Thursday, July 25, 2013

Invisibility

After I developed Parkinson’s I developed a very bad habit of always looking down at my feet when I walked because I was desperately afraid that I would trip and fall in public thus losing my dignity.  Consequently, I ran into a lot of things like posts and recycling receptacles on the street, which sort of negated the dignity thing.  More than once a stranger had to pull the back of my clothes so I did not walk out into the street when the lights had changed.  One of my best friends, Paul, noticed that I looked down always and so he took to yelling at me constantly, “Head up, Sharpe!”  He did a good job of helping me break the habit.

The other thing he said was, “How can you see the world if you keep your head down all the time?” I thought about that and I realized that over time, even before I had Parkinson’s, I had somehow stopped looking at things, noticing things. After that I made a conscientious effort to look up and all around me.  I looked at people and buildings, trees and clouds, and all sorts of things.  I did notice things that I had not noticed in years or ever before.  I made a point that if I had enough free time at lunch, or after work, I would go to the park or to the Art Institute to look at my favorite pictures that hadn’t seen in ages.

When I left the hard-core corporate world, and went to work for a non-profit organization as their vice president of marketing, we worked in an older building on the north side of Chicago.  If I needed a cigarette, like others who smoked, I would go down on the loading dock in the alley behind our building.  It faced the back of the big post office on the next street over.  One day a man came walking up the alley. He was a bearded black man in a very shabby and frayed brown suit.  He waved at me very emphatically. He yelled at me, “Well, I got that all taken care of!” I didn’t know what to say, so I just said “Good. Glad to hear it.”  I thought to myself that this guy thinks I am someone else or is clearly a crazy person.

Every couple of days I would occasionally see him come though the alley.  I didn’t know where he was coming from or where he was going, but every time he came through he would yell something to me as if I understood what he was telling me.  “I found that thing I was looking for!” After awhile he would come up and talk to me every time I was out on the loading dock. He was actually a very nice man, if a little off. I would offer him a cigarette and we would chat for a bit. Eventually he would say, “I got things to do.” He would shake my hand and off he would go. We would do this two or three times a week. 

I asked him once where he went during the day.  He said, “I walk around. I go to the library. They have a spot there away from everyone else where I can stay warm or cool and do my painting.”   I said “Oh, you paint.  What kind of painting do you do?”  He said “I use the watercolors they have for the children. Then I sell them to a man who likes them.  He gives me twenty-five dollars for each one I finish. “I said, “That’s great. Who is this man?”  He scratched his head and replied, “I don’t know. I’ve never met him.”   

The post office closed down and it was vacant for quite awhile.  One day I saw in a railed dock, where the trucks used to unload mail, that random materials were starting to accumulate.  There were pieces of sheet metal, wood, and all kinds of other things.  Under the overhang there leaned a mattress.  There was a pile of blankets.  I went on a short business trip and when I came back a makeshift shanty, not much bigger than a child’s fort, had been constructed in the alley right up against the old post office.  It was occupied by the man I always talked to in the alley.

One cool morning in early spring I saw him emerge from his little house.  He was already dressed in his suit.  He walked into a dark corner and took care of his morning needs in a bucket.  He then took it down the alley and emptied it into a storm drain.  He took another bucket, went to backdoor of one the restaurants near us, and asked for some clean water.  He carried that back and took a torn up cloth and washed his face.  He reached inside his hut and brought out a brush and a little mirror.  He ran it through his hair and his beard. When he was satisfied that he looked good, he put all of his things away, grabbed the knapsack he always carried and started off for the day.  I stopped him.  I said, “That is no way to live. If you need help finding shelter I can make some calls and see what we can do.”  He said, “No, thanks. That’s all the space I need.  I need to stay close to the veteran’s hospital too.”  I started, “Yeah, but…”  He cut me off.  “I got things to do.”  Then he quickly walked away.  

In the summer the organization I worked for relocated to a newer space in a high rise in the Loop.  On the last day before we moved I went out at lunch to try to find my friend.  I found him a couple blocks away sitting on a low garden wall doodling in a child’s sketchbook. I sat down next to him and told him about us leaving.  “Alright,” he said. He kept doodling; wouldn’t look at me.  I reached into my shirt pocket and took out two twenty-dollar bills I had taken out the ATM that morning. I reached out to hand them to him.  I said, “Here take this.”  He said “I don’t need it. I don’t want it.”  I said “Come on.  Call it a going away present.”   He looked up at me with an expression that was mixture of sadness and anger.  He said in a quavering voice, “Have I ever asked you for anything?” I shook my head no.  “You were nice enough to talk to me. That’s all I ever wanted. Nobody ever talks to me.  Sometimes they treat me like they can’t even see me.  I’ll miss talking to you.”  I said, “When I’m on this end of town I’ll try to find you.”  I said good-bye, shook his hand, and went back to work.  I have to confess I never saw him again.  I never had a reason to go back to that neighborhood and then I stopped working in the city.  I really hope he found someone else he could talk to.

I recently re-read a book I really liked when I first encountered it in college.  It is called Invisible Man and was written by a man named Ralph Ellison.  It is a novel about a young black man’s humiliating experiences in the south and how when he migrates to New York City to attempt to achieve something in his life he ends up feeling alienated and alone.  At one point he builds himself a shelter in a hole in the wall of Grand Central Station.  As I read the book I thought to myself how common this is. I thought about the man in the wheelchair that I found that one night in the rain and I thought about my friend from the alley.  It must be horrible to feel disenfranchised; like no one can see you anymore.

I think in this modern world with the demands of work, family and other things that preoccupy us, and the distraction of technology, we often develop a certain amount of tunnel vision. Things start to become invisible to us unless we make a point of looking up and seeing what’s around us.  When you do look up I think you see a lot of incredible things and you just might stumble across an opportunity to make somebody in your community, your church, your work, your school feel less invisible.