-over? It's cold out."

"No, no."

"Are you sure? I mean I don't mind if you take these from me. I'm giving them to you."


Deep breathe.



I'm becoming agitated but trying not to show it.

It's late.

The effort.

The downright rejection of everything so far.

In defeat I start to load the Good-Gone-Not-So-Good-Will back into the car.

I do not hold any ill feeling towards this woman as I am beginning to realize that something much, much more profound is going on here. A much deeper, critically overloaded psychology is at work.

I agree that I am a foreigner to her psyche's condition but by no means am I a stranger to mental illness.


New York City was host to my own Faith shattering falling down many years ago.

(Briefly in telling now, though...)

On a good day I was a simpering, exhausted, broken wreck of a young man. I would sleep all day if I could.

On a bad day...?

Bad days were simply unmentionable.

Depression forced me into my own private hell long before it was a la mode to be depressed. I had no idea what "Depression" was at the time, nor its causes or its effects and, therefore, had no recourse for fighting the good fight against it ... until many troubled months later.

Prozac was only just hitting the streets back then. The science out on the drug
at the time was nebulous (and negligible) and many of its users were killing themselves off in seeming droves. Bad press in general, but it did claim to aid in restoring brain normalcy. The medical and psychology communities could only agree to disagree over the entire mess.

I was skeptical, to say the least, and chose not to ride that train.

Instead, a tried-and-true tricyclic, Desapramine, was my selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor of choice. From a magical land called "The Foundation" on the Upper West Side.

Ironically, the drug had intensely frightening side effects.

A 20mg dosage made me dread daylight because my head would swim all day long as if I were looking through two one-gallon fish bowls in front of my face. I was useless at work and running out of dead aunts and uncles as excuses not to show up anymore.

I'll spare you the sordid details of one night (a restaurant dinner
birthday party for a close friend) when I mistakenly mixed alcohol with the supposed remedy... social disaster needless to say.

At night I had a downright fear of sleep all together; the nightmares were caustic, terrifying and unending. An anguished cerebral cinema-carnival-del-terrore occurred as soon as I shut my eyes. Unstoppable railway roof rides. Screaming witch heads erupting from swampy playgrounds. Laughing, chortling, beckoning deformities everywhere filled my dreamscape.

Depression was a mercilessly fierce companion that seemed hellbent on my complete psychic deconstruction. The mind in upheaval against itself. Uncanny. What calls for this response in an evolutionary sense? Are our danger receptors so worn and dulled from under utilization in this modern age that we no longer have instinct for a landscape gone all sally-up Shit's Creek? Broken impulses... muddied, oppressive malaise resultant.

Rock bottom was not far off.

Eventually, a little girl showed up.

At least a part of her did.

In the morning most of all.

She would greet me, her voice would, by saying in a best Minnie Mouse falsetto, "Helllloooo, Dennis!" or "Gooood-morning!"

Never anything more.

That is ... mercifully no "instructions" followed.

But a voice as clear as if someone had put headphones over my ears and spoke into a hidden off-site microphone. Madness.

Whatever benevolent Power That Be that might have once existed ... was surely dead now.

I had prior suspected that It ("He"?) just loathed us all anyway and went off in some cosmic, disgruntled huff. Now, though, an unquestionable late stage rigor mortis had set in. The universe was beginning to stink.

(n.b. - These disembodied voices are known as "auditory hallucinations" in Psychology parlance and the chemical in vivo in Desapramine had a marked history, unbeknownst to me at the time, for exactly these types of side effects... for a powerful read on depression/mental illness and its heartbreaking effects on people you may want to look into William Styron's (1925-2006) compelling novella, 'Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness')

Long story short.

I lived.

Survived it, really.

I showed up some time later out the ass-end of the whole ugly experience largely a little less for the wear but, dare I say, Enlightened as a result.

And here I was, in the present this late night evening, enlightened, standing over a tragic and depleted young soul who systematically turned down every offering of kindness I had brought back to her ...


... because it wasn't what she needed.

At all.

It wouldn't truly help her.

And, frankly, because she wasn't used to many random acts of altruism, I suspect, it made absolutely no sense to her.

The kindness of strangers writ so small that it was practically invisible to the naked eye.

"Wait. Can you just talk to me for a minute?"

"Yes, of course. Of course." It was the very least I could do at that point.

"I just need a place to stay. A couch to crash on. Just for one night. These people at the party? They said they would give me their porch but then they started to get all sexy with each other. I saw them through the window. They were getting sexy. Or something. I dunno. But they never came back out again."

And then the truth stumbled awkwardly out, "I'm sorry. I can't take you in. I have ... family. I would under different circumstances. You'll have to trust me on that..."


Oxygen, where did you go?

"I understand your situation." she conceded finally, "One woman offered me a place up the road at her apartment. Maybe if you could just give me a ride up the street?"

That I could do.

"Sure. Sure, I can do that. How far up the road is it?"

She was silent as she waved "up yonder".

