Thursday, January 17, 2013

Something I've lost

"Ay, girl! Come here!" What passes for a pick up line in the community I grew up in was shouted to me from the opposite end of the gas station.
"I can't," I called back. The car this guy was in erupted with laughter as all 5 of his friends, packed into the sedan they were driving, delighted in watching their friend get turned down.
"Ok den, I'll come over der," he was making a conscious effort to replace his thah sounds with d's. The guy, a typical specimen of what young men in my home town look like, began coming towards me. His ability to walk quickly and normally were impeded by starched blue jeans, belted around his upper thighs. He was beginning to grow dreadlocks and wore a dental grill (I've obviously included the word dental so to avoid any confusion that he was somehow strapped into a hibachi or George Foreman).
I began pumping my gas and as he slowly made his way towards me, I recalled how at one point in time, and having been trained by my community to appreciate these characteristics, I would have thought he looked cool.
When he was finally four feet from me he asked, "whacho name is?"
"Lauren," I noticed his eyes fixating on my Aggie Ring.
"Oh, I see you're married," he said gesturing to my ring.
"What?" I realized he was mistaking the bulky school ring on my right hand for an engagement ring. "No, I'm not married. This is my school ring." You obviously didn't go to college, my mind silently finished the sentence for me.
"Oh, so can I getcho number den?"
"I'm not even from here, I'm just visiting."
& at that precise moment, we were interrupted by a disheveled elderly man in military fatigues.
"Got any change you could spare?"
"Naw, man," my suitor dismissed the veteran.
"I might. It's not much, I'm not carrying cash. I just have loose change if you can wait for me to fish it out of my bag." I'm always afraid of giving homeless people change; I've come to learn that many people feel insulted when you give them change instead of cash. Once, while visiting my dad in Washington, DC, a man yelled at me for putting a quarter into his change cup. "TWENTY FIVE FUCKING CENTS?!" I can still hear him shouting at me every time I offer someone change.
As I scrounged around the bottom of my purse, feeling pennies and gum wrappers and bobbie pins graze my fingertips, the veteran asked me, "Are you studying law?"
The veteran was examining the school parking stickers stuck to my back windshield.
"I am," and as I continued collecting loose change and lint from the bottom of my purse, the man began telling my suitor and I how he was once a lawyer who went after George W. Bush during his time as Texas Governor.
"That's how my life ended up here; you can't beat city hall." The veteran's story began spiraling; he was becoming visibly and audibly agitated, and he was cursing. My suitor was not phased.
I handed the veteran a fistful of change as he concluded his story, "And that's why now I have to stand outside this FUCKING GAS STATION AND BEG YOU ASSHOLES FOR CHANGE EVERYDAY!" He climbed onto his bicycle, "FUCK YOU! FUCK YOU ALL!" And he rode away.
I watched him ride off. My thoughts were swarming--at my school, I work for a legal clinic where many of our clients are homeless. It's strange to want to help someone but simultaneously be afraid of what they are capable of; so many homeless people (in Texas, at least) are mentally ill and pushed out of state hospitals due to a lack of funding.
I'd forgotten that my suitor was still standing there until he broke the silence, "Dat man is a crack head. However much change you gave him, he gone buy crack wid it."
"He could be, but I doubt it."
"Naw, he on crack."
"Listen I work with a lot of homeless people and--" my suitor's eyes glazed over as I lost his attention and interest, "never mind." I smiled and the gas pump clicked to tell me my tank was full.
"So, can I getcho number den?"
"No, I'm sorry, I have a boyfriend."
"But whatcho boyfren got to do wid me?"
"He's not keen to strange boys calling me," I smiled again as I replaced the pump.
"Well anyway, I stayed over here because you can never trust no crackhead. I'm glad I did, too."
"Thank you, that was very kind."

As my suitor walked bow-legged and slowly back to his car full of friends, I realized I'd lost something.
I was embarrassed at myself; I'm in my final semester of law school.
I believe every one deserves an attorney, no matter who they are or how much money they have.
And yet, I was afraid of this man; someone who could so easily be one of my clients through the clinic, someone who may someday walk into my office looking for help.
What right do I have to be afraid? How can I claim to want to help people like him if I'm afraid of them? If I don't trust them?
& I realized, too, that somewhere in the last seven years since I left my home town, something else had happened: I had a built a barrier between people like my bow-legged suitor and myself. I know I'm not better than him, I know that I am where I am because I have encouraging and supportive parents who are able to support me while I'm in school. I know things could have been different if I didn't get on birth control as a teen, if I didn't end certain relationships, if I hadn't been so advantaged. And I know that whatever the circumstances of my suitor's life, many of them couldn't be helped. But somewhere I knew that I would never date someone like him.
& I was ashamed of myself. I was once connected to the homeless; I volunteered for them on holidays and collected for them during my breaks from school. I once exclusively dated boys just like my suitor. & somewhere I lost that connection to who I was without even noticing, without even missing it.

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