Nobody goes and talks to the guy down by the water.
We come down here, and to the other hidden parts of town, with food and blankets for the homeless. Sometimes, if we know there’s a bed in a shelter, we’ll help the most at-risk people get to it.
But we aren’t qualified to do more, and sometimes the people don’t want our help.
This particular place, in the shadow of an old disused warehouse, with access to the river and the rails, is a busy spot for us. People sleep inside the building, as leaky and cold as it is. We arrive, set up outside, and they come out to us for soup and bedding. The warehouse isn’t stable enough for us to go inside ourselves, but a shaky roof over your head is better than no roof at all.
Most of the people we see cluster together, all refugees from their own past lives, and with that much in common. Others drift. My fellow volunteers talk loudly, stay upbeat – almost insufferably so – and crack jokes with the homeless. I join in, try not to break cover, but I feel like a fraud, and I’m worried someone will notice.
I’m not like the others. I’m not good. I’m down here because I’m trying to be. Helping people is something that I understand good people are meant to want. But I’m down here because I understand that. I don’t want to be here, deep down. I’m not a bad person, and that’s something I’ve been comfortable with for most of my life. But for some reason recently, I’ve found that that isn’t enough. I want to be good.
I don’t know, maybe that’s how all of the volunteers feel, really. But that wide smile sits much better on their faces than it feels on mine.
When you come down here a few times, you start to notice a loose, grudging community among the people here. And I’d flinch from calling it real friendship, but members of my group start to become familiar with individuals who sleep here.
But nobody talks to the guy down by the water.
After a few visits, curiosity got the better of me. I asked one woman, who I’d become familiar with through our mutual experience of me serving her soup more than twice, what his name was.
She didn’t know. She didn’t know anybody who did know. The community had a rich and confused mythology to it, with loud stories told about each other and others absent, but nobody knew that one guy. It wasn’t that people kept their distance from him because of anything he’d once done; plenty of the folk there had bad craziness in their history and in their heads, and weren’t in exile like the guy on the river bank. They all just avoided him because they all felt somehow that they should.
That wasn’t enough of an answer for me.
But none of the other people here go over and talk to him, and that makes me nervous. I’m not scared of him – it seems hard to imagine that he’d be more dangerous than some of the people we already talk to.
In fact my fear almost isn’t anything to do with him at all. Even with all the mystery, I find it hard to think there’d be anything that peculiar about him. He looks, from what I can tell from a distance and against the emotive backdrop of slate-grey sluggish water, like an un-exceptionally sad and average man.
What bothers me is that I don’t understand why everybody avoids him. Even my colleagues don’t go over and talk to him, opting to leave some food at a safe distance, though when questioned about it they couldn’t tell you why, beyond just having an instinct not to.
I don’t have that instinct at all. Everybody around me, all with the same weird feeling, and I don’t feel it. What does that say about me? Am I wired that differently? I don’t want to be that different. That’s the whole point of coming down here in the first place.
What if I don’t feel the bubble around the man because I’m inside it? What if he and I are cut from the same cloth?
That’s not something I want to know, so I keep my head down and follow everybody else’s lead, and I don’t go and talk to the guy down by the water.