"Here, I'll clear off the front seat. Come on."

But she would not move.




Her instincts were shouting at her perhaps: 'Don't you dare get into that car with a stranger! Even a seemingly kind one. Just Don't Do It!'

Shutting her down, or in low power mode. Defense mechanism engaged. Files overwritten.

Then again maybe there was just nothing at all registering.

This, sadly, was becoming the classic 'going nowhere and fast' scenario. I had to design an exit strategy at that point. So, it went like this...

"Listen, I run this route every night (ed. - Truth!). This is my loop. When you see me, if you ever need anything, just ask...(ed. - Sincerity!)"

"OK, thanks. I understand your problems."

My problems? Do you? Well, you just might, I suppose...

Within another moment "tail lights fade", as the song goes.

I drove myself back Home.

Didn't even get her name...



With my sad-sack loot in a haphazard bundle on the floor.

I guess I could find use for this stuff again.

But isn't it so that once you have tried to give something away it has been somehow spiritually severed from you? Beneficially void? Decreed no longer worthwhile by its owner? Pity the poor unwanted, unused merchandise! What a waste. All this junk we collect. And never bothering to use it, but hold on to regardless! What is that!? Pack rats the lot of us. Haven't we learned our lesson yet about holding onto to so much value in all of those material goods? The notion of nostalgia, no doubt, playing tricks on our sensibilities!

But, otherwise...


It could all just disappear one day if "he" shows up...

Ah, but look there! The PB&J sandwich I made!

Unwrapping it at once like some unexpected and prize birthday gift. Drawing in all of its sugary, jammy, peanut buttery glory.

Just one bite and then I'll ... and then I'll devour the whole thing!

You're goddamn lucky, Mister, you know that? You're goddamn lucky...

Sure enough ... if that wasn't the best damn tasting Peanut Butter & Jelly sandwich I had in a very long while.

Indeed, damn lucky.


ohchicken said...

wow. you are such an amazing storyteller. that's all i gots. this will need to resonate awhile.

Anonymous said...


This is going to sound weird at first, but hear me out. It's a Friday
morning, and with the busy season gone and my assistant getting ready
to take over my job for me in three weeks when I move, I find myself
mostly filling a seat in case something comes up that needs dealing
with, which means I find myself spending a lot of time following one
link after another in an endless chain, searching for something
interesting. One of these chains brought me to your blogspot page,
which was actually a good read, which lead me to read all the way down
to the entry from Jan 11th.

I was hoping you might remember a little more about the girl you saw
that night kneeling on the sidewalk. Did she have bright blue eyes and
a scar on her right cheek, right below the cheekbone, and alarmingly
short pinky fingers (almost half the length you would expect them to
be)? Thinnish lips with little lines at the corner of her mouth?

The descriptions you gave, insistent stubbornness, and, if accurately
retold, the way the girl in your story spoke reminded me too much of
someone, a born and bred Austin girl who I found out a little while ago
had lost her home and just about everything else to a series of
horrible events. I tried with little to no success to track her down
once the word reached me, but most of the people I knew from the town
have gone on to other places, and she gave up most of the people we
knew in common for new ones with more access to methamphetamines.

Probably a slim chance, I know, as I shudder to think about the number
of girls in their 20's with shattered pasts living on the streets of
Austin, but you have to understand that if this is the same girl, I've
committed myself to doing whatever I can to help her get her life back,
and get out of that town where she is constantly haunted by ghosts and
memories of everyone who ever hurt her (of which there are too many),
including that certain him. When I knew her, she had given up a
successful job in marketing to go back to school in order to become a
pathologist, because she wanted to spend her time doing something that
was actually good for the people around her, had the most well-trained
dog I've ever met, and played the best game of chess I had ever seen.
Her name is Messina.

If that sounds like her, if you've seen her around again, it would mean
a lot to me to know. Even if she's vanished again, it's something to
know she's still alive.



Dennis said...

Hello Thomas,

Thanks for writing to me. It's always a peculiar thing to see who stumbles
upon my blog. I'm glad it inspired at least a bit of hope for somebody.

I wanted to check on some of the details before I wrote back to you about
the homeless woman I befriended on my run that night. I wish I could
confirm some of your description but, oddly, I have not see her for at
least the last week. She may have either moved on or found a new place to
live. I can tell you that she did *not* have a dog with her that night
nor any of the times I had seen her since then.

If your intentions are as you say I will mention this as a possible source
of comfort: because she is so amiable/approachable the neighborhood area
seems to take care of her in many respects. Of course, whenever I run by
her I say hello and make sure she is doing all right. I have also seen her
frequently talking with the folks around the street and getting small
comfort items from them every so often. She seems well nourished and not
suffering from any of the indignities of starvation. Nor does she seem to
indulge in alcohol. In fact, aside from the occasional cigarette I see her
with I would wager that she is not using drugs. This is only speculation,

Should I run into her again I will mention your inquiry and see if she
recalls you. I will also make sure to get back to you with any of that new

Best regards,