Comedian Dennis Miller was recently asked by now-disgraced pundit Bill O’Reilly how things were going in his home city of Santa Barbara, California.
Miller said something to the effect,”I tell ya Billy. I only go out when I have to. I leave home, do my business and scamper back to the compound as quickly as possible.”
Hisstatement comes as a surprise considering that he lives in a resort city with a Mediterranean climate. The inference from Miller was that the world has just become too full of nutcakes who make modern life just completely unpalatable, even in a place like Santa Barbara.
Yesterday, after I had spent some time in downtown Los Angeles and nearby Pasadena, my brother asked me how it went. My response was similar to Miller’s. I mainly was trying to get a laugh out of my brother because in truth yesterday’s experience was different than the comedian’s, even though I did indeed meet up with what most people would say is a strange dude.
After dropping my brother off at work, I traveled to Pasadena and took the light rail to Union Station with a friend to view a Nordic exhibit featuring food and nature scenes from the region. We were both interested because we had once lived in Finland.
Before I had even looked at one image, a fellow was in my face. My normal response over the course of my life when accosted by strangers in public transportation centers has been to flee the scene as quickly as possible. But for some reason, this time I took a different approach. I carried on a conversation with Jorge.*
We talked and I think at first I didn’t understand that this middle-aged man might be mentally ill or perhaps homeless. We quickly got into details of our personal lives and I found we had a lot in common.
However, at times my new friend seemed a bit unhinged, at least for my taste. Jorge hugged me twice, which made me a little uncomfortable because I am not a “hugger”, especially with men. Fiat times came close to breaking into tears when I shared something about myself that moved him.
In addition, he tended to drop f-bombs regularly, complained about security at the train station harassing him and made comments to passing females.
Although my pal claimed to have a job, a wife and a home and also said that he had just come from a doctor’s appointment, he seemed to linger at our venue. His backpack was parked over in a seat in the station lounge.
Further, Jorge’s demeanor wasn’t one you would expect from a person you had just met. He followed me around the exhibit and kept talking.
Unusually for me, I took it all in stride. In fact, although I don’t think I did anything untoward, I think he might have wearied of me. He said he had to go to the rest room and left, never to be seen again.
I jokingly told me friend that perhaps I had been more overbearing than Jorge was and he had had enough.
I believe my newly minted view toward talking at length to strangers, even those who seem down and out, has come from my own encounter with setbacks in life. I guess what they say is true, that life tends to keep you humble.
It’s not that I have totally objected to talking with unfamiliar people in public places before I met the train station man. In my travels in the US and abroad I have grown bolder.
Just this week I introduced myself to an old age pensioner in Starbucks. He was wearing a hat with the moniker “Sisu”emblazoned above the lid. The term is Finnish and is loosely translated “guts” (i.e., courage, determination and toughness).
Having lived in Finland and knowing that the language isn’t exactly common in Los Angeles, I was curious. I figured the man must be from there or at least had traveled to this out-of-the way place.
Turns out he was that Los Angeles rarity: a transplanted Finn. Heikki and I had a lengthy conversation about his homeland, California and our lives in general.
I was amazed when he explained that he was born in Rovaniemi, a city on the Arctic Circle pillaged by the Germans in World War II and had to flee to Sweden at the age of one. I have a relative from there who had the same experience.
It was interesting to learn of his travels in Europe after the war and his eventual location to California to become an engineer. He told me he worked for decades in the aeronautical industry and even for the C.I.A.
The reason I was willing to approach Heikki was that we were in a Starbucks frequented by paying customers. Unlike loiters in bus and train stations, I could expect that the inhabitants of the coffee shop were not threatening. (I hope Heikki had the same expectation. He could have had questions when I walked across the room to introduce myself. I don’t always look that approachable.)
I noticed that I was tempted to revert to my unwelcoming attitude toward the debilitated when my friend and I returned to Pasadena. On the train back I held a mildly negative view toward a peculiar fellow who felt free to impose himself on our conversation about the fascinating local natural phenomenon, the Jacaranda tree. But I didn’t hold my disdain for long. I was mostly amused.
I was less amused when a young man came by our table as we dined and asked for food. When another clearly homeless and aging man sat on the sidewalk and directed some unintelligible verbal ire toward us as we exited the restaurant, I also wasn’t pleased. But to be honest, I was more annoyed with the restaurant for allowing these men to harass its customers.
It’s not that I lack compassion. It’s just that I feel a bit put out because I don’t personally have the wherewithal to deal with all of society’s less fortunate.
I know there are government and private institutions out there that will help them. They don’t need to be harassing the general public as they go about their business. I tend to get unhappy when I face off with these folks because I feel they are choosing to take this approach to dealing with their lack instead of making use of the resources available to them.
Even so, I hope my attitude from yesterday’s meet and greet with Jorge at the train continues and grows. As a Christian, I walk around with the subliminal question “what would Jesus do?” floating around in my brain when I face off with the distressed.
I have a sneaking suspicion that the way I handled the situation with Jorge yesterday was more in line with how Jesus would have responded. In fact, while taking the time to talk with him, I was briefly able to share my faith and perhaps move Jorge toward faith.
In the final analysis, the state of his eternal soul is more important than improving his physical and mental condition.
*(name changed to protect the innocent)