Stereotypes: we're all prone to them. The worst kind are unknown to us, prejudices that aren't obvious because they seem so reasonable.
I was looking for a place to park my Burgman scooter in downtown Salem yesterday. Heading for the Beanery, my favorite independent coffee house, I started to pull into a motorcycle parking slot across from the Salem Center Mall.
Until I noticed that a guy who looked like a derelict was sitting a few yards away, his back against a building's wall, holding a cardboard sign that asked for help. A distressingly familiar sight these days.
I kept going.
Circled the block. Remembered that a parking space was open on the other side of the street from the Beanery. Figured it'd be safer to park away from the street person, since I store stuff under the seat of my scooter.
Damn. I saw that the space was gone. No choice. I headed back to the motorcycle parking slot.
I do my best to ignore sidewalk beggars. I usually don't even look at them. I never give them any money. I figure most would use it to buy alcohol or cigarettes. Plus, they make me uncomfortable. It doesn't seem right that this country has so many poor people. But it also doesn't feel right to accede to their "hey, buddy, got any spare change?"
I put my helmet and jacket under the seat, making sure the lock clicked when I pushed it down. I started to briskly walk by the guy. Until I heard...
"A few minutes ago somebody started up a bike across the street. I couldn't believe how loud it was." "Must have been a Harley," I replied, "They're obnoxiously noisy. My scooter is an anti-Harley. It's quiet and doesn't break down."
He then asked some cogent questions about my Burgman, the only annoying part being how he kept referring to it as a "mo-ped." I informed him that this was the most powerful scooter in the world.
"It'll go over 100 mph," I said. "At first I thought you were a cop," he told me. "What with the white helmet, white bike, and reflective stripes on your jacket."
It dawned on me that I was having an enjoyable conversation with this "street person." He obviously was intelligent. He was drinking from a Beanery to-go cup, the same place I was heading toward. He wasn't pushy, and in fact never asked me for any money. His hand-lettered sign simply said something like, "Need help. Having a hard time."
The guy mentioned that he was getting Social Security, but wasn't getting the benefits he felt he deserved. I said, "I'm about to join you -- just a year away from being eligible myself."
That led into a pretty sophisticated conversation about the pros and cons of starting to get Social Security benefits at 62 rather than 65. He was still sitting on the sidewalk, holding his cardboard sign in his lap, looking for all the world like a bum, but I had stopped seeing him as anyone other than what he was: a smart friendly guy.
Out of the blue he asked, "How did you vote on Measures 66 and 67?" I told him, "Yes on both. Absolutely." "Good," he said. "Me too."
He went on to say, "I've got a friend who's a janitor at the state hospital. He told me that he was going to lose his job if the tax increases didn't pass. I'm glad he's going to be able to keep his job."
"Yeah," I said, "the opponents of the measures talked about job-killing taxes. But if they hadn't passed, a lot of public sector jobs would have been lost. Like your friend's."
At some point the guy mentioned that his bicycle had been stolen around Christmas. He was hoping to get $200 together to buy another one. "It's tough to get around without a bike," he said.
I took out my wallet. Thumbed through it. Realized that I only had a dollar bill and a twenty. Went through a mini-morality debate inside my head. Ended up handing him the dollar, patting his shoulder, and saying, "Here. Go get a coffee refill. Good luck."
After I bought coffee at the Beanery and got some change, I hoped he'd still be at the corner when I returned to my scooter after talking with friends for a while. I wanted to give him $5 for his bicycle fund, or whatever.
But he was gone. Not forgotten, though.
The guy made quite an impression on me. He made me realize that whenever I walk or drive by a "bum," I shouldn't jump to the conclusions that usually zip through my head.
Wino. Slacker. Mentally ill. Freeloader. Con artist.
This guy didn't appear to be any of those things. He was just a man trying to deal with life. As we all are. Someone who shouldn't be sitting on a downtown Salem street corner with a cardboard sign saying "Need help."
I doubt that I'm going to make a habit of talking to street people. I'm glad, though, that I talked to this one. He opened my mind, which always is a good thing.