Saturday, October 11, 2008

Man's inhumanity to man

This post has nothing to do with soccer. It's here because I couldn't sleep.
When I got my first LA apartment, I lived on Berendo St., right near where it intersected with 3rd. With the rent I was paying, I didn't expect the neighborhood to be posh, but it still gave me pause to see a heavy-set bearded man lounging on the sidewalk near the local donut shop. From the look of his grimy coat, he hadn't bathed in weeks. He was scruffy and seemed more than a bit unstable, his gaze focused vaguely in middle distance.

It was clear he was a regular. Most residents casually stepped around and over him at various times when he was in a stupor. Some would buy him a cup of coffee or a donut. He didn't harass people for money very much. "Change?" he would at times say wearily when someone passed. More often, he wouldn't bother. He would just shuffle along. Unlike other homeless people I'd seen, he didn't cart around any belongings that I knew of. He did have a little radio with old headphones that he'd play often. Usually he'd just nod his head along to the music, but I remember watching him once at a streetcorner break into an exuberant dance.
Sometimes he'd talk to himself and make no sense at all. Other times, he was lucid and insightful. When my friend Emily gave him change once, he asked if she was from Georgia. She said that was exactly right and he nodded thoughtfully, saying, "I thought I detected that Southern accent." When asked his name, he wouldn't always answer, but when he did, he'd say his name was John. He wouldn't offer a last name.
When Lord of the Rings came out, though, I had another name for him. As soon as I saw the dwarf Gimli on the screen, I thought of our homeless resident. His belly was even more full, his beard wasn't quite as long, and it was more gray than red, but the overall resemblance was uncanny. It became easy to refer to him as such, just because anyone who saw him would then understand who was being mentioned.
I don't want to present the untruth that Gimli/John was a pleasant, cuddly, sweet senior. He smelled incredibly bad most of the time. Sometimes he would soil the sidewalk. Now and then he'd try the doors of cars parked on the street until he found one that was open. Then he'd climb inside and take a nap there. While I don't think he took anything, the aroma that was left behind would be rank.
I'm not usually the type to engage strangers in small talk, and I never had much of a real conversation with Gimli/John. I always said hello, good morning, or hi when I crossed his path, though, and even when he wouldn't reply in kind, there'd usually be some flicker of recognition from him. Having ascertained that he was essentially harmless, I grew a little protective of Gimli/John in some ways. If he was slumped over on the sidewalk, I'd stop to make sure he was breathing. I'm morbid, I know, but I wanted to make sure he was all right.
After I moved away from that neighborhood, I'd occasionally visit friends there. I found myself looking for Gimli/John as I'd drive past. I'd ask for updates on him, and my friends reported that he was basically the same as always.
When I read the LA Times headline about a homeless man being set on fire, I thought immediately of Gimli/John. Mostly because even though at one point I used to volunteer for a feed-the-homeless organization, a food line isn't a place to keep track of one person in particular. Gimli was the homeless person that I thought of as a neighbor, the guy I saw regularly for years, though I'm not around that part of town anymore. Just reading the headline made me angry to think that anyone would do something so despicable to someone like him.
As I started reading the article, I realized with a dull thud that this hadn't happened to "someone like" my old acquaintance. It was actually him.
Horror, revulsion, sorrow, regret - even using more of those words, I can't accurately describe everything I felt at the realization that this troubled but generally inoffensive man was brutally murdered.
I thought back to my first negative impression of him. The truth was that all along, the evil in my former neighborhood wasn't the stinky old homeless guy who looked like Gimli from the movies.
Instead, the impulse to torture and kill someone helpless lurked elsewhere and one day, it struck for apparently no reason. I don't think I can ever go back there without a slight shudder at that knowledge. Most of all, though, I feel sad.


Anonymous said...

This is incredibly sad - my thoughts go out to all the homeless on this our Thanksgiving Weekend.

Let's hope the LAPD put the resources in place to catch the person or persons responsible for this incredibly cowardly act. :(

This is indeed a situation where Karma needs to really go to work - watch out you coward - whoever you may be?

Hope you got some sleep! :)

Anonymous said...

What the f**k is wrong with people?

This is saddening/depressing at many levels.

CACuzcatlan said...

This reminds me of two quotes I've heard. They might not be exact, but you get the general idea:

- We're not evil because of the evil we do, but we do evil because we are evil.

- They say, "Evil prevails when good men fail to act." What they ought to say is, "Evil prevails."

I don't think all people are inherently bad, not by a long shot. But when I read something like this, it makes me think that some people are.

How can you live with yourself after doing something like that?

ghostwriter said...

I'm not sure that "thanks" is the right word, AC, to express my appreciation for your publishing this story as it surely is horrific. But big atrocities against millions by the Nazis, more millions by Stalin and Pol Pot, hundreds of thousands in Darfur, Sierra Leone, Zimbabwe, randomly murdered women in Mexico, and the "strange fruit" Lady Day sang so eloquently about here in America can slip across our consciousness sometimes as mere statistics. But stories like this, of one man that you are able to put a distinct human face on, strike cleanly to the heart.

We all can stand, from time to time, to be reminded of our need to resist that form of moral depravity that rationalizes away another's human condition and remember, perhaps, the old saying "that there, but for the grace of God, go I".

Anonymous said...

YOur a hyprocrite A.C. how you feel sad for somone you prejudged and given gave a dumb nickname to

Jon Geissler said...

I'm guessing you're kidding, because if not, you're way out of line. In now way is that hypocritical. In fact, Gimli is one of my favorite LOTR characters!

Thank you Andrea for showing this story. RIP John/Gimli.

Jon Geissler said...

in no way***

Arelcao Akleos said...

"Anonymous". Quite the coward for hiding behind that name.
Why don't you post openly and try to actually back up your assertion with something approaching an argument?
A hypocrite is someone who presents a false front, or whose acts are untrue to their words. Nothing A.C. wrote of his "hypocritical".